If you’re a meat eater, getting adequate iron through your diet isn’t usually much of a problem. But what if you’re vegetarian, vegan, or trying to cut back on your meat intake as meat eater? It isn’t as bad as you think – there’s iron in a good number of foods you could easily get your hands on. Here’s a look at some of the best.
So why does your body need iron? Iron forms a part of hemoglobin in your blood. This protein helps transport oxygen to various parts of the body, including your vital organs. It also allows the muscles to store and use that oxygen and forms the basis of several vital proteins as well as enzymes in the body. Not getting enough could leave you pale and weak from anemia.1 This is why it’s so important to get adequate iron even if you are vegetarian or vegan and aren’t able to consume the richer sources like meat.
Recommended Intake Of Iron Is 8–18 Mg
The recommended intake of iron for adult men aged 50 and under is 8 mg while for women that age it is 18 mg. If you’re pregnant, you need to increase intake to 27 mg. All adults, male and female, over 50 need to have just 8 mg of iron a day.
Do keep in mind, though, that if you’re purely eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need as much as twice the amount of iron every day.2 That’s because iron is available as readily usable heme iron in animal sources while non-heme iron from vegan sources is less easily used by your body.3 To compensate for the poorer absorption of non-heme iron, you will need to up your intake further.
That said, the % DV that follows assumes 18 mg intake for an adult, which means if you’re an adult male, or a woman over 50, this DV already accommodates for the vegetarian diet. If you’re pregnant or a female adult under 50, you should consider higher intake of the foods basis your diet.4
1. Spinach And Other Dark Leafy Greens
Half a cup of boiled spinach has 3.2 mg of iron – that’s about 17% DV.
Some dark leafy green vegetables like spinach are abundant in iron. They taste great blended into soups, tossed in stir fries, added to pasta or even in salads. Half a cup of boiled spinach, for instance, has 3.2 mg of iron – that’s about 17% DV.5 Other greens like kale and collard greens also contain iron that delivers 3.3 to 6% DV. Half a cup of kale has 0.59 mg of iron and a similar amount of collard greens have 1.075 mg.6 7
Half a cup of boiled green peas contain 1.23 mg of iron, that’s 6.8% DV.
Another kind of green that may appeal to more people are peas. These sweet, juicy pops of green can brighten up any meal. They are delicious in soup but you could have fun with them in Indian curries with potatoes and tomatoes, buttery stir-fries with onion, or even add them to a creamy sauce to go with gnocchi or a pasta of your choice. Half a cup of boiled green peas contain 1.23 mg of iron and that’s 6.8% DV.8
Half a cup of boiled asparagus has 0.82 mg of iron or nearly 5% DV.
Delicious spears of asparagus gently roasted in the oven with a cracking of fresh pepper and salt are a treat for the palate. Creamy asparagus soup, Asian style asparagus and tofu salad, asparagus with grits – the options are endless. If you’d like to start your day right, make a frittata with asparagus added into the mix or serve these as a side to a soft boiled egg or fried eggs. Half a cup of boiled asparagus has 0.82 mg of iron or nearly 5% DV. Even if you have just 4 spears for a meal as a side, you will get in 0.55 mg of iron or 3% DV.9
4. Morel Mushrooms
A cup of morel mushrooms contains 8.04 mg of iron. That’s nearly 45% DV.
Mushrooms are a delicious, meaty feeling vegetable that are ideal if you’ve just turned vegan or vegetarian and are craving some meat. You can saute them with some butter and garlic or spices for a simple meal or even pair them with asparagus to up the iron intake further. Risottos, pies, pizzas all do well with a helping of mushroom. When it’s iron you are after, morel mushrooms are an excellent choice, beating other varieties by a long mile in iron content. A cup of morel mushrooms contains a whopping 8.04 mg of iron as opposed a cup of white mushrooms that have 0.35 mg iron.10 11 That’s nearly 45% DV. Just half a cup of the mushrooms gets you to 22% DV of iron.12
5. Potatoes With Skin
A single large baked potato (299 gm) with skin gives you 3.23 mg of iron (18% DV).
Potatoes are a good source of iron but only if you don’t toss out the skin. Much of the iron they contain is in the skin itself, so scrub down those potatoes and bake them or roast them in their skin for an iron-packed recipe. A single large baked potato (299 gm) eaten skin and all gives you 3.23 mg of iron (18% DV), while a medium-sized potato (173 gm) has 1.87 mg of iron (10.4% DV).13 Skip the skin and you stand to get around 0.55 mg or just 3% DV of iron from a medium- sized vegetable, weighing around 156 gm.14
6. Acorn Squash
Half a cup of baked acorn squash contains 0.95 mg of iron – that is about 5% DV.
Winter acorn squash is another iron-rich vegetable that works well in a range of recipes. Just bake it and serve as a savory side or whizz it up into a puree or soup with some roasted cumin. The squash also lends itself to salads or stuffing with rice and veggies. You could even finish off a meal with some squash roasted with sugar and topped with walnuts and cranberries. Half a cup of baked acorn squash contains 0.95 mg of iron – that is about 5% DV and would be around the portion size you’d eat as a side. If you enjoy it, you could have more quite easily as a main meal to raise iron intake.15
One leek will meet 7.6% of your iron DV.
One leek has 1.36 mg of iron, so it will get you to 7.6% DV of iron intake.16 Give the classic potato and leek soup recipe a go, but also try them charred off and stuffed with blue cheese and nuts. Or pair up with mushrooms in an iron-rich Asian style broth, with some greens tossed in for good measure. You could even braise them with meat or infuse flavor by marinating them before grilling.
8. Green Beans
Half a cup of the beans has 0.96 mg of iron. That’s 5.3% DV.
