• Alyssa Fontaine, RD
  • Mar 29, 2024

7 Vegan Sources High in Iron

Vegans need to be mindful of their iron intake due to differences in dietary sources and absorption compared to omnivorous diets. With proper planning and dietary choices, a vegan diet can maintain healthy iron levels and overall well-being through vegan sources high in iron.

For expert guidance on maintaining healthy iron levels and overall well-being, consult a plant-based registered dietitian.

What is vegan iron?

Iron is a chemical element. It’s one of the essential minerals found on Earth and found in food. Moreover, iron is also something our bodies need to stay healthy and to maintain basic functioning. 

Where do vegan iron sources come from?

Iron is found in both animal and plant foods. Hence, vegan iron sources are found in plant-based foods.

Animal Iron (heme-iron) vs Vegan Iron (non-heme iron)

Iron found in animal products is known as heme-iron, while iron from plant-based sources is called non-heme iron. 

In general, our bodies have an easier time absorbing heme-iron compared to non-heme iron. As a result, it’s a common misconception that iron from plant foods is less effective than the iron found in animal products. 

However, the truth is that vegan iron is only slightly different from animal-based iron in terms of absorption efficiency, with vegan iron typically being absorbed at a lower percentage.

The Benefit of Vegan Iron Sources

Contrary to common belief, consuming more non-heme iron is beneficial for our health. Vegan iron sources help our bodies learn how to have more control over the amount of iron that is absorbed. Therefore, the amount of iron absorbed intentionally meets the body’s iron needs.

What is the function of iron?

Iron plays several crucial functions in the human body, such as:

  1. Oxygen Transport: Iron is a core component of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells. Hemoglobin binds to oxygen in the lungs and carries it through the bloodstream to all the body’s tissues and organs. This function ensures that all your cells receive the oxygen they need to function correctly.
  2. Energy Production: Iron is also involved in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the body’s primary source of energy. Iron-containing enzymes are essential for the metabolic processes that produce ATP.
  3. Immune System Support: Iron is necessary for the proper functioning of the immune system. It helps white blood cells, which are crucial for fighting off infections, function effectively.
  4. Brain Function: Iron is essential for normal cognitive function and brain development, especially in infants and young children. Iron deficiency during these stages can lead to learning and developmental problems.
  5. DNA Synthesis: Iron is involved in the synthesis of DNA, which is the genetic material of our cells. This is important for growth, repair, and overall cellular function.
  6. Detoxification: Some iron-containing enzymes help in detoxifying harmful substances in the body, including drugs and chemicals.

It’s important to note that while iron is essential for health, both too little and too much iron can be harmful. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia and various health problems, while excess iron can cause oxidative stress and damage to organs like the liver and heart. Therefore, maintaining a balanced iron intake through a well-rounded diet is crucial for overall health.

What is anemia?

Anemia is a condition when your blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin, the protein that helps carry oxygen. 

What is Iron Deficiency Anemia?

Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is a specific kind of anemia caused by not having enough iron in your body. Hence, not consuming enough of high iron vegan foods.

What are symptoms of low iron in vegans?

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced mental performance
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold intolerance
  • Paleness
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Dizziness
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Pica

Can vegans get iron deficiency anemia (IDA)?

Yes, vegans can be at risk of developing iron deficiency anemia, just like individuals following other dietary patterns. 

However, since iron found in plant-based foods is less easily absorbed by the body compared to iron in animal products, vegans might face a slightly elevated risk of iron deficiency.

A plant-based dietitian/nutritionist can assess, help you improve and balance your vegan diet. Moreover, vegan RDs can customize vegan/vegetarian meal plans and tailor them to your needs, such that recommendations are met and the risk of IDA is minimized.

Did you know…

  1. Iron deficiency is one of the most common worldwide nutritional deficiencies, regardless of dietary choices.
  2. Iron deficiency anemia isn’t more common in vegans compared to non-vegans or meat-eaters.
  3. People following plant-based diets generally have iron intake that are equal to or even greater than omnivores.

