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10 vegetarian foods rich in iron

09 Aug 2023 • 9 min read

Are you vegetarian, and looking to learn about vegetarian foods that contain iron?

Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anaemia worldwide, and for those following a restricted diet, it is important to make sure that your diet contains enough alternative sources of iron to reduce the risk of any deficiency.1

Skip to: Why do we need iron? | How much iron do we need? | Is it harder for vegetarians to get iron? | Top 10 iron rich foods | The final say

Why do I need iron in my diet?

Whether you choose to eat meat or not, we all need iron in our diet, for our bodies to function well.2 An essential mineral, iron is critical in the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body.3

Insufficient levels of iron in the body can otherwise lead to iron deficiency anaemia.4

How much iron do I need?

How much iron do I need?

The amount of iron needed each day varies, depending on your gender and age. According to the NHS, the recommended daily amount is:

  • 7mg a day for men over 18
  • 8mg a day for women aged 19 to 50
  • 7mg a day for women over 5033

Is it harder for vegetarians to find foods high in iron?

In a nutshell – both yes and no!

While people connect a lack of iron to vegetarian food, iron is actually more abundant in vegetarian foods than people may otherwise realise.

In fact, the general UK meat-eating population get only a quarter of their iron from meat and fish, while the remaining three quarters of their dietary iron comes from cereals, bread, fruit, and vegetables.5

But the type of iron found in vegetarian foods is a different type known as non-heme iron, which tends to be less easily absorbed than heme iron.6 Generally, this means vegetarians (and vegans too), need to eat more iron rich foods daily than meat-eaters too.7

The top 10 iron rich foods for vegetarians

So, if you are looking to replace that one quarter of your iron intake, then here are some foods that you should add to your shopping list. From iron rich fruit and veg to nuts, seeds and more, here are our top 10 vegetarian foods which are high in iron, making them a great source of this vital mineral.

  1. Soya – tofu and tempeh

Soya and the foods made from it are great sources of non-heme iron.8

You can buy soya beans whole (sometimes as edamame beans) or else find them made into products such as soya chunks, mince, or tofu and tempeh.9

  1. Lentils

The humble lentil is actually quite nutrient rich. While incredibly rich in iron, it is also full of significant amounts of protein, fibre, folate, and manganese.10

This makes lentils a great all-rounder, and an incredibly versatile source of iron for vegetarians.

  1. Beans and legumes

Baked beans, kidney beans, white beans and peas are other brilliant sources of iron for vegetarians.11

Chickpeas and black-eyed peas win here though – they have got the highest iron content of all the beans, except for soya beans!12,13

  1. Nuts

Cashews, pine nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and macadamia nuts are a great dietary source of iron for vegetarians.15

Cooking these may damage some of their nutrients, so choose raw options where possible, and remember that while they have many beneficial properties, nuts are also high in fats, so bear in mind the portion sizes.14

  1. Seeds

Pumpkin, linseeds, hemp, and sesame are very iron rich, and so are the products derived from them.15

Don’t forget that tahini, made from sesame seeds, is an ingredient in hummus and other products, so there are other ways to get iron from seeds that you may not have realised.16

  1. Green leafy vegetables

It’s not all about the spinach for this one. Gram for gram, spinach, kale, and other greens can contain more iron than their red meat counterparts.17

The wonderful thing about these iron rich vegetables is that they also contain vitamin C, which makes absorbing all that iron even easier.18

  1. Dried fruits

Apricots are the big iron sources in the dried fruit category19. But dried peaches, prunes, figs and even raisins are also high in iron.20

  1. Dark chocolate

Yes, you read that right! Dark chocolate. This one surprises many people. The darker and the less sweetened the chocolate, the more iron you will be getting.21

So, the occasional chocolate indulgence may not make you feel quite so guilty now!

  1. Fortified cereals

Plenty of cereals are iron rich by their very nature, and plenty of breakfast and other cereals have also been fortified to help us get the iron we need.22

  1. Vitamin C

Ok, vitamin C doesn’t contain any iron at all, but it can really make a significant difference to your iron absorption.23

Green leafy veg contain vitamin C already, so alone they provide readily absorbable iron.

Adding citrus fruits, peppers, courgettes, and onions to your cooking, or drinking a citrus drink alongside your meal can help your body capture the iron and turn it into iron your body can better use and store.24

The final say

The final say

There are so many delicious vegetarian foods that are packed with iron, and it’s likely you’ll

You don't need to eat meat or animal products to keep your iron levels in check, as some of the top iron-rich options for vegetarians include spinach, lentils, tofu, quinoa, and nuts. By getting a little creative and planning, you can enjoy a healthy and well-rounded plant-based diet with good food sources of iron.

If you’re looking for some meal inspiration, check out these two delicious vegetarian recipes packed with iron. 

Sources

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3685880/

2. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-Consumer/

3. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/iron/

4. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/iron-deficiency-anaemia/

5. https://vegsoc.org/info-hub/health-and-nutrition/iron/

6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3999603/

7. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/

8. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/174270/nutrients

9. https://www.vrg.org/journal/vj93sep/1993_sep_soyfoods_meat.php

10. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/175254/nutrients

11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6111528/

12. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173799/nutrients

13. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173735/nutrients

14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5748761/

15. https://pharmeasy.in/blog/iron-rich-foods-to-add-to-your-diet/

16. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/168604/nutrients

17. https://www.compoundchem.com/2018/07/17/spinach/

18. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-c/

19. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173941/nutrients

20. https://www.yorkhospitals.nhs.uk/seecmsfile/?id=1888

21. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/02/12/are-there-health-benefits-from-chocolate

22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11444421/

23. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6940487/

24. https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/nutrients-food-and-ingredients/minerals-and-trace-elements.html

 
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