Are you getting enough iron? According to the World Health Organization, 80% of people around the world today are deficient. Yes, eighty percent! Iron is so important for our bodies to properly function that we need to make sure we’re getting enough. When it comes to iron rich foods, meat sources get most of the attention. But there’s no reason why vegetarians should be deficient. In this article we’ll be going over the importance of iron, the best vegetables high in iron as well as some delicious iron rich fruits.
What Iron Does in The Body
Iron is extremely important for the body to function properly. The mineral is a core component of hemoglobin, a protein that’s responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the bloodstream, as well as giving blood its red color.
When we consume iron, it first gets absorbed into what are called mucosal cells of the small intestine. A smaller portion is then bound to a protein called ferritin which is concentrated most heavily in the liver, bone marrow, heart and pancreas.
Ferritin is able to detect the levels of iron floating through the bloodstream, either holding onto its iron reserves or releasing them as necessary. That means that a person consuming adequate amounts of iron through their diet should also have some leftover reserves of the mineral being kept safe for when stock is low in the blood. On the other hand, consuming too much iron through supplements, for example, can potentially damage the organs where ferritin is most concentrated. (1)
While it’s possible to store extra iron for later use, red blood cells have limited lifespans (roughly 120 days), so we need to be intaking iron relatively consistently. Furthermore, certain events, such as menstruation or pregnancy for women, require higher amounts of iron in the body than normal. Both women and men can up their bodies’ demand for iron with lots of physical activity, while children may need more of it during growth spurts.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
Some of the main symptoms of iron deficiency are as follows:
- Fatigue – can be physical as well as mental in the form of brain fog
- Dizziness – sudden spells of dizziness for no apparent reason may be a sign of iron deficiency
- Restless Leg Syndrome – a disorder that gives people sudden urges to move their legs, which can disrupt sleep
- Brittle nails – brittle nails can be caused by a number of things, a lack of iron among them
- Hair loss – Iron deficiency can cause hair loss due to a lack of oxygen getting to the hair follicles
- Paleness of the face – this is due to low amounts of hemoglobin in the body (2)
What is the Recommended Daily Allowance?
In general, women require more iron than men. The blood loss that results from menstruation is a major cause of iron deficiency in women. And, as mentioned above, pregnancy can also result in the depletion of iron stores from the body.
Before the age of 50, women should be getting around 18 mg of iron per day. During pregnancy, a woman should increase her intake to as much as 27 mg per day. Men, on the other hand, only require around 8 mg of iron per day. (3)
What is Anemia?
When iron deficiency becomes serious, it can turn into a condition called anemia. The symptoms of anemia are more or less the same as the iron deficiency symptoms listed above. But as anemia occurs after the body’s been deprived of enough iron for long periods of time, the symptoms will be even more pronounced.
Keep in mind that anemia can also be caused by a major lack of vitamin B12. And there are also other types of anemia with other causes, such as sickle cell anemia, which is a genetic disease.
Therefore, if you’re experiencing the common symptoms of anemia, it may or may not be related to a nutrient deficiency. It’s important to consult with a professional in these cases to get the right diagnosis. (4)
As we’ll go over further down below, iron supplements come with a number of potential side effects. That’s why you generally want to avoid them unless you’re suffering from a serious deficiency. Otherwise, getting adequate iron through the foods you eat shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, regardless of whether you’re a carnivore or vegan. (5)
The Best Iron Rich Foods
When it comes to natural sources of iron, most people think of meats. And for good reason – there are plenty of excellent animal sources of the mineral, which we’ll also cover below. But plant-based sources of iron do not get enough attention, which is why we’ll be putting a special focus on them here.
A Note on Plant-Based Iron and Absorption
The iron in plant-based sources is referred to as non heme iron. The type of iron called heme iron can only be found in animal sources. Meat, though, actually contains both non heme and heme iron. As non heme iron is not as easily absorbed by the body, do vegetarians face a higher risk of iron deficiency? (6)
Generally speaking, no. A big reason for this is vitamin C, which greatly boosts iron absorption, possibly by up to five times! If you’re already eating a mostly plant-based diet, there’s no doubt that you’re also getting loads of vitamin C through the fruits and vegetables you eat. (7)
Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, iron absorption is said to be hindered by drinking coffee or tea right after a meal. This might be hard to give up for many, as these beverages aid digestion and also provide a nice little post-meal energy boost. If you’re not willing to give up your coffee, you’ll just have to eat even more iron rich foods.
Vegetables High in Iron
Spirulina – Just an ounce of spirulina contains a whopping 8 mg of iron! But what exactly is it? Spirulina is a type of algae and it’s also a bonafide superfood. It’s full of many other nutrients and is also a powerful antioxidant. It’s commonly available in powdered or tablet form.
Lentils – Lentils contain about 3.3 mg of iron per half cup. They’re also excellent vegan sources of protein. (9)
Asparagus – One cup of asparagus contains around 3 mg of iron. And at only 27 calories per cup, asparagus is a good option for those trying to consume enough iron while also on a calorie restrictive diet. (10)
Leeks – Leeks contain around 2 mg of iron per cup. (11)
Black beans – At just under 2 milligrams per half a cup, black beans are a pretty good source of iron. But there are many more reasons to be eating them. They’re great sources of potassium, magnesium and protein.
