18 Best Vegan Foods for Improving Iron Intake

18 Best Vegan Foods for Improving Iron Intake

Vegan diets might be rich in most macronutrients, but they can occasionally lack specific micronutrients often found in meat, fish, and animal byproducts. One of these essential micronutrients is iron. But avoiding dietary anemia could be as simple as adding vegan foods for improved iron intake to your shopping list.

The best vegan foods for improving iron intake are those that contain non-heme iron, vitamin C, vitamin A, and beta-carotene. It’s also vital for dieters to avoid calcium-rich foods and foods with a substantial amount of polyphenols while eating iron-rich meals. 

In this article, we’ll discuss how to improve your iron intake and address what foods you may want to avoid when attempting to increase your iron levels. Lastly, we’ll reveal some of the best vegan foods for improving iron intake. With this information, you can potentially avoid short-term anemia and keep your body in tip-top shape.

How Do You Improve Iron Intake?

Finding the best vegan foods for improving iron intake begins with understanding how the body absorbs iron. Our digestive systems are responsible for a good amount of food composition and eventual nutrient absorption. 

This is the case when it comes to iron, which is primarily absorbed along the lining of the duodenum, just below the stomach. The absorption process can be helped along by adding a little vitamin C or vitamin A to the mix, in addition to beta-carotene, a chemical pigment found in orange and red fruits and vegetables.

In general, vegans hoping to improve their iron intake will need to consume:

  • Non-Heme Iron
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin A
  • Beta-Carotene

Let’s take a closer look at the above iron-friendly substances to discover how they impact iron absorption and why they’re necessary components of a healthy, iron-rich vegan diet.

Non-Heme Iron

Naturally, one of the best ways to increase iron intake is to consume more of it. The iron that dieters consume via meat or fish is called heme iron. It is a type of iron that comes directly from blood-filled meat. Non-heme iron, on the other hand, is a type of iron found mainly in plants. 

As such, non-heme iron is a vegan-friendly alternative to animal-based iron sources. Some of the best sources of non-heme iron include beans, spinach, and dark chocolate. Still, iron could absorb more effectively when paired with vitamin C.

Vitamin C

Citrus fruits are a well-known source of vitamin C, but there are plenty of vegetables that can also provide a punch of this immune-boosting stuff. While vitamin C has been popularized as preventative to the common cold and other respiratory illnesses, its impact on nutrient absorption makes it just as vital to continued good health.

Vitamin C acts like a pre-addressed shipping container. When you consume ascorbic acid in tandem with a non-heme iron source, it catches the iron and delivers it to the absorbent mucosal membranes more quickly and effectively. This is done, in part, by making the impacted iron more soluble.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A deficiency is one of the most common forms of vitamin deficiency. It also happens to be a nutrient that may contribute to iron absorption. Some of the most worthwhile sources of vitamin A include sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach. Interestingly, beta-carotene (one of the primary components of carrots) may also help improve iron intake.

Beta-Carotene

The key to absorbing more iron from your meals may lie with beta-carotene consumption. Studies have shown that concurrent ingestion of non-heme iron and beta-carotene has resulted in a significant increase in the body’s ability to absorb iron. 

As such, adding a few beta-carotene-rich foods (such as carrots, peppers, or squash) may be the best way to get the most iron from your meals.

What to Avoid

In addition to knowing what foods to eat for optimal iron absorption, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with a couple of things to avoid when looking to increase your iron intake. Otherwise, you may be jeopardizing part of your pro-iron progress without even realizing it.

The two primary things you’ll want to avoid (within reason) are:

  • Calcium-Rich Foods, and
  • Polyphenols

Foods that contain more than a reasonable amount of calcium may inhibit the body’s ability to absorb iron. Additionally, foods with polyphenols can negatively interact with iron intake, potentially leading to intermittent anemia. But why do these two types of food inhibit iron intake? Let’s find out!

Calcium-Rich Foods

Consuming calcium-rich foods with iron-rich ones could be a bad idea. That’s because calcium seems to inhibit iron absorption in the short-term. So while it’s safe to start your morning with a cool glass of plant-based milk, you may want to choose a different beverage if you’re snacking on beans, fruit, or leafy greens.

