Vegan 1180x500px

Iron-rich vegetarian foods you should include in your diet

Many women struggle to get enough iron in their diets. But the good news is there are many plant-based foods that will have you easily hitting your recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron and, importantly, feeling fabulous.

Up to 15% of women aged 19-50 years are thought to be low in iron.

“Iron deficiency is a common nutritional problem for women, particularly those who have heavy periods,” says Sanitarium dietitian Angela Saunders.

“But research indicates that vegetarians are no more likely to have iron-deficiency anemia than non-vegetarians. A diet rich in wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, iron-fortified cereals and green leafy vegetables provides an adequate iron intake.”

It seems Popeye “I’m strong to the finish ‘cause I eats me spinach” the Sailor Man was on to something! A healthy vegetarian diet, including a wide variety of plant foods, can deliver all the iron you need each day.

Angela says, even for non-vegetarians, most of the iron in the diets of New Zealanders comes from plant-based foods – not, as many people think, from meat.

Pumping iron – but what is it?

Iron is an essential mineral needed to produce red blood cells. When a person is low in iron, or anemic, the heart must work harder to ensure the muscles and organs get the oxygen they need. Your body cannot produce iron, so you need to make sure you’re getting all you need in your daily diet.

Worldwide, about 2 billion people are low in iron, making it the most common nutrition deficiency globally.

Common symptoms of iron deficiency

Common symptoms of iron deficiency and, at the extreme end, anemia, range from excessive fatigue to brain fog, and even hair loss. Other symptoms include:

  • breathlessness
  • poor memory and concentration
  • decreased libido
  • being prone to infections
  • headaches
  • irregular heartbeat
  • irritability
  • cold hands and feet

So, how much iron do I need?

Your RDI of iron really depends on your gender and age. According to The New Zealand Nutrition Foundation, women aged 19-50 need 18mg of iron a day, dropping to 8mg a day in the post-menopausal years. The RDI increases to 27mg a day for pregnant women. For children, it ranges from 9mg for younger kids of both genders to 15mg for girls aged 14-18.

And while that might sound like a lot, it’s easy to ensure you’re getting all you need from a balanced vegetarian diet. Great plant-based sources of iron include:
  • Weet-Bix™ – 10mg of iron/100g
  • Pumpkin seeds / pepitas – 10mg/100g
  • Sundried tomatoes – 5.6mg/100g
  • Sesame seeds / tahini – 5.2mg/100g
  • Cashews – 5mg/100g
  • Mixed-grain bread roll – 4.7mg/100g
  • English spinach (raw) – 3.5mg/100g
  • Dried apricots – 3.1mg/100g
  • Tofu (firm) – 2.9mg/100g
  • Dates (dried) – 2.6mg/100g
  • Lentils / soybeans / kidney beans – 1.8mg-2.2mg/100g
  • Amaranth (cooked) – 2.1mg/100g
  • Tofu (silken / soft) – 1.8mg/100g
  • Figs (dried) – 1.4mg/100g
  • Baked beans – 1mg/100g

In comparison, 100g of beef delivers 3.3mg of iron and the same amount of lamb 2.9mg. A 100g serve of chicken delivers half the iron of a similar serve of baked beans.

Good news for vegetarians

While too little iron in your diet is an issue, so, too, is too much iron. Excessive iron stores can damage the liver, heart and pancreas. And that’s where a plant-based diet really pays off.

Iron from meat, known as haem iron, is absorbed by the body whether we need it or not. However, the absorption of iron from plant-based sources, or non-haem iron, is more carefully controlled by our bodies and is more readily absorbed when the body has a need for iron.

The tendency of vegetarians to store less iron may also explain their lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer.

Maximising iron absorption

Vegetarian diets also are often higher in vitamin C which is also great news when it comes to ensuring you’re getting enough iron each day. Angela says just 50mg of vitamin C per meal can help your body absorb 3-6 times more iron.

Fabulous food pairs that pack an iron/vitamin C one-two punch include citrus and spinach (think salad with a zingy lemon dressing), berries and whole grains (strawberries on your morning Weet-Bix™) and tomatoes and beans (baked beans on toast with a side of roasted tomatoes).

“Vegetarians typically have high intakes of vitamin C from a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, so that’s fantastic for making sure you’re maximising your iron,” Angela says.

Anything I should be avoiding?

Research shows tea, including herbal tea, coffee, cocoa and red wine can inhibit the absorption of non-haem iron from plant-based foods. So, try to avoid having a cuppa with your breakfast and limit alcohol.

Recipes for a great iron boost

We’ve found five easy vegetarian recipes that will help increase your daily iron intake.