Iron is a key mineral for the body’s growth, health and development. It can be obtained from dietary sources by consuming animal-based foods – this type of iron is known as heme iron and from plant foods, which contain non-heme iron.
The recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron is 18 mg per day, but this intake may differ from one person to another depending upon their life stage and gender. Non-heme iron is more difficult to be absorbed compared to heme iron. Vegans, who don’t eat any animal products, hence consuming only non-heme iron, need an iron RDI of 1.8 times higher than people who eat meat.
To meet this RDI, we tell you which are the best iron rich vegan foods to include in your diet in this article.
Why is iron important for our body?
Iron enables red blood cells to transport oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, being an essential element of haemoglobin. Iron also creates myoglobin, a protein that delivers oxygen to all muscles.
By consuming iron, the body has more energy and stamina, and the focus and concentration are improved. Iron also supports muscles’ metabolism, which leads to improved athletic performance.
The body needs to circulate more blood and red blood cells during pregnancy to ensure the fetus receives all required nutrients, including iron. Haemoglobin is in charge of maintaining the proper functioning of the immune system, which is strengthened by iron consumption.
A diet containing the right amount of iron supports the blood flow into the brain, which is then stimulated to create new neural pathways. These pathways decrease the risk of developing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The health of the skin, hair and nails is directly linked to iron consumption: collagen, required for preserving the health of joints and skin, is produced by iron.
Iron intake is also connected to sleep quality, so you need to eat enough iron-containing foods for a peaceful, uninterrupted rest.
Iron needs to be consumed in the right amounts – too much can cause iron poisoning, and too little leads to iron deficiency which causes anaemia. Both can be severe conditions and ones to be avoided.
Iron rich vegan foods
Most people with a vegan diet meet the recommended daily intake of iron because this diet is usually rich in vitamin C, which assists in the absorption of non-heme iron.
The best iron rich vegan foods are blackstrap molasses, lentils, spinach, certain nuts and seeds, palm hearts, mulberries and dark chocolate.
A healthier-than-sugar sweetener, blackstrap molasses is the richest source of non-heme iron.
One tablespoon of blackstrap molasses provides 20% of the RDI, and it can be used as pancake syrup for baking gingerbread biscuits, smoothies and homemade barbecue sauce. Although this food also contains vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium, copper, selenium and manganese, it’s recommended to limit its intake to keep body weight under control as it also has a high sugar content.
Packed with fibre, protein, folate and potassium, a half-cup of lentils provides around 20% of needed iron intake. Available in brown, green and red varieties, lentils are a great addition to stews and soups. They also go great with burgers, pasta and curries.
Spinach can provide personality to almost any dish, from smoothies and steak to salads and quiche. Filled with antioxidants called carotenoids and vitamin C, which improve iron absorption, spinach provides 15% of the daily iron value per 100 g serving.
Certain nuts and seeds
A great source of “good fats”, vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein, nuts are also among the top iron rich vegan foods. One ounce of macadamia nuts, pine nuts, cashews or almonds provides around 6–9% of the RDI. These nuts preserve their nutrients when consumed raw, so feel free to add them to salads, stews, dips, stir-fries, sauces, vegetable patties, creams, or curries. They bring extra flavour to baked goodies, waffles and pancakes. You can also opt for 100% natural nut butter to increase your iron intake.
Seeds contain fibre, calcium, protein, antioxidants, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, zinc, magnesium and iron. The richest iron-content seeds are pumpkin, flaxseeds, sesame and hemp. Just two tablespoons of these seeds ensure between 7 and 23% of the RDI of iron. You can enjoy seeds plain as a healthy snack or as a crunchy topping to your cereal, yoghurts or smoothies. You can also use them to flavour main dishes such as soups and sauces.
Seeds-derived foods are also a good source of iron. For example, tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds, has 2.6 mg of iron per two tablespoons.
An exotic vegetable packed with nutrients such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, vitamin C, fibre, vitamins B2 and B6, potassium, folate and manganese, palm heart (or hearts of palm) are harvested from the buds and inner core of several palm trees such as coconut, palmetto, juçara and açaí palm.
This amazing veggie also contains 4.6 mg of iron per cup and can be used for dips, grills, salads and stir-fries.
Mulberries are among the few berries with a high iron content – 23% of RDI on 100 g of serving. They also contain vitamin C, which increases the absorption of iron. Mulberries are known for their antioxidants, such as resveratrol, also found in red wine, which has proven to fight against skin tumours and prostate cancer.
Red, black or white mulberries are a great snack when consumed fresh, or you can use them in a wide range of delicious desserts such as jam, ice cream, brownies, pies or muffins.
If you’re looking for a sweet treat that can contribute to your iron intake requirement, look no further: just 28 grams of dark chocolate provides 3.3 mg of iron which is about 18% of RDI.
Chocolate has been linked by several studies to benefits on cholesterol and decreased risks of strokes and heart attacks. Dark chocolate is even more beneficial: it contains magnesium, copper, antioxidants and prebiotic fibre, which help develop good bacteria in the gut. Eating dark chocolate with 70% cocoa is the best way to ensure your body receives this beloved sweet’s nutrients.
No matter which of these iron rich vegan foods you prefer, there are tons of delicious ways you can include them into your diet. When paired with calcium-containing plant-based food, the iron is absorbed much easier, enabling you to maintain good health.