When people switch to a plant-based diet, they aren’t only concerned about protein, but they wonder how (and if) they’ll get enough iron. Fortunately for us plant-eaters, iron is incredibly abundant in the plant-food world. In fact, there are over 20 plant-based foods rich in iron (among many others), all of which help us stay energized and anemia-free!
Iron and Its Role In The Human Body
Iron is found in the red blood cells of your blood called hemoglobin and in muscle cells called myoglobin. Hemoglobin in blood carries oxygen from your lungs to all tissues throughout the body. Myoglobin on the other hand, holds and stores oxygen for use during activity.
Iron is needed for proper immune function, and plays a role in activating enzymatic reactions needed for the synthesis of collagen and some neurotransmitters. It is also essential for respiration and energy metabolism.
When we don’t get enough iron from our diet, stores can become depleted, decreasing hemoglobin levels and setting the stage for iron-deficiency anemia.
The Difference Between Heme and Non-Heme Iron
Heme and non-heme iron are different in the sense that heme iron (iron attached to heme proteins) comes from animal products (dairy, meat, eggs, fish) and non-heme iron (iron not attached to heme proteins) comes from plant foods.
While heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body (7-35%) than non-heme iron (2-20%), there are many different factors that affect its absorbability rate (see sub-section below).
It is also important to note that the human body has no mechanism to rid itself of excess iron, and so it has evolved to tightly regulate its absorption. For example, when iron stores are low, iron absorption is boosted in the intestines, but when it is high, iron absorption is blocked. But this mechanism only works for non-heme iron. A chronic consumption of animal products inundates the body with a surplus of heme iron, preventing the body from regulating its intake.
Consuming too much heme-iron (as is the case with most of the population) creates an environment where the intestines can no longer regulate iron influx, and the body becomes “iron toxic” as the iron passes right through the intestinal barrier. Too much iron in the body leads to decreased absorption of vitamin E, diabetes, gut disturbances, hair loss, increased free radical production, liver disease and heart disease.
How Much Iron Should I Consume?
It is generally recommended for men to consume 8-11mg of iron, and woman 8-18mg. Pregnant women should aim for around 30mg daily.
Plant-Based Foods Rich In Iron
*Note: below demonstrates how many milligrams of iron are in 100 grams of food
1. Morel Mushrooms – 12.2 mg
2. Pumpkin Seeds – 11.2 mg
3. Hemp Seeds – 9.6 mg
4. Chia Seeds – 7.7 mg
5. Dill Weed – 6.6 mg
6. Parsley – 6.2 mg
7. Almonds – 3.7 mg
8. Raisins – 3.5 mg
9. Jerusalem Artichokes – 3.4 mg
10. Dandelion Greens – 3.1 mg
11. Medjool Dates – 3.0 mg
12. Chickpeas – 2.9 mg
13. Sea Vegetables (Kelp, Nori, Spirulina, Dulse, etc.) – 2.8 mg
14. Spinach – 2.7 mg
15. Green Peas – 1.8 mg
16. Cilantro – 1.8 mg
17. Kale – 1.7 mg
18. Arugula – 1.5 mg
19. Quinoa – 1.5 mg
20. Beets – 1.0 mg
It is also important to note that other fruit and vegetables contain iron, just not at these high levels. These vegetables and fruit include blackberries, pumpkin, red cabbage, cremini mushrooms, bananas, broccoli, beets, carrots, eggplant, sweet potato, avocado, figs, potatoes, corn, pineapple, nectarine, watermelon, tomatoes, oranges, cherries, papaya, celery and apples. When consuming a high-raw plant-based diet, and eating the quantities that should be eaten (over 2,000+ calories per day), then getting enough iron is as easy as 1-2-3.
Foods That Increase (and Decrease) Iron Absorption
Foods that increase iron absorption include those rich in vitamins C and A. Foods rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits (oranges, limes, grapefruit, lemons), tomatoes, kale, red peppers, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, papaya and strawberries. As for vitamin A, choose foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, peas, beets, apricots, peaches and lemons.
There are also foods that reduce the body’s ability to absorb iron like red wine, tea and coffee, isolated soy products (soy flour, soy milk, isolated soy concentrate, etc.), and dairy products (when I was vegetarian I was highly anemic. I ate a lot of dairy, and when I went vegan, my anemia went away and I no longer had to take an iron supplement).
Iron Supplementation – Is It Needed?
Unless you have had a confirmed diagnosis and are in dire need of iron supplementation, I wouldn’t supplement on your own. In the case that you do supplement, I would still encourage you to look at your diet and consider fixing it until your body figures out what’s wrong. Iron issues can be fixed, if you start from the root of the problem. Taking a supplement is only a cover-up to a problem that is more deep-rooted in the ways you eat.
A study found that even if you do supplement your diet with iron (even if anemic), it can lead to a significant increase in oxidative stress which can lead to DNA damage and increase your risk for developing cancer. You can easily get your iron from the plant foods mentioned above to establish an environment in your body that promotes healthy iron levels.