Ask the Chef: What are some of the best plant-based sources of iron?

by Julie Morris, Navitas Naturals Executive Chef
November 28, 2016

What are some of the best plant-based sources of iron?

Even if you’ve never been to kitchen stadium, don’t let that stop you from being an iron chef: iron is a mineral you definitely want include on a regular basis in your recipes and meals! Iron is absolutely essential to the body because it’s a key component of hemoglobin, which transfers oxygen from your lungs to bodily tissues. It’s also important for synthesizing your metabolism and sending energy to your muscles to keep you healthy and strong.

This mineral also assists the body with growth and development, cellular functioning, hormone balance, and connective tissue strength. In adults, much of the iron is in hemoglobin, and the remaining portions are stored in the form of ferritin in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. If you don’t get enough iron, you may experience symptoms of dizziness, fast heart rate, fatigue, shortness of breath, and brittle nails.

There are two main ways to get iron in your diet: heme iron, which comes from meat, and nonheme iron, which comes from plants. On a per-calorie basis, you may be surprised to learn that many plant foods contain more iron than meat!

Here are some of my favorite iron-rich foods that are healthy, delicious, and 100% plant-based:

Mulberries
• Spinach
• Beans
• Pumpkin seeds
Chia seeds
• Lentils
Hemp seeds

In terms of meeting your daily iron quota, the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies recommends daily allowances (RDAs) that vary. For example, a teenage boy needs 11 milligrams of iron per day, while a teenage girl needs 15 milligrams. And an adult male (age 19-50) needs just 8 grams per day, while the iron needs of adult women of the same age increase to 18 milligrams (those needs even higher when women are pregnant or breastfeeding). Also, the more active you are, the more iron your body generally needs. It takes a while to build iron stores back up when they’re low, for athletes in particular. That’s why a diet with frequent servings of plant-based, iron-rich foods can restore bodily iron to optimum levels and give you the energy you need for the day ahead!

It should be noted that for vegans and vegetarians, the RDAs are 1.8 times higher for all age groups. The reason for this increased need is because heme iron from meat is more bioavailable than nonheme iron from plants, and meats increase the absorption of nonheme iron. Since plant-based iron sources aren’t absorbed as easily in the body, vegetarians and vegans may also pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods to improve absorption. So, be sure to include a little camu in your iron-rich chia smoothies, and squeeze some lemon into your spinach salad!

What I particularly love about the plant-based iron-rich foods listed here is that they help you reach your recommended daily amount of iron while also providing many other benefits at the same time: such as being low in calories, high in protein, and full of lots of other vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals too. For example, a half cup of cooked lima beans has 2 milligrams of iron (compared to only 1.2 milligrams of iron in 100 grams of chicken), while being packed with heart-healthy fiber, protein, and minerals like folate, potassium and metabolism-boosting molybdenum.

The best news of all? If you’re eating a whole food oriented plant-based diet, you’ll find that iron is truly abundant and meeting your needs is downright easy.


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