We all know that there is a whole host of vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to be ingesting every day to be healthy and function correctly. We need Vitamin A, B, C, D and E. We need protein and calcium and plenty of healthy fats. One that isn’t talked about as much as some of these other elements — but is no less important — is iron.
Iron is a crucial element in that keeps our bodies running smoothly, but it’s also one that can be difficult to find. Especially for those who enjoy a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, finding enough iron in their diet can be a real challenge.
Here at Yalla Mediterranean, we understand that iron is a crucial nutrient. We think it’s important that you know what it is, what it does, and how you can make sure you’re getting enough of it in your daily life. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide on iron. Particularly, we want to make sure that you know where you can find plenty of plant-based iron sources.
What Is Iron?
Let’s start with the basics. What is iron, anyway? Why is it so important?
Iron is a vital mineral that plays a critical role in the body’s internal workings. It’s an essential component of proteins like myoglobin and hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is part of the red blood cell supply that transports oxygen from the lungs to various tissues throughout the body. Myoglobin then plays a role in actually supplying our muscles with oxygen.
Because of this, a lack of iron will often make you feel tired, sluggish and as though you had no energy.
How Much Iron Do I Need Every Day?
It depends on who you are. Different demographics have different iron requirements. The National Institutes of Health report that men older than 19 have a fairly low recommended daily allowance (RDA) of roughly 8 mg of iron. This number is vastly different for premenopausal women. Women under the age of roughly 50 have over twice this RDA, coming in at 18 mg. When women reach roughly age 50, this number drops off sharply and becomes equal to the male recommendation at 8 mg. On the other hand, this RDA skyrockets for pregnant women, with the number clocking in at 27 mg.
The numbers are different for children and vary as the children age. For example, children aged 1-3 need 7 mg, while children 4-8 need 10 mg. The numbers for boys and girls are equal until they reach their teenage years and puberty begins.
Plant-Based Foods That Are High in Iron
We all know that there are lots of good ways to get our daily serving or iron. There’s beef, clams, oysters, chicken, turkey and sardines. There’s just one problem, however. What do all of these foods have in common?
You guessed it. They’re all meats or animal-based.
So what does that mean? Does that mean individuals who choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle are doomed to lives of iron deficiencies?
Not at all. Getting your iron doesn’t have to mean compromising on your lifestyle or diet. There are plenty of good plant-based iron sources.
In no particular order, here is a list of some of the best iron-rich plant-based food options available to you. We hope that by reading this list, you’ll be more informed and more empowered to get the minerals you need — without breaking your diet.
Who doesn’t love chocolate? For everyone out there with an insatiable sweet tooth, we’ve got some good news for you. Ounce for ounce, dark chocolate contains more iron than beef does. While a 3 oz. piece of cooked beef contains 2.11 mg. of iron, a 3 oz. bar of dark chocolate contains 10.12 mg. That’s a staggering level of difference.
This is one you might not expect to be especially iron-rich. But it turns out that they are an excellent source of iron. Dried peaches are the best, with a ration of 6.5 mg of iron per cup of fruit. Dried prunes, apricots and raisins are all great choices as well. To get the maximum health benefits, grab the dried fruit that doesn’t have any added sugar — or make a project of it and choose to dehydrate your fruit.
Combine your sources of iron by dipping your dried fruit in melted chocolate and waiting for it to cool and harden. This makes a great grab-and-go snack that’s both delicious and nutritious.
Maybe this isn’t something you would just eat on its own, but it’s a great natural sweetener and an alternative to a lot of unhealthier options. It lets you sweeten your food or drinks while also giving yourself a hearty helping of iron. Like dark chocolate, it far outpaces beef regarding how much iron it will give you. Just two tsp. of blackstrap molasses holds 2.39 mg of iron.
Dark Leafy Greens
This is probably the one that most people have heard of before. Spinach is the real headline here, containing a tremendous 6.43 mg of iron in every cup when cooked. It still contains a lot of iron if it’s uncooked, but cooking any leafy green will greatly increase the iron benefit. By comparison, uncooked spinach only contains 0.81 mg of iron per cup.
Some other iron-rich leafy greens are Swiss chard, cooked beet greens, collard greens, and turnip and kale greens.
What’s that? You’ve never heard of Spirulina? Prepare to be amazed. Spirulina is one of nature’s greatest “superfoods.” It’s an algae that thrives in fresh-water lakes and is packed full vitamins A-E as well as calcium, iron and magnesium. A single tablespoon packs 2 mg of iron. One of the best ways to consume it is to just toss it into the blender with the rest of your smoothie ingredients.
Tofu is one of those versatile foods that you can include in your diet in so many ways. One of the best reasons to include it is that it contains an impressive amount of iron, and it does it without any added animal products. If you’re on a plant-based diet and are looking for ways to inject a little extra iron into your life, tofu is a solid bet.