What is the best vegan iron for anemia?

There are several vegan food sources of iron out there. Incorporating these foods high in iron into your diet can help you meet your iron needs.

7 Vegan Sources High in Iron

  1. Legumes
  2. Soy Products
  3. Leafy Greens
  4. Seeds
  5. Nuts
  6. Whole Grains
  7. Dark Chocolate
Vegan Iron SourcesFood ItemPortionIron Content (mg)
LegumesLentils½ cup (125 ml)3.5
Chickpeas½ cup (125 ml)2.5
Black beans½ cup (125 ml)1.9
Kidney beans½ cup (125 ml)2.1
Soybeans½ cup (125 ml)4.7
Edamame½ cup (125 ml)1.8
White beans½ cup (125 ml)3.5
Black-eyed peas½ cup (125 ml)2.3
Black turtle beans½ cup (125 ml)2.8
Soy ProductsTofu½ cup (125 ml)2.1 – 3.5
Tempeh½ cup (125 ml)2.4
Leafy GreensSpinach, chopped1 cup (250 ml)0.9
Spinach, cooked½ cup (125 ml)3.4
Kale1 cup (250 ml)1.2
Dandelion greens1 cup (250 ml)1.8
Basil1 cup (250 ml)1.4
SeedsPumpkin seeds¼ cup (60 ml)2.9
Sunflower seeds¼ cup (60 ml)1.9
Hemp seeds¼ cup (60 ml)4.9
Chia seeds¼ cup (60 ml)3.3
Flaxseed, ground¼ cup (60 ml)3.2
Poppy seeds¼ cup (60 ml)3.3
Sesame seeds, hulled¼ cup (60 ml)2.3
Sesame seeds, whole¼ cup (60 ml)5.3
NutsAlmonds¼ cup (60 ml)1.4
Almond butter2 tbsp (30 ml)1.1
Cashews¼ cup (60 ml)2.1
Cashew butter2 tbsp (30 ml)1.6
Hazelnuts¼ cup (60 ml)1.6
Pistachios¼ cup (60 ml)1.2
Whole grainsQuinoa½ cup (125 ml)1.1
Oatmeal½ cup (125 ml)1.4
Barley½ cup (125 ml)1.1
Kamut½ cup (125 ml)1.8
Wheat sprouts1 cup (250 ml)2.4
Amaranth½ cup (125 ml)2.6
Dark ChocolateDark chocolate, 45-59% cacao2 oz (60g)4.8
Dark chocolate, 70-85% cacao2 oz (60g)7.1
Source: Adapted from Davis, Brenda. (2014). Becoming vegan : the complete reference to plant-based nutrition. Summertown, Tennessee: Book Publishing Company.

What vegan foods have the most iron?

Of the 7 vegan iron sources, there are some foods that have more iron than others.

  1. Legumes with the most iron: Lentils, soybeans and white beans
  2. Soy products with the most iron: Tofu and tempeh
  3. Leafy greens with the most iron: Cooked spinach
  4. Seeds with the most iron: Hemp seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds and whole sesame seeds
  5. Nuts with the most iron: Cashews and hazelnuts
  6. Whole grains with the most iron: Wheat sprouts and amaranth
  7. Dark chocolate with the most iron: 70-85% dark chocolate

How much vegan iron do we actually need?

The RDAs or AIs for iron has been set for a population of non-vegetarians and no RDA or AI has been set for vegetarians, including vegans. However, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has recommended that vegetarians and vegans consume 1.8 times the iron requirement set for non-vegetarians. Hence, this would account for the decreased bioavailability of non-heme or vegan iron compared to heme iron.

