Top Foods High in Iron for Vegans

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 22, 2022
3 min read

Iron is a mineral essential for proper growth and development. Your body uses it to make hemoglobin and certain hormones. Two types of iron are found in food: heme (animal-derived) and non-heme (plant-derived). 

Although it can be taken as a supplement, enough iron is available in our dietary sources. Vegans can find non-heme iron in dried beans and legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, and wholegrain cereals and breads.

Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to all parts of the body. Myoglobin, another protein made by iron, brings oxygen to your muscles. 

Your body needs iron to function properly. Too little will lead to an iron deficiency. Too much can cause iron poisoning. The average amount of iron a vegan needs is 32 milligrams per day for women and 14 milligrams per day for men. Vegans need up to 1.8 times more iron than people who eat meat. 

Iron plays an important part in proper bodily functions, including: 

Blood Production Health

Iron is found in red blood cells called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in your blood from your lungs to your tissues. This improves your heart health, respiratory functions, and immune function. 

Physical Health

Your skin, hair, and nails appear stronger and healthier due to the synthesis of collagen, a protein needed for joint and skin health. Collagen is made by iron, a component of the enzymes essential for proper production. Iron is found in muscle cells. Called myoglobin, it helps muscles accept, store, and transport oxygen. 

Mental Health

Iron makes up certain proteins essential for energy metabolism. The right amount of iron improves general energy and increases focus. Low levels of iron can lead to an iron deficiency called anemia. The symptoms of anemia include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale or yellowish skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Chest pain
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Headaches

There is a misconception that a vegan diet is missing iron, however vegans are no more likely to develop iron deficiency anemia than the general population. Vegans typically consume an adequate amount of iron because their diet is high in vitamin C, which improves absorption of nonheme iron.

These 6 foods are great sources of vegan-friendly iron: 

1. Blackstrap molasses

Blackstrap molasses is the best source of nonheme iron. Only 2 tablespoon contains 7.2 milligrams of iron. Molasses contains higher amounts of sugar, so intake should be limited. 

2. Lentils

Lentils come in three varieties: brown, green, and red. Lentils are not only full of iron, but also high in potassium, fiber, and folate, a B vitamin. One cup contains 6.6 milligrams of iron.

3. Tofu/Tempeh

Tofu and tempeh soy-based products are an integral part of a vegan diet. Tofu has a higher iron content of 6.6 milligrams per half-cup. One cup of tempeh has 4.5 milligrams of iron. 

4. Spinach

One cup of cooked spinach contains 6.4 milligrams of iron. Adding spinach to meals, whether it’s sauteed in a dish, added to smoothies, or eaten raw, is an easy way of including more iron in your diet. 

5. Beans

Beans are a great source of iron. Kidney beans (5.2 milligram / cup), soybeans (4.5 milligrams / cup), and lima beans (4.5 milligrams / cup) have the highest iron content.  

6. Swiss chard

Swiss chard is a green leafy vegetable rich in vitamins and minerals. This multi-beneficial vegetable can be steamed, sauteed, or eaten raw. But it’s less bitter when cooked. One cup of cooked swiss chard contains 4 milligrams of iron.