Polyphenols

Polyphenols are positive chemicals when considered in the grand scheme of things. They’re full of rare micronutrients and antioxidants, helping to fill in any gaps within your diet while also boosting your immune system’s health. However, these chemicals can make it nearly impossible for your body to absorb iron.

There are lots of foods that contain polyphenols. Tea, apples, chocolate, soy, and beans are all common and relatively common sources of polyphenols. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to avoid polyphenols outright. 

The best thing to do is add vitamin C to your diet to counteract any polyphenols you may consume, and try to incorporate at least a 2-hour window between consuming iron-rich foods and foods rich in polyphenols. This brings us to our first vegan food for improved iron intake.

Oranges

The orange is perhaps the most popular citrus fruit in Western cultures, second only to lemons or limes. Its unique coloration and slightly sweet taste make it an easy option for those looking to enjoy a healthy snack. Orange peels act like biodegradable wraps, so choosing to enjoy an orange can be an eco-friendly choice as well.

But oranges may also help you increase your iron intake. Because they’re so tasty, affordable, and accessible, we’ve decided that they’ve earned their spot at the top of this list. Many times, dieters must travel out of their comfort zone to get a wide range of nutrients.

This isn’t the case when it comes to oranges. They can be found in nearly every grocery store, they come in several varieties, and you can choose to devour them in hundreds of different ways. However, the next vegan food for better iron intake is kale-ing it in terms of nutrients.

Kale

Kale truly kicks butt when it comes to nutritional content and iron absorption. One cup of uncooked kale provides more than 200% of your recommended intake of vitamin A. It’s also an excellent source of vitamin C. To make matters even better, kale contains non-heme iron.

However, what may be the metaphorical cherry on top might be the beta-carotene content of kale. In terms of increased iron intake and absorption, there’s almost no better vegan food. is a heart-healthy option that can be enjoyed in a wide variety of recipes, including smoothies.

Papaya

Papaya is a tropical fruit with pale green skin and rich, orange flesh. It’s an excellent source of both vitamin C and vitamin A, which is why it makes an excellent vegan snack for better iron absorption. Their reddish coloration comes from the presence of beta-carotene, which also helps make it an iron-friendly fruit.

This fruit is also full of antioxidants, which may help you avoid developing some types of cancer. So if you’re hoping to increase your iron intake without causing accidental oxidative stress, papaya could be a great choice.

Papaya tends to taste sweet and have a creamy texture. It is safe to consume raw, except when unripe. Papaya fruit that is still ripening must be cooked before being consumed. That’s because unripe papaya is full of latex, a substance that can cause allergic reactions in some consumers.

Figs

Figs are one of the most fascinating fruits in the world. They also happen to enjoy a long history of human cultivation and enjoyment. For these fruits to form, they must trap a fig wasp and slowly enfold it. As the fig fruit forms, the wasp at the center is slowly digested. Without this uncommon kind of pollination, figs would cease to exist – without a little human biological intervention and trickery, that is.

These dark, droplet-shaped fruits feature bright, reddish fruit and a thick covering of whitish flesh. They tend to be sweet, juicy, and full of fiber. Their positive cardiovascular benefits make them a wise choice for anyone hoping to enjoy improved blood flow and heart health.

Most importantly, a single raw fig could provide about 3% of your recommended copper intake. Copper is a notoriously difficult to consume micronutrient that is similar to iron. It’s often found in minute quantities or rare ingredients, but figs contain a surprising amount. You could incorporate a few figs into your daily meal plan to take advantage of this copper source.

Soybeans

Omnivores and carnivores may get most of their iron from meat, fish, and animal products, but vegans must find an alternate route that’s equally rich in protein. Fortunately, soybeans and tofu are both exceptional options. Edamame, soy milk, and tofu products are protein-rich, full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and remarkable sources of iron.

Because soy products come in so many different types, consistencies, and flavors, it should be easy to incorporate soy into your diet. If you’re not a fan of processed soy products, you can opt to snack on organic edamame, which is essentially young, whole raw soybeans. 

Still, you can also choose to cook these soybeans, enjoy slices of cooked or uncooked tofu, and generally experiment with soybean products. You never know what you might discover about the wide world of soy and your palate. If you’ve never tried quinoa, you may also want to add it to your next grocery list.

Quinoa

Quinoa is a type of seed that is consumed like rice or grain. It is often cooked (in oils or fats) with spices and added to protein-rich entrees. When it comes to increasing and improving your iron intake, quinoa certainly helps. 