There’s nothing as satisfying as simple buttered green beans or snap beans if you enjoy this vegetable. A twist of lime and they work great in a pasta salad too. Try them cooked lightly in tomatoes or celebrated in a green bean casserole. Whatever you choose to do with them, these beans don’t need much effort to cook. Simply zap them in the microwave and you’re good to go. Half a cup of the beans has 0.96 mg of iron. That’s 5.3% DV.17
Half a cup of broccoli has 0.52 mg or nearly 3% DV of iron.
Another green vegetable that does well on the iron stakes is broccoli. Half a cup of the cruciferous vegetable has 0.52 mg or nearly 3% DV of iron. If you enjoy it, go ahead and have a little more.18 You can simply steam some and season or drizzle with some salad dressing. Grill them for a smoky flavor or toss them through in an Asian stir-fry. Broccoli is also wonderful in tarts and pasta.
A cup of tomato puree has 4.45 mg of iron – that’s nearly 25% DV of iron.
Tomatoes, while not strictly a vegetable, are for all purposes used as vegetables rather than as a fruit. Which is why they make it to this list! While raw tomatoes do not have not too much iron, tomato paste and sundried tomatoes concentrate the nutrition so you end up getting much more out of a smaller serving. A cup of tomato puree, for instance, has 4.45 mg of iron – that’s nearly 25% DV of iron.19 Use the puree as a base for your pasta sauce, stews, or curries. If you enjoy sundried tomatoes, half a cup of them has 2.5 mg of iron (14% DV).20
Tomatoes have another thing going for them when it comes to iron. Though the iron content may not be comparable to green leafy vegetables, they also have a hefty amount of vitamin C. And as you will see in the next section, this plays a key role in how much iron your body absorbs from the food you eat. Each cup of tomato puree you use also has 26.5 mg of vitamin C, allowing you to make the most of the iron content of the tomato as well as any other iron-rich foods you may have consumed with it.21 Sundried tomatoes also have 10.6 mg of vitamin C per half cup.22
11. Herbs Like Parsley And Lemongrass
A quarter cup of chopped parsley will give you .93 mg or 5% DV of iron.
While not technically vegetables, herbs like parsley can contribute to your iron intake too even though they don’t make up the bulk of your meal. A cup of chopped parsley has 3.72 mg of iron, so consuming about a quarter of that amount in a meal will give you 5% DV or iron.23 The herb tastes great in fresh relishes, chutneys, and dressings. It also livens up a salad or heavy main. Add it to a frittata, salad, hummus, or make a lip-smackingly good salsa verde that’s perfect with almost anything. You’ll see it isn’t that hard to add a lot of this green to your life!
Quarter cup of lemongrass will give you 1.36 mg of iron – 7% DV.
Lemongrass is another iron containing herb that is a staple in Thai and Vietnamese cooking and used widely in cuisine from South East Asia. A cup of chopped lemongrass has 5.47 mg of iron. So using a quarter of that amount in a meal will give you 7% DV.24
Make The Most Of Your Iron Intake With These Tips
Since vegetarian sources of iron are not as readily usable by your body, it becomes doubly important to ensure you make the most of what you consume. And certain foods can add or take away from the iron intake.
Eat Iron-Rich Food With Vitamin-C Rich Foods
Vitamin C-rich foods are known to help enhance iron absorption from food, Which is why experts recommend that you combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C rich foods like citrus fruit, tomatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, and strawberries. This helps your body use the non-heme iron you consume from vegan sources optimally.25
Calcium-Rich Foods May Interfere With Iron Absorption
It is also advisable to avoid calcium-rich foods when you’re having a meal with iron. Calcium can interfere with iron absorption by as much as 50–60%, as one study found.26
Steer Clear Of Tea And Coffee When You’re Lifting Iron!
If you’re a tea or coffee drinker, stay off it just before or after a meal with iron-rich foods because the polyphenols they contain can inhibit non-heme iron absorption. As one group of researchers suggest, it is best to have your tea between meals and not during meals.27
|↑1||Iron.U.S. National Library of Medicine.|
|↑2||Iron. Office of Dietary Supplements.|
|↑3, ↑25||Increase Your Iron Intake. Dietitians of Canada.|
|↑4||Iron. Office of Dietary Supplements.|
|↑5||Spinach, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑6||Kale, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑7||Collards, chopped, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑8||Peas, green, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑9||Asparagus, cooked, boiled, drained. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑10||Mushrooms, morel, raw. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑11||Mushrooms, white, raw. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑12||Mushrooms, morel, raw. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑13||Potatoes, baked, flesh and skin, without salt. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑14||Potatoes, baked, flesh, without salt. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑15||Squash, winter, acorn, cooked, baked, without salt. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑16||Leeks, (bulb and lower leaf-portion), cooked, boiled, drained, without salt. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑17||Beans, snap, green, microwaved. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑18||Broccoli, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑19||Tomato products, canned, puree, without salt added.United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑20||[ Tomatoes, sun-dried. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑21||Tomato products, canned, puree, without salt added. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑22||Tomatoes, sun-dried. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑23||Parsley, fresh. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑24||Lemon grass (citronella), raw. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.|
|↑26||Hallberg, Leif, Mats Brune, M. Erlandsson, Ann-Sofie Sandberg, and L. Rossander-Hulten. “Calcium: effect of different amounts on non-heme-and heme-iron absorption in humans.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 53, no. 1 (1991): 112-119.|
|↑27||Zijp, Itske M., Onno Korver, and Lilian BM Tijburg. “Effect of tea and other dietary factors on iron absorption.” Critical reviews in food science and nutrition 40, no. 5 (2000): 371-398.|