As a dietitian who also happens to be vegetarian, I’m frequently asked: “How do you get enough iron without meat?”
This is a great question because iron deficiency is common in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets. In fact, iron deficiency is one of the most common mineral deficiencies in the United States.
Getting enough iron with a vegan or vegetarian diet can be easy to do.
In this article, we’ll review the role of iron in the body, plant-based sources of iron, and easy ways to optimize iron absorption.
Iron in the body
Iron is an essential mineral needed for DNA synthesis, immune system function, and red blood cell development.
One of the most common things iron does is to help produce hemoglobin, which acts as a transporter of oxygen in the body. Hemoglobin takes oxygen from the lungs and moves it through the bloodstream, where it’s dropped off at the tissues. Hemoglobin then takes carbon dioxide back to the lungs where it’s exhaled.
Without enough iron, your body may become iron deficient. Symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- Pale skin and fingernails
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss
Iron in plants
There are two kinds of iron found in food: heme iron and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is present in animal foods (meat and fish) and is easier for the body to absorb than non-heme iron. In fact, the body may absorb up to two to three more times iron from animals than from plants (1).
Plant foods contain only non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is less easily absorbed by the body because of compounds like phytates and polyphenols. These compounds decrease the bioavailability of non-heme iron, making it more difficult for your body to take in the iron contained in the food (2).
How to optimize iron absorption
Iron absorption is enhanced when iron-containing foods are consumed with a significant source of Vitamin C. For example, consume a stir fry with tofu (iron), broccoli, and red pepper (Vitamin C). Or enjoy iron-fortified cereal and iron-fortified soy milk (both contain iron) with sliced strawberries (Vitamin C).
Coffee and tea contain compounds called tannins which can reduce the absorption of iron. Drink coffee and tea between meals to allow for optimal iron absorption with meals.
Calcium can also decrease the absorption of iron. If you’re taking an iron supplement, avoid taking it with calcium supplements.
Vegan iron sources
Many sources of vegan protein are also good sources of iron. Don’t stop there, as vegetables and grains can also contain non-heme iron.
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collard greens
- Legumes, beans and quinoa
- Soy foods like tofu, tempeh, edamame
- Iron-fortified cereals
- Enriched breads and grains
Many kinds of cereal and grains are fortified with iron. Check a packaged food’s nutrition label to see if iron has been added.
Vitamin C rich foods
Many fruits and vegetables are a good source of Vitamin C.
- Bell peppers
- Spinach and kale
- Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower
- Citrus fruits like oranges and lemons
- Strawberries, papayas, and cherries
Putting it all together
One of the best ways to optimize your iron intake is to eat a balanced diet that contains a variety of vegetables, grains, and legumes.
- Include a variety of iron-rich foods in your diet
- Pair iron-rich foods with foods high in Vitamin C to increase absorption
- Drink coffee and tea between meals
- If taking a calcium supplement, take it between meals
Concerned that you have an iron deficiency? Contact your physician or a registered dietitian before starting an iron supplement.
- Vegetarian Black Bean and Tortilla Soup: Black beans (iron), red bell peppers (Vitamin C)
- Red Lentil Curry with Sweet Potatoes: Lentils (iron) sweet potatoes and spinach (Vitamin C)
- Tofu and Veggie Spring Roll Bowls: Tofu and edamame (iron), red cabbage and cucumbers (Vitamin C)
- Roasted Vegetables with Tempeh: Tempeh (iron), Brussel sprouts and carrots (Vitamin C)
- Quinoa Taco Salad: Red beans and quinoa (iron), tomatoes and red bell pepper (Vitamin C)