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Vegan Sources of Iron
Iron is a mineral that is a very crucial part of any diet. Iron is used to make hemoglobin and myoglobin within the body, which help oxygenate the blood and muscles respectively. Iron helps convert blood sugar to energy, boost the immune system, and is needed to make some hormones (among many other things).
But, if you are vegan it can be challenging to get enough iron from your diet as animal-based iron is more readily absorbed by the body than plant-based iron. This can be a problem because not consuming enough iron can come with various risks such as lowered energy levels, weakness, GI upset, headaches, irritability, dizziness, or even anemia. According to the National Institutes of Health, people with iron deficiency anemia can have problems with concentration and memory, regulating their body temperature, and are less able to fight off germs and infections. But not to worry— by adding the right foods and supplements to your diet, you can be sure to help your body get the iron it needs.
Types of Iron
There are two types of iron—heme and non-heme. Heme sources of iron come from animals, while non-heme sources come from plants and iron-fortified foods. Legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains are a few groups of food that you can get non-meat iron from. Let’s dive into a few specific foods from each of these non-meat iron groups that are great to add to your diet.
Legumes such as beans, lentils and peas contain a lot of iron. Soybeans and food made from soybeans (things like Tofu, Tempeh, and Natto) can be a particularly good source; in fact, one cup of soybeans can contain up to 49% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron.
Lentils contain 37% of the RDI of iron when cooked. Lentils are also particularly useful as they contain protein, carbs, fiber, folate, and manganese. In fact, one cup of cooked lentils also contains 18 grams of protein.
Other types of beans like white, lima, red kidney, and navy beans can offer up to 24-37% of the RDI when cooked. So stir up some vegan chili and get your iron flowing!
Nuts and seeds
Pumpkin, hemp, flaxseeds, and sesame seeds are rich in iron, and contain 7-23% of the RDI per two tablespoons. Hummus made from chickpeas and tahini can give you 17% of the RDI per half-cup.
Almonds, cashews, pine nuts, and macadamia nuts contain about 6-9% of the RDI per ounce. However, it is important to note that blanching or roasting nuts can damage their nutrient content, so when trying to consume enough iron, it may be better to eat the more natural versions. Chop fresh cashews over a green salad or snack on a handful of almonds to add an easy dose of iron to your day.
Although vegetables contain the less easily absorbed non-heme type of iron, they often have a lot of vitamin C which can help improve iron absorption. Leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard, swiss chard, and beet greens contain about 14-36% of the RDI of iron per cooked cup.
Raw tomatoes contain very little iron but oddly enough, tomatoes when concentrated, such as in paste, contain a good amount of iron. In fact, half a cup of tomato paste contains 22% of the RDI of iron.
Potatoes also contain the nutrient, with the largest amount found in potato skins. One large, unpeeled potato contains about 18% of the iron RDI.
Mushrooms and palm hearts are also rich in iron, one cooked cup of white mushrooms contains 15% of the RDI, and one cup of palm hearts contains 26% of the RDI.
Some fruits and fruit products such as prune juice (17% RDI per cup), olives (18% RDI per 3.5 ounces), and mulberries (14% per cup) contain good amounts of iron. Bonus: throw raisins into your vegan chocolate chip cookies to get extra iron you really want to eat.
Amaranth, spelt, oats, and quinoa are great whole grain sources of iron. Amaranth contains about 29% of the RDI per cooked cup, spelt contains about 18% of the RDI per cooked cup, cooked oats contain about 19% of the RDI per cup, and quinoa contains about 16% of the RDI per cooked cup. You can also watch for iron-fortified cereals and breads to provide a mineral boost.
Other unique sources of iron can be from coconut milk, dark chocolate, blackstrap molasses, and dried thyme.
How much iron is needed in my diet?
For non-vegans, only around 8 to 11mg of iron is needed per day as iron is more readily absorbed through animal products. For vegetarians or vegans, the amount almost doubles to about 20mg per day to ensure that iron can be absorbed. Menstruating women need about 18 mg per day as they are losing some iron during this time, while pregnant women need about 27mg per day. Knowing the recommended daily intake (RDI) for your body can help you ensure you get what you need each day.
How can I best absorb the iron in my diet?
The less iron you have in your body, the more your body absorbs. Because of this, it is better to spread out the intake of iron throughout the day so that your body can absorb it more fully. Eat food rich in iron with one meal, and then add a little more iron-rich food to another. For example, you can add kale to your morning green smoothie, and then add hummus to your lunch or eat olives as a midday snack. Here are a few more useful tips as to how you can better help your body absorb iron:
Eat foods rich in vitamin C: Vitamin C found in types of plants, such as certain vegetables and citrus fruits, can help increase your iron absorption.
Avoid coffee and tea when you are eating: Drinking these beverages with meals decreases iron absorption.
Try sprouting or fermenting your grains and legumes: This lowers the amounts of phytates present in these foods, thus improving iron absorption when you consume them.
Cook or prepare your food using a cast iron pan: Strangely, or not strangely enough, foods that are made using a cast iron pan can have two to three times as much iron as those prepared using other types of pans.
Eat foods that contain a lot of lysine: These foods include things like legumes and quinoa. Consuming these with your meals that contain a lot of iron may help increase iron absorption.
All in all, it is crucial to ensure that you are getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet, and that includes iron. As a vegan, it can be difficult to keep tabs on the amount of iron you need and what exactly you are getting from your diet, especially because meat-eaters are naturally getting more. However, taking daily supplements can help. Along with Vitamin A, Vitamin D, and Active B12, Sun Chlorella is a good source of iron, offering another avenue to nourish your body daily. Whether adding supplements to your routine or throwing a few new ingredients into your favorite meals, getting your body the iron it needs doesn’t have to be hard. Give your body the iron it needs to maintain healthy function, even on a vegan diet.