Iron can be consumed through a variety of plant-based foods, but it’s important to know what iron-rich foods to eat so your body gets the nutrients you need.
Feast * or * graze * on * a * variety * of * beans * lentils * spirulina * sunflower * pumpkin * chia * and * hempseeds * greenveg * greensmoothies * amaranth * quinoa * oats * cacao * darkleafygreens * tofu * lentils * unrefined * wholegrains * nuts * olives * prunejuice * veggieburgers * veggiesausages * sundriedtomatoes * driedapricots * whitebeans * kidneybeans * bakedbeans * pistachios * almonds * cashews * tahini * lentils * chickpeas * spinach * kale * chard * parsley * wheatgerm * artichokes * raisins * dried-dates * and * tempeh.
Combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods to enhance iron absorption.
Avoid eating iron-rich foods with caffeine which inhibits absorption.
What is iron, and why is it important?
Iron is an essential chemical nutrient, present in microscopic amounts in our red blood cells, for haemoglobin and myoglobin formation. Iron helps carry oxygen to all cells in all parts of our bodies, and is vital for maintaining energy levels, good health, and peak performance. It is the part of the haemoglobin molecule that makes blood red.
When you are low in iron, your body may not be getting the oxygen it needs, and you may feel tired, sluggish and worn out.
How much do I need?
As a general guide, adult men need around 8 milligrams of iron per day, and women need 18 milligrams. A more specific guide below:
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting about 25% of the global population, particularly young women and children. At most risk are people who follow restricted diets. In developing countries this is usually due to a limited food supply, but in Western countries like Australia it is most commonly seen in young women who follow restricted energy diets to lose weight.
It is estimated that in Australia, up to five per cent of the population has iron deficiency or anaemia.
Even if you take in enough dietary iron, you may still be vulnerable to iron deficiency if you have higher iron needs than other individuals. Individuals with greater iron needs may include:
- adolescents who experience a rapid period of growth
- pregnant women
- endurance athletes or athletes who train at high intensity
- adolescent women and women of child-bearing age (due to blood loss from menstruation).
Low iron levels are normally the result of blood loss, an inadequate diet, or in some cases the inability to absorb enough iron from the food you are eating. Symptoms of iron deficiency include: tiredness, dizziness, loss of stamina, inability to concentrate, depression and recurrent infections.
Why live in doubt? Get your iron levels tested by your GP and put your mind at rest.
Where do I get iron from?
Dietary iron is available from both plant and animal sources. Whilst commonly found in meats, the focus below is on the main non-meat sources of iron.
Iron is best absorbed as part of one’s diet, rather than via a supplement. However, nutritional deficiencies, increased iron needs, and poor absorption of dietary iron mean that some people aren’t able to get adequate iron from their diets alone. Wholegrain breads and cereals, rolled oats, brown rice, nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, soy products and fortified breakfast cereals provide the highest concentrations of iron, generally in the range of 2.5–5.0mg/100 g raw weight. As iron is contained within the outer layer of grains, unrefined whole grains provide up to 5 times higher concentrations of iron than refined grains.
Vegetables are generally a poor source of iron. Vegetables do not tend to have high levels of iron and if you eat them with iron inhibitors, you are likely to get very little iron out of your meal.
Cooking increases the amount of iron available in dark green vegetables and so does the presence of vitamin C, so add lemon juice to maximise the iron absorption.
Fruit has much lower concentrations of iron, but makes an important contribution to iron absorption for people relying on plant-based sources of food for iron (such as those on a vegetarian diet): fruit tends to be high in vitamin C.
Vitamin C enhances iron absorption. If you eat fruit or other foods high in vitamin C along with your oatmeal or your lentils, you will absorb more of the available iron.
What else do I need to know?
The human body is an intelligent and resourceful machine, it meets much of our iron requirement through the recycling of the iron in our red blood cells. Iron uptake and the amount of iron stored is tightly regulated through intestinal absorption, as we have a limited ability to excrete excess iron via mucos and skin cells.
Navigating through the facts, dispelling the myths…
- vegans, vegies, or meat minimisers who eat a varied and well balanced diet are not at any greater risk of iron deficiency anaemia than meat eaters.
- a diet rich in wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, iron-fortified cereals and green leafy vegetables provides an adequate iron intake.
- vitamin C enhances non-haem iron absorption, a process that is carefully regulated by the gut.
- people with low iron stores or higher physiological need for iron will tend to absorb more iron and excrete less.
- iron is much more readily absorbed from fermented soybean products: miso, tempeh, and natto.
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