AgeRDA or AI for omnivoresUpper Level (UL)IOM recommendation for vegetarians & vegans
MalesFemales( RDA x 1.8)
Birth to 6 months*0. 27 mg/day40 mg/dayn/a
7 – 12 months11 mg/day40 mg/day19.8 mg/day
1 – 3 years7 mg/day40 mg/day12.6 mg/day
4 – 8 years10 mg/day40 mg/day18 mg/day
9 – 13 years8 mg/day40 mg/day14.4 mg/day
14 – 18 years11 mg/day45 mg/day19.8 mg/day
19 – 50 years8 mg/day18 mg/day45 mg/day32.4 mg/day
14 – 50 years & pregnantn/a27 mg/day45 mg/day48.6 mg/day**
14 – 50 years & lactatingn/a9 – 10 mg/day45 mg/day16.2 – 18 mg/day
51+ years8 mg/day8 mg/day45 mg/day14.4 mg/day
Adapted from the National Institute of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements.

*For infants at birth to 6 months old, foods have not yet been introduced. Moreover, whether the baby is being breastfed or receiving infant formula, they are likely to receive enough iron to meet their needs. 

**Read the section “How much iron is too much?” to understand why the recommended iron intake for pregnant women aged 14 to 50 years old is higher than the upper level.

Disclaimer: The Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) for iron, including Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA), Adequate Intakes (AI) and the Upper Level (UL), are usually set for people who eat meat, not vegetarians or vegans. Therefore, the UL doesn’t apply to individuals who are only consuming plant-based sources of iron and only intaking non-heme iron.

How to increase iron levels in vegan?

There are 5 ways a vegan could increase their iron levels:

  1. By increasing their intake of high iron vegan foods
  2. By consuming foods that would facilitate and enhance iron absorption
  3. By avoiding the consumption of foods that would hinder iron absorption
  4. By using cooking techniques that help improve iron absorption
  5. By using vegan iron supplements if there is difficulty in meeting requirement through diet alone

Did you know.. 

Vegans who incorporate meals with vitamin C-rich foods and avoid regularly consuming foods that hinder iron absorption alongside their meals are less likely to require the recommended iron intake set by the IOM.

What helps vegan iron absorption?

  1. Vitamin C

Vitamin C enhances the absorption of non-heme iron. Therefore, consuming foods high in vitamin C (such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, and broccoli) alongside iron-rich foods will increase vegan iron absorption and iron levels in vegans.

  1. Choosing vegan sources of food high in iron

Consuming more iron-rich plant foods, such as beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, fortified cereals, spinach, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and dried fruits like apricots and raisins, will help increase iron levels in vegans.

  1. Vegan iron supplements

In some cases, vegans may consider iron supplements if they have difficulty meeting their iron needs through diet alone. However, it’s crucial to consult with a vegan registered dietitian before starting any supplements.

  1. Cooking techniques

Certain cooking techniques, like soaking beans and lentils or using a cast-iron skillet, can help improve iron absorption from plant foods.

What hinders vegan iron absorption?

  1. Phytates 

Phytates are compounds found in grains (especially whole grains), legumes, and some nuts and seeds. They can bind to iron and reduce its absorption. 

Some vegan sources of food that are high in iron, also containing phytates. To reduce the phytate content in these foods (such as legume) certain cooking techniques can be used. Soaking, fermenting, or sprouting these foods can help reduce phytate levels and improve iron absorption.

  1. Polyphenols

Certain plant compounds known as polyphenols, found in foods like tea, coffee, cocoa, and some fruits and vegetables (e.g., spinach), can inhibit iron absorption.

  1. Calcium

​​High levels of calcium can interfere with iron absorption. Calcium-rich foods include dairy products and some plant-based sources like fortified plant milks and leafy greens.

  1. Tannins

Tannins, found in beverages like tea and red wine, can inhibit iron absorption when consumed with iron-rich foods.

  1. High-fiber foods

Foods high in dietary fiber can reduce iron absorption when consumed in excessive amounts alongside iron-rich foods.

  1. Medication and supplements

Certain medications and supplements, such as calcium supplements or antacids containing calcium, can interfere with iron absorption if taken simultaneously.

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