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Plant-Based Iron Sources

As a central component of red blood cells (which store and carry oxygen through our bodies), iron is an essential nutrient in everyone's diet. But people eating plant-based diets exclude well-known iron sources like meat and seafood from their diet, so where can they get their plant-based iron from?

In Europe, around 1 in 4 people suffer from anaemia–leading to headaches, shortness of breath and tiredness. The most common cause of anaemia is insufficient dietary intake of iron, but not all forms of iron in our diet are equal.1

Animal and Plant Based Iron Sources

Although meat and fish are well-known for being rich in iron, this essential mineral is present in many vegetables, too. So it's absolutely possible to meet your iron needs with a plant-based diet.  

Heme Iron vs Non-Heme Iron

The iron in our diets can come in two forms: heme iron and non-heme iron. Non-heme iron refers to free iron atoms, whereas in heme iron atoms are embedded in a protein structure. Heme iron is the form of iron present in muscle tissue and blood and so is found in meat and fish, but not in plants (which contain only non-heme iron). 

The crucial difference between these two forms is that heme iron is absorbed and put to use 3-4 times more efficiently by our bodies than non-heme iron. That means that while plant-based diets may contain more iron than diets that include meat, vegetarians and vegans may well end up absorbing less iron than their meat-eating counterparts. 

How Much Iron Do You Need?

How much iron an individual needs depends on their age, gender and health status. For example, the German Society of Nutrition recommends 0.5-8mg/day for babies (depending on age), 15mg/day for women and 10-12mg/day for men.3

Certain groups (e.g. babies, infants and pregnant women) are at greater risk of developing iron-deficiency anaemia, so we should pay particular attention to their iron and vitamin C intake (and consider taking iron supplements) if following a plant-based diet to ensure requirements are met.

Iron in Plant-Based Diets

Due to the lower availability of non-heme iron compared with heme iron, experts recommend that vegetarians and vegans should aim to eat almost twice as much iron as the general population.4 But despite a general belief that it’s difficult to get enough iron in a plant-based diet, studies have shown that in general, iron-deficiency anaemia is no more common among people eating a plant-based diet than in the general population (though they do seem to have lower iron stores than omnivores).5

This may be in part due to the naturally higher iron content of plant-based diets, which seems to outweigh the difference in how well these two forms of iron are absorbed by the body. Vitamin C could also play a role: plant-based diets generally also include a high vitamin C intake, which is common in fruit and veg and promotes better absorption of non-heme iron.

Getting Enough Plant-Based Iron?6

Meeting these increased iron requirements is easier than you might think. The first step is to ensure you’re eating enough iron: luckily, there are plenty of options to fill your plate and boost your iron supplies with plant-based foods. Nuts and seeds, beans, legumes and even herbs and spices provide ample amounts of this crucial nutrient. 

Tip: Spices and herbs like thyme, cardamom and curry powder are loaded with iron, so spice up your dishes for an extra iron boost in your meals!

Eating more iron isn’t the only way to meet these targets, though. You can also try boosting your iron intake by pairing foods with your meals that promote iron absorption and avoiding others that inhibit it. For example, have a glass of orange juice with your meal, and the vitamin C will dramatically boost the amount of iron you can absorb!  But avoid having milk or caffeinated drinks with your meal, as they can inhibit the absorption!

Use these four hacks to make sure you’re getting the most iron from your food

FoodIron Content
Pumpkin seeds10mg/100g
Cashew nuts6,2mg/100g
Dried apricots4,1mg/100g
Oats3,64 mg/100g
Baby spinach (boiled)2,63mg/100g
Kidney beans2,26mg/100g
Cooked kale1,11mg/100g
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