Iron

What are Great Sources of Plant-based Iron?

By Dr. Silvia Odorcic, MD, FRCSC, DipABLM (IG: @dr.silvia.md)

Remember popeye’s biceps and all that spinach? Luckily, there are many plant-based foods that are rich sources of iron. Let’s explore how can you ensure you are getting enough iron!

Iron is found in both animal and plant sources although the type of iron found in plants versus animal products and its bioavailability differs. Animal products contain a type of iron called heme iron while plants have non-heme iron. The issue with obtaining all of your iron from predominantly animal sources is that excess heme-iron is inflammatory, causes oxidative stress in the body and has a role in insulin resistance, leading to diabetes. Also, animal products come packaged with saturated fat, nitrates found in processed meats, and a lack of fibre. On the other hand, plant sources of iron contain minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and lots and lots of fibre!

How to Boost your Iron Intake on a Plant-based Diet?

Since the bioavailability of non-heme iron in plants is lower than heme-iron, here are the tips I use with my patients and coaching clients to help them maximise their iron intake.

  1. You can increase the bioavailability of non-heme iron in certain foods like spinach by steaming it. Steaming spinach preserves the nutrients while reducing its’ oxalate and phytic acid content to help aid iron absorption.

  2. You can pair your iron-containing foods with Vitamin C rich foods like bell peppers, citrus fruits, strawberries or dark leafy greens to increase absorption.

  3. Alternately, you can pair your iron-rich food with Vitamin A rich foods like sweet potatoes or carrots to increase absorption of non-heme iron.

  4. Lastly, avoid consuming plant sources of iron with foods that inhibit absorption, like coffee and tea which contain tannins, as well as calcium fortified foods like plant milks. Also avoiding taking calcium supplements an hour before and after your iron-rich meal will help boost the bioavailability of the plant-based iron you are consuming.

The RDI or recommended daily intake of iron for omnivores is 8 mg/day for men and 18 mg/day for women. If you are predominantly or exclusively plant-based, your RDI will be higher due to the lower bioavailability of plant-based iron. It is recommended that vegetarians and vegans consume 1.8x the RDI for iron. The RDI for those that are plant-based is 14.4 mg/day for men and 32.4 mg/day for women. If you are a woman of childbearing age that is planning a pregnancy or currently pregnant, the RDI will be even higher. Please speak to a qualified healthcare professional in these situations. Finally, here are my go-to plant foods that are rich in iron.

  • White beans (8 mg iron/1 cup)

  • Kidney beans (5.7 mg iron/1cup)

  • Lentils (6.6 mg iron/cup cooked)

  • Spinach (6 mg of iron per 1 cup steamed).

  • Chickpeas (3.8 mg iron/1cup cooked)

  • Peas (3.8 mg iron/1 cup)

  • Tofu (3 mg iron/100 grams)

  • Pumpkin seeds (2.3 mg of iron per 1 tablespoon)

  • Nutritional yeast (8 mg of iron per 1 tablespoon)

Eating a varied and well-balanced whole foods plant-based diet will provide you with ample sources of iron. If you want to make sure you are hitting your RDI, try using Cronometer. It is an excellent app that tracks your nutrients, including iron. Of course, routine visits with your trusted healthcare provider for bloodwork, and to discuss special cases such as planning for pregnancy or running your next marathon can help you zone in on your iron status and plan for any dietary modifications or supplementation, if required. I trust this article has helped dispel some myths surrounding iron status and plant-based nutrition. Congratulations on your decision to put more plants on your plate, and don’t forget to eat those lentils, beans, tofu...and of course, every dish deserves a big sprinkle of nutritional yeast!


To read on iron deficiency anemia, click here. And for an easy to follow graphic on plant-based iron sources, click here.

References:

  1. Haider LM, Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G, Ekmekcioglu C. The effect of vegetarian diets on iron status in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2018 May 24;58(8):1359-1374.

  2. Clénin GE. The treatment of iron deficiency without anaemia (in otherwise healthy persons). Swiss Med Wkly. 2017 Jun 14;147:w14434.

  3. Henjum S, Groufh-Jacobsen S, Stea TH, Tonheim LE, Almendingen K. Iron Status of Vegans, Vegetarians and Pescatarians in Norway. Biomolecules. 2021 Mar 18;11(3):454.