Approximately 10 million Americans suffer from iron deficiency — mostly due to diet. When people lack sufficient iron in their bodies, they experience fatigue, headaches, chest pain, and sometimes also develop a blood disorder called anemia. Vegetarians who don’t understand how to consume enough of the element risk becoming iron-deficient.
Vegetarian foods provide non-heme iron while meat products contain heme iron. The human body absorbs heme iron well on its own, which likely fuels the misconception that it’s difficult to consume iron from a vegetarian diet. While your body can’t easily absorb non-heme iron by itself, you can solve that issue by consuming iron with vitamin C.
Many high-protein vegetarian foods also contain high levels of iron. To ensure these foods help maintain or increase your iron levels, you must eat them with something containing vitamin C. The foods with the highest amounts of vitamin C include citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruits, as well as strawberries, melons, bell peppers, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron depends on your age and sex:
- Men over age 18: 8 milligrams per day
- Women ages 18 to 50: 18 milligrams per day
- Women 51 and up: 8 milligrams per day
- Pregnant women: 27 milligrams per day
- Lactating women: 9 milligrams per day
Read on to learn more about 10 iron-rich vegetarian foods to help you meet your daily iron needs.
Vegetarians often consume this excellent source of iron for both the iron and protein it provides. One cup of edamame contains 3.5 milligrams of iron, half a cup of tofu contains 6.6 milligrams, and a serving of tempeh contains 4.5 milligrams.
2. Sesame Seeds
One tablespoon of sesame seeds contains 1.3 milligrams of iron. Sprinkle these powerful seeds onto cereal or veggies, or use ground sesame seeds in baked goods to boost your meal’s iron content.
Half a cup of lentils contains 3.3 milligrams of iron. There’s a reason people often serve lentils with lemon juice squeezed on top: it provides the vitamin C needed to help your body absorb the iron from these legumes.
Spinach contains almost twice as much iron as other leafy greens, making it a good choice for salads and green smoothies. One hundred grams of fresh spinach contains 2.7 milligrams of iron while the same amount of cooked spinach contains 3.6 milligrams.
Chickpeas are another popular vegetarian food because they contain high levels of both protein and iron. People eat these legumes cooked or cold, alone or mixed with other foods, and even mashed or formed into falafel or burgers. Half a cup of chickpeas provides more than 6 milligrams of iron.
6. Hemp Seeds
These small seeds pack a big punch. One three-tablespoon serving contains 4 milligrams of iron. Because most people don’t enjoy the taste of plain hemp seeds, try adding them to smoothies or sprinkle them on top of salads, soups, or cereal.
Many people refer to this pseudo-grain as a superfood because of its high protein, fiber, and nutrient content. Half a cup of quinoa contains 4 milligrams of iron. This makes it a good substitute for rice or pasta, which generally contain less iron and protein.
8. Dried Apricots
The 1.8 milligrams of iron in half a cup of dried apricots makes this fruit a good option for vegetarians focused on consuming enough iron. Dried apricots provide an easy snack between meals because they don’t require preparation or refrigeration and they take up very little space in a bag.
9. Baked Potatoes
A large baked potato provides 3 milligrams of iron. Potatoes also contain vitamin C so your body likely will absorb the iron without the need to pair the potato with other food. Note that most of a potato’s iron resides in its skin. That means french fries, potato chips, or mashed potatoes don’t offer the same level of nutrients.
10. Food Cooked in Cast Iron
The iron your body needs to survive is the same iron found in cast iron pans. If you cook with these pans, your food will absorb some of their iron. Skip non-stick pans and use cast iron instead when frying veggies or eggs.
To determine the iron content of other foods not listed here, check labels, look them up in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Composition Database, or use a food-tracking site like MyFoodDiary.
Finally, while your body needs vitamin C to absorb iron, other substances can block the absorption of iron. These include caffeine, calcium, and common heartburn medications. You don’t have to avoid these substances, but try to consume them at least an hour before or after you eat an iron-rich meal to prevent them from blocking much-needed iron absorption.