Broccoli – A cup of cooked broccoli contains around one mg of iron. While it’s not going to fulfill your RDA, broccoli is a great source of vitamin C, which of course boosts iron absorption.
Green beans – Green beans contain around 1 mg of iron per cup.
Spinach – While spinach is often touted as a great source of iron, its absorption rate is less than ideal. Even when compared with other plant sources. It contains something called oxalates which are believed to block iron absorption, as well as calcium absorption. Spinach is still very good for you overall though!
Iron Rich Fruits
Watermelon – You can get around 1.5 milligrams of iron by eating around one eighth of a watermelon. That’s not bad, and the high vitamin C content will ensure that it’s absorbed properly.
Dates – These sweet, tasty treats contain 1.5 mg of iron per cup
Raspberries – Raspberries contain about 1 mg of iron per cup (8)
Dried fruits – Many lists tout numerous dried fruits, such as raisins and dried apricots, as being good sources of iron. Raisins, for example, contain just under 2 mg of iron per 100 grams, while dried apricots have 2.7! (8)
However, by eating dried fruits, you are simply consuming more calories than you are by eating the same amount of fruits in their normal state. It’s not as if a piece of fruit magically increases its iron content once it becomes dried! So while dried fruits are indeed good iron sources, their inclusion on some lists can be somewhat misleading.
Other Vegan Sources of Iron
Pumpkin Seeds – Pumpkin seeds are truly underrated nutritional powerhouses. Not only are they excellent sources of zinc and magnesium, but it turns out that they’re also full of iron as well. Just an ounce (around 28 gram) of pumpkin seeds contain over 4 mg of iron. (12)
Dark Chocolate – Dark chocolate contains around 3.3 mg of iron per ounce. And as you can learn more about here, the tasty treat comes chock full of other health benefits as well. It can even boost your memory! (12)
Animal Products Which are High in Iron
Oysters – Oysters are highly nutritious. As we previously went over in this article, oysters are the best natural source of zinc there is. They’re even high in vitamin C! And it turns out that oysters and shellfish in general (including clams and mussels) are some of the best natural sources of iron as well.
A single serving of shellfish is generally considered to be 3 ounces (85g) and that can contain up to 7.8 mg of iron! For men, that’s pretty much the entire RDA in one go, while women will still need a bit more. Also keep in mind, though, that the iron content of oysters may vary greatly depending on the catch. (14)
(If you’re looking to cut meat out of your diet but still want some of the nutritional benefits of animal products, consider trying the Pescatarian Diet. This way of living is still mostly plant-based, but it also allows for including things like oysters, salmon and eggs into your diet as you please.)
Sardines – 1/4th cup of sardines contains around 1.8 mg of iron. Sardines, like oysters, are also compatible with the Pescatarian Diet.
Liver – A single serving of beef liver (around three ounces) contains about 4 mg of iron – roughly half the RDA for men. Liver is also high in folate, another important nutrient that many people suffering from anemia tend to lack. (9)
What About Fortified Foods?
Since iron deficiency is so rampant these days, more and more packaged foods nowadays are being fortified with iron. When a food has been fortified, it basically means that it’s been artificially enriched with nutrients that weren’t already there.
The most common iron-fortified foods nowadays are breakfast cereals. But don’t go rushing to the cereal aisle just yet. There are many reasons why you should be avoiding it altogether. Cereals tend to come with loads of added sugar and possibly other strange chemicals. And the processing which takes place strips away most of the original grain’s nutritional content.
And almost everyone who eats cereal has it with either cow’s milk or soy milk – both of which you probably want to avoid. You can read more about the effects of dairy here, while so much soy nowadays is GMO, and it may also be estrogen-inducing. Furthermore, there are plenty of good reasons why you might want to consider skipping breakfast entirely!
So while eating fortified cereal might be better than developing full-blown anemia, you always want to stick with natural, single ingredient foods like the ones mentioned in this article.
Iron Supplementation and Potential Side Effects
Normally, supplementation is a perfectly safe alternative for when you can’t get enough of certain minerals or vitamins through your diet. Iron, however, is a little different.
As mentioned above, excess iron gets stored by certain organs, waiting to get released when the amount of iron in the bloodstream gets low. However, excess iron via supplementation can cause a number of side effects and even damage to the organs which normally hold onto it. Getting a high amount of iron purely through food, on the other hand, is unlikely to cause any adverse effects.
Some common side effects of too much iron include:
- Stomach Pain
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Poisoning – yes, too much iron (over around 40mg in a day) can even be toxic! (15)
With all that in consideration, we’re not going to recommend taking iron supplements unless you’ve been advised to do so by a professional. The people which most likely require supplements are those who are already anemic or women who are currently pregnant. Otherwise, people who are simply a little iron deficient will probably be best off by adjusting their diets to include more iron rich foods.
Hopefully, the world’s most common nutritional deficiency is less of a mystery to you now. Whether you’re vegan or omnivore, there’s no reason why you need to be iron deficient. All it takes is a few minor adjustments to your diet and you should be all set. However, if you’re suffering from anemia-related symptoms or are currently pregnant, do yourself a favor and consult with a professional.