Plant Power: Increasing Iron Intake is Easy!
Iron is an essential nutrient in our diets, as it is necessary for transporting oxygen and nutrients to our cells. Deficiencies are quite common among both vegetarians and carnivores. We generally tend to associate iron-rich foods with animal products like beef, chicken, and eggs, but there are several vegetable sources of iron as well.
Although heme iron (the type found in animal products) is more easily absorbed by our bodies, it doesn’t mean that non-heme (vegetarian) sources are not a great choice as well.
Here are some plant-based sources of iron, plus tips for preparing and eating them to maximize absorption.
Vegetarian Sources of Iron
Legumes: lentils, organic soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans, black beans, chickpeas
Grains: quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice, oatmeal
Nuts and seeds: pumpkin, squash, pine, pistachio, sunflower, cashews, un-hulled sesame
Vegetables: tomato sauce, dark leafy greens (see below)
Other: blackstrap molasses, prune juice
Did you know?
- Studies have shown that Vitamin C (found in citrus, bell peppers, and berries to name a few) aids in the absorption of non-heme iron.
- Oxalates (found in greens and some grains) can inhibit the absorption on non-heme iron. That is why the iron found in spinach and kale is not easily absorbed.
- Calcium (found in dairy, greens, and tofu) can inhibit the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron.
So, how do you maximize absorption of non-heme iron?
It’s a little confusing when you realize that some of the foods that contain iron also contain nutrients that inhibit absorption. Here are some tips:
- Studies have shown that eating smaller meals that include calcium-containing foods allow for better absorption.
- Eat vegetarian iron sources alone or paired with a vitamin C-containing food.
- Don’t pair dairy with plant-based iron sources.
- Eat your greens because they are really good for you, but don’t count on them to be a good source of iron.
Easy incorporation of plant-based iron-containing foods:
- Snack on organic soybeans (edamame).
- Snack on beans like chickpeas, black beans, and lentils, or add them to a salad (one that doesn’t include dark leafy greens).
- Add lentils to soups and salads, or use it in place of rice or potato.
- Make a tofu and bell pepper stir-fry (but limit soy to a few times a month if you have estrogen-positive cancer).
- Snack on nuts and seeds.
- Eat iron-fortified cereals that are low in added sugars and consumed alone (including dairy will decrease the availability of the iron).
- Snack on fruits, vegetable and unsweetened dried fruits.
Katie Cavuto, MS, RD is a registered dietitian, trained chef, mom and lover of real food. She is the president of Healthy Bites, a Philadelphia based company offering culinary nutrition services. Katie is the consulting dietitian for the Philadelphia Phillies and Flyers. As a chef she is an energetic advocate of cooking and falling in love with food—and yourself in process. Widely sought for her knowledge and ability to translate nutrition into approachable messages, Katie can be seen on local and national TV and in print as an expert in her field. For more on Katie, visit her website and follower her on twitter @healthybites or Facebook.