20 Iron Rich Plant Foods

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iron rich plant foods

Many people are concerned about where they will get their iron when they switch from a meat-eating diet to a vegan diet. In fact, it is poorly understood that iron is incredibly common in the plant-food world. After reading this article, you will be surprised to discover that over 20 iron rich plant foods exist, among many others!

What is Iron and what role does it play in the human body?

Iron is a micro-mineral that is key to good health – it is an essential component of hemoglobin (involved in oxygen transport), it’s involved in immune system efficiency, plays a role in activating enzymatic reactions and is necessary for collagen synthesis. It is also needed for regulation of cell growth and is required for good cognition and behaviour.

What about heme and non-heme iron?

I find a lot of people get confused when it comes to heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is the iron found in animal products (meat, fish, and poultry) and is more readily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron, an iron form found in plant foods.

We must be aware that the human body has no mechanism to rid itself of excess iron, thus our bodies evolved to tightly regulate the absorption of iron (1) – when our iron stores are low, iron absorption is boosted in the intestines, and when our iron stores are high, iron absorption is blocked in the intestines. It is important to note that this mechanism ONLY works with NON-HEME iron! When we consume animal products and are receiving heme-iron as our main iron source, our bodies can no longer regulate this iron intake (2). Even if we consume too much heme-iron, our intestines cannot regulate the iron influx, and it passes right through the intestinal barrier, leading to a body that is technically considered “Iron Toxic.”

Iron toxicity leads to decreases in the absorption and utilization of vitamin E, diabetes, gut disturbances, hair loss, increased free radical production (Iron is a pro-oxidant (3), leading to oxidative stress and DNA damage, which can result in cancer, inflammation and worsened arthritis symptoms), liver disease and heart disease.

What is the recommended dose of iron?

Males should consume around 8-11mg of iron, and women 8-18mg of iron (depending on menstrual cycle, if cycling through menses, women should consume on the higher end of the spectrum), daily. Pregnant women should consume up to 30mg daily.

What plant-based foods are high in iron?

*Note: Listed describes how many milligrams of iron are in 100 grams of food

  1. Sea Vegetables (Kelp, Spirulina, Nori, etc.) =  100.0
  2. Hemp Seeds = 13.9
  3. Pumpkin/Squash seeds = 11.2
  4. Morel Mushrooms = 12.2
  5. Sunflower seeds = 7.1
  6. Chia Seeds =  6.4
  7. Parsley = 6.2
  8. Almonds = 4.7
  9. Dried Prunes = 3.9
  10. Cashews = 3.8
  11. Raisins = 3.5
  12. Jerusalem Artichokes = 3.4
  13. Dandelion greens = 3.1
  14. Dates = 3.0
  15. Lentils = 2.1
  16. Green peas = 1.8
  17. Brown rice = 1.6
  18. Cauliflower = 1.1
  19. Strawberries = 1.0
  20. Asparagus = 1.0

Below 1.0mg iron per 100g of food includes blackberries, red cabbage, pumpkin, button mushrooms, bananas, beets. carrots, eggplant, sweet potato, avocado, figs, potatoes, corn, pineapple, nectarine, watermelon, winter squash, tomato, orange, cherries, summer squash, papaya, celery, and apples (considering these foods should be eaten in large quantities when vegan, you get PLENTY of iron by eating plant-based foods – 100g of these food items is a very small amount, remember.)

What Foods Decrease Iron Absorption?

– Dairy (experienced this myself – I had chronic anemia when vegetarian, and it went away when I went vegan)
– Red Wine
– Isolated soy products (soy flour, isolated soy concentrate, etc.)
– Tea & Coffee

What Foods Increase Iron Absorption?

– Vitamin C – citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, grapefruit, lime), tomatoes, red peppers, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, papaya, strawberries, etc.
– Vitamin A – Sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, peas, beets, apricots, peaches & lemons

Should I supplement my diet with Iron?

I personally would not supplement with iron unless there is a confirmed diagnosis of anemia – in either case, diet is the main root of the problem, and if it is fixed, iron issues can also be fixed. A study found that supplementing your diet with iron (even if anemic), can lead to a significant increase in oxidative stress (4) – oxidative stress is not healthy for the body (as previously described it leads to DNA damage, which can result in cancer establishment). You can easily get iron from the plant foods you consume, and by combining these foods with other foods that increase absorption of iron (high vitamin C & A foods – see above), then you can properly establish an environment in your body that promotes healthy iron levels.

Sources:
(1) Steele, T., Frazer, D., & Anderson, G. (2005). Systemic regulation of intestinal iron absorption. IUBMB Life, 57, 499-503.
(2) West, A., & Oates, P. (2008). Mechanisms of heme iron absorption: Current questions and controversies. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 14, 4101-4110.
(3) Kabat, G. & Rohan, T. (2007). Does excess iron play a role in breast carcinogenesis? An unresolved hypothesis. Cancer Causes Control, 18, 1047-1053.
(4) Tiwari, A., Mahdi, A., Chandyan, S., Zahra, F., Godbole, M., Jaiswar, S., Srivastava, V., & Negi, M. (2011). Oral iron supplementation leads to oxidative imbalance in anemic women: A prospective study. Clinical Nutrition, 30, 188-193.

