Incorporate these 12 plant-based iron rich foods into your diet to increase your intake and absorption and have plenty of energy!
Iron is an essential nutrient for everyone, especially vegans and vegetarians. But its ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles makes it especially important for athletes. Without enough iron in the bloodstream, you can suffer from iron deficiency anemia. [Read more about how to detect an iron deficiency.]
I’ve struggled with iron deficiency for years [read about my struggles in this article I wrote for SHAPE.] Because of that, I think about iron on a daily basis and take iron supplements as part of my daily routine.
It may not sound all that serious, but iron deficiency anemia is accompanied by extreme exhaustion, lightheadedness, headaches and frequent infections. Doesn’t sound fun, does it?
What does Iron do?
Iron is a mineral that is responsible for the proper function of hemoglobin, a protein that helps transport oxygen in the blood. It’s necessary for growth and maintaining energy levels.
The recommended daily intake for iron is 18 milligrams (mg). If you think you’re not getting enough, talk to you doctor about checking your iron levels. Too much iron in the blood can actually be toxic, so don’t take a supplement unless it’s necessary.
Heme versus non-heme iron
Many vegetarians and vegans are prone to iron deficiency anemia, since iron from plants is not as well absorbed as iron from animals.
As a matter of fact, there are two types of iron.
- Heme iron: This is the iron found in meat, such as chicken, beef, pork and seafood. Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body.
- Non-heme iron: This iron is found in plant sources and animal byproducts, such grains, fortified cereals, beans, nuts, seeds, vegetables and dairy. Non-heme iron is not as well absorbed by the body, and you need more of it to meet your iron needs.
The good news is that it’s possible to get enough iron from plant sources by eating a diet that is rich in the following 12 foods. [Find out more about how to be a vegetarian or vegan runner here.]
12 Plant-based Iron Rich Foods
1. Chickpeas, 1/2 cup, 1.5 milligrams (mg) (8.3% daily value (DV))
A half cup of chickpeas contains about 6% of your daily iron needs. Not to mention that chickpeas are a good source of plant-based protein for muscles and fiber for heart healthy.
Chickpeas are incredibly versatile! Roast them in a bit of olive oil for a crunchy snack, throw them in a wrap for a plant-based protein lunch, or mix them with tomatoes, feta, and cucumber to create a savory side dish.
2. Spinach, 2 cups packed raw, 1.4 mg (7.7% DV)
Dark leafy greens, especially spinach, provide plenty of iron. As an added bonus, they also contribute plant-based calcium to the diet for healthy bones.
Get a hefty dose of iron with just one hearty, delicious and nutritious Strawberry Spinach Salad.
3. Oats, 1 cup, 1.7 mg (9.4% DV)
Oats are quick to cook, satisfying, and extremely versatile. One cup has almost 10% of your daily iron needs and can be a hearty breakfast or snack.
Obviously, oatmeal is a very well-known breakfast, but did you know you can use raw oats to make energy balls? These Tahini Maple Oat Balls will provide long lasting energy during any workout.
4. Tofu, ½ cup, 3 mg (17% DV)
Vegetarians and vegans are no strangers to tofu, and that’s a good thing because this soy-bean based protein is packed with iron. Plus, it takes on the flavor of any marinade, so you can use it in basically any dish.
If you’re feeling adventurous, bake up a batch of these tofu croutons to add to your next salad.
5. Lentils, 1/2 cup cooked, 3.17 mg (18% DV)
Lentils, along with other legumes, are a great source of iron, specifically for vegetarians or vegans! Just half a cup of cooked lentils provides almost 20% of the iron you need in a day, as well as plenty of fiber and protein.
6. Potatoes, 1 medium potato, 1.87 mg (14% DV)
News flash– potatoes aren’t bad for you! As a matter of fact, they are a healthy carb for any fitness enthusiast, and they pack in serious iron and potassium. Keep the skin on for an added fiber boost!
If you’re a fan of potato wedges, make them at home in your own oven! These Dill Roasted Potato Wedges are a favorite in my house.
7. Cashews,1 ounce, 1.72 mg (13% DV)
Nuts and nut butters, specifically cashews, contain quite a bit of non-heme iron. Whether you’re adding them to smoothies, salads, or eating alone, this crunchy nut helps you meet your daily dose of iron.
I like to add chopped cashews to roasted veggies for a contrasting texture. Try it: Green Beans with Caramelized Onions and Cashews.
8. Edamame, 1 cup, 2 mg (11% DV)
Going for sushi night? Highly recommend ordering the edamame as an appetizer (if you don’t already!) Aside from being delicious, these green soybeans are packed with iron, protein and fiber.
Or have a sushi night in with this Vegan Quinoa Sushi Bowl.
9. Sesame Seeds, 2 tablespoons, 1.2 mg (7% DV)
While sesame seeds aren’t always on people’s radar, they should be. Not only do they add a nice crunch to protein or salads, ground sesame seeds make tahini–a nice alternative to nut butters.
10. Flax Seeds, 2 tablespoons, 1.2 mg (7% DV)
Flax seeds have gained some serious popularity over the last few years and for good reason! They contain healthy omega-3 fats, fiber and (you guessed it) iron. Blend them in a smoothie or mix into your yogurt!
11. Beets, 1 cup, 1.34 mg (7% DV)
This royal purple root veggie is packed with antioxidants and contains a nice serving of iron. Beet juice also has some added benefits for athletes. Learn more in the video below!
12. White Mushrooms, 1 cup cooked, 2.7 mg, (15% DV)
The “meat” of the plant-based world not only has a nice bite, but it’s also an excellent source of iron. Throw mushrooms into a stir-fry, salad or make these Freezer Mushroom Breakfast Burritos.