According to the CDC, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the US. Iron is required for your body to manufacture hemoglobin which enables your red blood cells to transport oxygen through the bloodstream. It’s also essential for energy production and helps with metabolism, DNA synthesis, immunity and healing. Iron deficiency, also known as anemia, results in symptoms that can include exhaustion or fatigue, pale skin, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat and dizziness.
Our bodies can’t produce iron, so we have to get it from the food we eat. Iron that comes from animal sources is heme iron and is easily absorbed by the body. Iron from sources is non-heme and is not as easy for your body to absorb. To increase your body’s absorption of non-heme iron, eat foods high in Vitamin C like citrus, broccoli or tomato alongside the iron-rich plant foods. The recommended daily requirement of iron is 18 mg for females 19 – 50 and 8 mg for males of all ages and females over 50. Pregnant women should aim for 27 mg.
If you follow a plant-based diet, make sure you include the following iron-rich foods in your diet:
- Dark leafy greens are nutrient dense and excellent sources of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Spinach offers 3 mg of iron per 1/2 cup cooked and Swiss chard has 4 mg in 1 cup cooked. Spinach is also high in Vitamin C to assist in the absorption of iron.
- Legumes are high in protein; they’re also excellent sources of iron. Lentils will provide 3.3 mg per 1/2 cup cooked as well as white beans, which offer 6.6 mg per cup cooked. Chickpeas and black-eyed peas provide around 5.2 mg per cooked cup.
- Soybeans have 8.8 mg of iron per cup and 6 ounces of tofu offer 3.6 mg of iron, as well as being excellent sources of protein.
- Nuts and seeds and nutrient dense foods that are high in protein, fiber, good fats, vitamins and minerals including iron. Pumpkin, sesame, hemp and flaxseeds contain 1.2 – 4.2 mg iron per two tablespoons. Tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds, has 2.6 mg of iron in two tablespoons. Cashews and almonds provide about 1.6 mg of iron per ounce.
- Quinoa, an ancient grain which is also a complete protein, brings 2.8 mg of iron per 1 cup cooked. It’s also high in anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
- Dark chocolate is delicious and highly nutritious, and an excellent source of antioxidants, fiber, magnesium and copper, as well as providing 3.3 mg of iron per ounce.
- Blackstrap molasses can be used as a sweetener or added to smoothies, roasted vegetables, desserts, your morning oatmeal or yogurt. Two tablespoons will provide 1.8 mg of iron.
It’s easy to see how you can reach your daily requirement of iron with plant-based foods and some mindful meal planning. Make sure to include foods that have Vitamin C when you eat them to increase absorption of the non-heme iron.