Help from nutritionfacts.org – go check out their website!

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Carly Fraser has her BSc (Hons.) Degree in Neuroscience, and is the owner and founder at Live Love Fruit. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a determined life mission to help inspire and motivate individuals to critically think about what they put in their bodies and to find balance through nutrition and lifestyle. She has helped hundreds of thousands of individuals to re-connect with their bodies and learn self-love through proper eating habits and natural living. She loves to do yoga, dance, and immerse herself in nature.

9 COMMENTS

  1. im a kidney patient not dialysis yet but is in waiting of time, maybe half or a year later (went for Op on hand for the preparation of dialysis). May i know to must Of Iron can cost body Itchy?

  2. Eileen,

    I think you are asking “will too much iron cause itching?”. The answer is: it could..because the symptoms of iron overload mimic those of anemia, and itching (especially on the legs) is definitely a symptom of anemia. As a kidney patient, it is likely that you are or will become anemic (meaning you have too few red blood cells in your blood) because your kidneys are what create a hormone called “erythropoietin” which is vital for your body to be able to make red blood cells. So what might happen is that you may have enough or even start to have too much iron stored in your body (the body stores iron mostly in the liver but in a few other organs as well) but your body will be unable to process it into red blood cells because your kidneys can no longer produce erythropoietin. Therefore, you will start to have not only iron overload, but also anemia. I know it sounds counter intuitive that we can have both at the same time, but once the erythropoietin thing is understood, then it starts to make sense. At any rate, never fear. Doctors know this and should be keeping an eye on your ferritin levels (the number that tells the doctor how much iron you have in storage) and your hematocrit (how many red blood cells you have as a percentage of your blood) and your hemoglobin, which is the red blood cell protein-iron compound that is responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to the cells, and carbon dioxide from the cells to the lungs. If you think they are not monitoring you for those things at this time, ask them to make sure they are. If they have overlooked it, I’m sure they will want to start monitoring right away. When they start to see the changes that indicate your body is no longer able to make erythropoietin, they will start to give erythropoietin to you as part of your kidney treatment so your body will be able to continue to make red blood cells. They will continue to monitor your ferritin, hemoglobin, and hematocrit closely throughout your treatment.

    Just as an aside, my mom has about 50% of her kidney function left, and has problems with itching as well. Her doctors don’t know why, even sent her to a dermatologist but I am guessing that it has something to do with the kidney disease, maybe toxins that her kidneys are slow to clear out. She can’t eat one of her favorite foods anymore, which is ham because it gives her hives.

    This is all just my opinion though, and I’m not a doctor, so definitely discuss all of these concerns with your doctor. Hope this helps open the lines of communication for you with your doctors. :)

    • That is a very in-depth response. Thank you for the wealth of information, I never knew about too much iron and itching. I wasn’t quite sure of the question being asked in the first place, however thank you for figuring it out and responding :)

      • Agreed! Ferritin levels should be checked, maybe annually. 1:200 Americans have Hereditary Hemochromatosis. This iron metabolism disorder has symptoms much like anemics, and you can be anemic AND still have hemochromatosis. The ratio is higher for those with Irish, Scottish & Northern European ancestry. Hemochromatosis (the most common, yet, UNDERdiagnosed genetic condition) is iron overload. As Eileen said, it ‘stores’ first in the liver, then other organs ie.. pancreas (causing diabetes), heart (related arrhythmias & heart problems), thyroid issues, arthritis…. A few good things about hemochromatosis treatment is it requires no pills! Just frequent blood ‘donations'(maybe weekly, at first) which a GI doctor or hemotologist can order & monitor these phlebotomies until all stored iron is removed. You WILL FEEL BETTER but it could take a while to feel the full effect. I have felt WONDERFUL for the past 3-4 weeks for the first time in 3 years. I am finally de-ironed!!! Now, I only have to have a phlebotomy twice p/yr to keep my ferritin low normal;)

  3. Arbitrarily adding iron supplements and eating high iron foods (liver & other organ meats… red meat, fortified foods like cereals breads) could cause ferritin levels to rise to dangerous levels! High ferrritn & transferritin saturation can lead to many health issues and without proper treatment (phlebotomies for those with hemochromatosis, diagnosed or undiagnosed, can lead to extreme fatigue, arthritis, diabetes, hair thinning, decreased libido, thyroid issues, cirrhosis, liver cancer). PLEASE, for the sake of your health, improved health & that of your children & grandchildren…. Google the symptoms of hemochromatosis;) Lab work showing your ‘iron’ level won’t suffice.. ask for a ferritin level.

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