When we think of grains, our first thought might be of carbohydrates, not iron. But whole grains are another great plant-based source of iron. They’re also an excellent way to add a little diversity to your diet since grains don’t always feel like a plant-based food. Try quinoa, oatmeal, rice, buckwheat, barley and millet. To use one example, quinoa contains 2.76 mg for in every cup.
Beans are great for a whole host of reasons. Being chock full of iron is just one of those reasons. They’re also an excellent source of protein. One of the major perks of beans is that there are so many different kinds. If you don’t like black beans, maybe kidney beans will be more your style. They’re also easy to throw into many dishes to add a little extra iron. Mix them with rice or quinoa, put them in a salad or even enjoy them plain.
Nuts are one of those sneaky foods that somehow manage to pop in almost every discussion of healthy foods. That’s because they’re packed with so many health benefits including a sizeable portion of iron. Cashews are at the front of the pack, with a whopping 8.22 mg of iron for every cup. Other iron-rich nuts include almonds, macadamias and pistachios.
For such a small food, you might not expect seeds to be full of iron. But it turns out that they are. Seeds like pumpkin, sesame and squash are a great source of iron. One tablespoon of sesame seeds alone can provide you with 1.31 mg of iron. That might seem like a small number, but it adds up quickly — one cup of sesame seeds will pack a staggering 20.95 mg. That’s a huge number when it comes to iron. Seeds are also easy to consume. Just sprinkle some into your next salad.
Again, what? Many people have probably never even heard of lentils, and even those that have may never have eaten one. But they’re a wonderful source of iron as well as protein, fiber and other nutrients. They can provide 6.6 mg of iron per cup, making up a fair percentage of your RDA. They’re particularly great because you can eat them in so many different ways. They can be mashed up and included in almost any dish.
Potatoes come up a lot in health-food discussions, and you’ll often hear them cited as one food to avoid because of their starchy nature. But in this case, the exact opposite is true. Potatoes are a great source iron. The catch is that much of this iron is found in the skin, meaning that you’ll miss out on this iron if you don’t consume the skin. Interestingly enough, even though sweet potatoes are often touted as the healthier alternative, they contain less iron.
Dried or Concentrated Tomatoes
Eaten raw, tomatoes will not provide a very significant iron boost at all. When the tomato is dried or concentrated, however, the iron content increases significantly. Tomato paste can contain 3.9 mg of iron per cup, and sun-dried tomatoes can offer up to 2.5 mg per cup. In contrast, a raw tomato only contains 0.5 mg per cup.
Not every type of mushroom has a high iron content, but enough of them do to make them noteworthy. White mushrooms can contain as much as 2.7 mg per cup. Oyster mushrooms are another great option that is a rich source of iron. Varieties like Shiitake and Portobello, on the other hand, are not iron-rich.
You may have heard people sing the virtues of prunes regarding the constipation relief it offers, but did you know that it’s also a great source of iron? Prune juice, specifically, has been known to contain 3 mg of iron per cup, which is over twice the amount that you would be likely to find in a prune itself. As a bonus, prune juice is also an excellent source of fiber, vitamin C and potassium.
Probably not the first thing you would think of when it comes to iron-rich foods, but they might surprise you. Olives contain a surprising amount of iron for being such a small fruit and are also good ways to get your daily helpings of fiber and vitamins A-E. One of the best things about them is that they’re a great snack that’s addicting and easy to just pop in your mouth with no extra preparation.
This is a great alternative for people who are looking to get away from animal milk. It isn’t the only alternative, with some of the others being almond, soy and rice. But coconut milk boasts the added benefit of being good sources of many vitamins and minerals including iron. In fact, it contains around 3.8 mg per cup.
Thyme is a great way to kill two birds with one stone by adding a little extra flavor to your food while also increasing your iron intake. Thyme has been linked to all kinds of health benefits and is one of the most nutritional herbs or spices. Its iron content is roughly 1.2 mg per teaspoon. It’s also easy to consume. Either add it to your dishes as an ingredient or sprinkle it on top as a finishing touch.
While it might seem like vegans and vegetarians are doomed to never truly get the amount of iron their bodies need to function correctly since they don’t have access to iron-rich meat products, it turns out that the exact opposite is true.
From this list, we can see that there is an enormous variety of plant-based sources of iron. Some of these items make great entrees, others are small ingredients that you can easily add to any dish, some are easily grabbable snacks and still others are flavorings that you can add to almost any dish or meal.
If you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, there’s no need to settle for any less than your recommended daily amount of iron.
Stop by Yalla Mediterranean
At Yalla Mediterranean, we understand how important your vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is, and we believe that you shouldn’t have to compromise on that to enjoy delicious food and to receive every health benefit you need.
That’s why we serve an exciting variety of authentic Mediterranean style dishes and we include some of the best plant based sources of iron that are suitable for almost any diet or lifestyle. And if you don’t feel like dining out at a busy restaurant, that’s all right. We offer takeout too.