Plant-Based Sources of Iron

Iron is an essential nutrient in our diets. Beef, chicken and eggs as good sources but there are several vegetable sources of iron as well.
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Iron is an essential nutrient in our diets; it's necessary to transport oxygen and nutrients to our cells. Deficiencies are quite common, especially for vegetarians. Sure, we tend to think of animal products like beef, chicken and eggs as good sources of iron (which they are) but there are several vegetable sources of iron as well.

Heme iron (the type found in animal products) is more easily absorbed by our bodies, but that doesn't meal non-heme (vegetarian) sources are not. Here are some plant based sources of iron and tips for preparing and eating them to maximize absorption.

Vegetarian Sources of Iron

  • Legumes: lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans, black beans, chickpeas
  • Grains: quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice, oatmeal
  • Nuts and seeds: pumpkin, squash, pine, pistachio, sunflower, cashews, unhulled sesame
  • Vegetables: tomato sauce, Swiss chard, collard greens
  • Other: blackstrap molasses, prune juice

Did you know:

  • Studies have shown that vitamin C (found in citrus, bell peppers, and berries to name a few) aids in the absorption on non-heme iron.
  • Oxalates (found in greens and some grains) can inhibit the absorption on non-heme iron. That is why the iron found in spinach and kale is not easily absorbed.
  • Calcium (found in dairy, greens, and tofu) can inhibit the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron.

So how do you maximize absorption on non-heme iron? It's a little confusing when you realize that some of the foods that contain iron also contain nutrients that inhibit absorption. Here are some tips:

  • Studies have shown that eating smaller meals that include calcium-containing foods allow for better absorption.
  • Eat vegetarian iron sources on their own or paired with a vitamin C-containing food.
  • Don't pair diary with plant based iron sources.
  • Eat your greens because they are really good for you, but don't count on them to be a good source of iron.

Easy incorporation:

  • Snack on edamame, it's a great source of protein as well.
  • Snack on beans or add them to a soup or grain salad.
  • Make a tofu and bell pepper stir-fry.
  • Snack on nuts and seeds.

Katie Cavuto Boyle, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, personal chef and owner of HealthyBites, LLC. See Katie's full bio

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