12 Easy Iron Sources For Plant-Based Diets

by Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Last Updated: September 10, 2020

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many have been experimenting with a “flexitarian” way of eating, including introducing more plant foods into the diet. Incorporating more plant based foods may be by necessity due to availability of certain foods, or an increased interest in healthy eating due to heightened awareness of overall health. Some people may be taking advantage of products on sale, or even trying out interesting new recipes for home cooking adventures. The Plant-Based Foods Association reported through commissioned SPINS data, that U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods have considerably outpaced total food sales growth from January 5th through April 19th, including the peak of panic buying.

When shifting your diet, it’s important to ensure that the body is getting all of the necessary vitamins and minerals for overall health. Within a more plant focused diet, it’s particularly important to focus on plant-centered iron sources. Iron is a crucial part of hemoglobin, which is the red blood cell responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to the tissue. Iron aids in the muscle development, neurological development, and helps to build healthy connective tissue. Adult women between the ages of 19 and 50 years old should aim for 18 milligrams (mg) of iron daily, while men in this age bracket should strive for 8 mg of iron daily.

There are two types of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron comes only from meat, poultry, and fish, while nonheme iron is abundant in plant foods (fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and grains), as well as in meat, poultry, and fish. These two forms of iron are absorbed differently in the body. Heme iron has relatively good absorption and is not largely affected by other foods consumed simultaneously, while nonheme iron absorption increases when combined with other foods. Try implementing these hacks to increase nonheme iron absorption:
  • Vitamin C + iron.
    Vitamin C enhances iron absorption by releasing iron from “phytate,” a compound that inhibits iron absorption. This can mean including strawberries with your fortified cereal at breakfast or adding sautéed yellow bell peppers with your meatless burger at dinner.
  • Calcium supplements between meals.
    If you take calcium supplements, take them only between meals, not at mealtime. High doses of calcium inhibit iron absorption.
  • Cook with cast iron.
    Cooking certain foods, particularly acidic foods like tomato sauce, in cast iron skillets, increases food’s iron content. Make sure to care and “season” a cast iron skillet properly.
  • Drink coffee or tea alone.
    Try having coffee or tea outside of meals. Coffee and tea contain tannins, which interferes with iron absorption.

To increase iron content in plant based meals, try including one or more of these good iron sources, which have at least 2mg or 10% of the recommended Daily Value (DV):
  1. Kidney Beans
    The ultimate soup bean, kidney beans give just the right bit of savory to chili, minestrone, or taco soup.
  2. Kale
    This unique green has graced many American kitchens since its rise to fame in the mid-2010’s. Try kale in this flavorful Kale Salad with Edamame and Tomatoes or as Cheesy Kale Chips.
  3. Spinach
    One of America’s favorite greens for everything from salads to dips (spinach artichoke dip anyone?), spinach gives us color and versatility. Pay particular attention to adding vitamin C to meals with spinach to release phytates.
  4. Cashews
    Perfect as a simple snack, cashews can also be used as a cooking staple in the vegan kitchen in their raw form to add creaminess to sauces and creams.
  5. Fortified Cereal
    Many fortified cereals are a welcome addition to breakfast or to complement a homemade trail mix. Try Grape-Nuts or Total cereal which both have an inspiring 90% DV of iron or more!
  6. Oats
    This iron-containing whole-grain needs to make it to next week’s grocery list for breakfast or overnight oats.
  7. Tempeh
    This fermented soybean product, tempeh, lends a subtle nuttiness to dishes like Tempeh Tacos or Tempeh Sloppy Joe’s.
  8. Lentils
    At an impressive 15% DV of iron, lentils should be making their way regularly into a flexitarian diet. Try making this Lemon Thyme Eggplant Bowl with Cumin Lentils.
  9. Meat Alternatives
    Kroger now has Impossible Burgers available in the meat case, which pack a hefty 25% DV of iron. Also try the tried-and-true Simple Truth Meatless Burger Patty, with a remarkable 15% DV of iron, which makes socially-distant backyard BBQ’s easy among both vegan and carnivorous friends.
  10. Hemp Seed Hearts
    These little seeds are an excellent source of iron (20% DV) and are lovely atop scrambled tofu or eggs, or with a bowl of cereal.
  11. Bread
    Whole grains contribute adequate iron to a well rounded diet. Check out Kroger High Fiber Bread for the base of your next sandwich or avocado toast.
  12. Whole Wheat Bread Crumbs
    Not to be outdone by bread itself, it’s crusty counterpart, whole wheat bread crumbs, can be used as a coating on tofu or mixed with stuffing for some crunch.

Including more plant-based foods in your eating pattern is both trendy and nutritious. When striving for plant based food sources of iron, keep in mind the ways to enhance absorption: include vitamin C at mealtime, avoid taking calcium supplements with iron-centric meals, try out a cast iron skillet, and aim for only sipping coffee or tea between meals. Lastly, refer to this list for 12 healthy ways to get enough iron from plants.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD

Molly can help you simplify eating, all while building excitement around good food and freeing up time for all the things that really matter in your life. With a knack for food labeling and regulations, weight management, food intolerances, and plant-based eating, Molly is ready to help you make sense of food again. When not on the clock, Molly can be found hip-hop dancing, cuddling up with her two mischievous cats, playing trombone, or honing in on her food photography skills.