One cup contains at least 10% of your daily recommended iron, copper, and zinc intake. You may also enjoy a smattering of B vitamins with every bite of these grain-like seeds. Quinoa can be purchased raw or pre-cooked. It can be enjoyed as part of a healthy breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Because this food is compatible with many different recipes, is full of iron, and is incredibly nutritious, it deserves a spot in your pantry. Of course, if you’re simply not interested in trying quinoa, you could always go with the old-timey favorite: Oatmeal. 

If you’re purchasing high-quality steel-cut or hand-rolled varieties of oatmeal, you’re bound to enjoy some tasty vitamins, minerals, and iron. You might even throw in some chopped figs for an extra kick of iron intake and absorption.

Oatmeal

Though oatmeal often gets a bad rap as being an uninspired breakfast choice, it happens to be one of the healthiest and most satisfying options. Just half a cup of whole, freshly cooked oatmeal can provide about 20% of your daily recommended intake of iron and zinc.

If you’re looking to get some B vitamins, you might also want to switch to oatmeal. A cup could help you get some B1, B6, B5, and B3 into your system, and at 13 grams of protein per half-cup, vegans can ease the protein load from later meals, which may be a relief for some.

Oatmeal can be cooked into a warm soupy cereal or gooey paste. You can add cinnamon, butter, sugar, jam, and many other condiments, spices, and toppings to your oatmeal. However, freshly cut fruit and berries tend to be the most popular option. Oatmeal can also be wet, shaped, and baked.

If you’re keen to try your hand at baking oatmeal-based dishes, you may want to stock up on date sugar, cinnamon, vegan marshmallows, and dark baking chocolate. Naturally, nuts and legumes also make excellent additions to homemade oatmeal bars and snacks. The next ingredient might not taste as great when added to oatmeal and baked.

Broccoli

This tree-like green might not be super-rich in iron (one cup contains about half a gram), but it could be a vegetable that helps with iron uptake. That’s because broccoli contains vitamin A and vitamin C, two of the most effective nutrients that contribute to iron absorption. Broccoli is also a wonderful source of vitamin K.

Broccoli can be added to soups or stews, it can be steamed, or it can be consumed raw. It’s an adaptable veggie that works well in sauces, side dishes, and entrees. Broccoli is also a decent source of protein and fiber, so you may want to begin to get creative with your broccoli usage.

When consuming your cruciferous veggies (broccoli, bok choy, and cabbage, it is important to chew thoroughly. The powerful benefits of sulforaphane, the sulfur-rich compound found in cruciferous vegetables, is only released when the plant is damaged. So, chew cruciferous, chew!

Black Beans

While black beans might appear to be the fruits of black bean plants, they’re seeds. One cup of black beans contains just about 10 grams of iron, which is just about half the recommended daily dose. They work well in many Spanish, Latin American, and South American dishes.

Black beans are also a great source of protein. Because they’re cooked in water before being eaten, they can be a great source of water. This helps make black beans a heart-healthy choice. This seed works well with spices and can be customized to meet the taste preferences of almost any individual.

However, black beans do contain calcium. If you enjoy your calcium-rich foods in the morning and your iron-rich snacks in the evening, you could add black beans to your lunch plan as a thoughtful transitionary ingredient.

Raspberries

If you’re looking for a change from the standard vitamin c-rich citrus fruits, you might want to try raspberries. One cup contains more than half of your daily recommended dose of vitamin C. Somewhat surprisingly, raspberries are also a great source of copper and iron. 

If you enjoy raspberries and dark chocolate, you’re in for some great news. These two foods work in tandem and can be heart-healthy and full of iron. The next time you’re considering what type of dessert to treat yourself to, you may want to opt for the vegan dark chocolate candy bar with organic raspberry filling. 

Or that dark chocolate vegan cake topped with fresh raspberry slices. Fresh raspberries also contain a reasonable amount of water, potentially helping you to maintain healthy blood pressure. Besides, raspberries also contain vitamin A and zinc, two elements known to assist with proper iron absorption.

Hemp Seeds

Unlike the flowering buds of the cannabis plant, hemp seeds contain zero THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient of marijuana. Instead, hemp seeds are full of heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and vitamins. 

Their diverse set of nutrients may help improve your iron absorption while also ensuring you enjoy plenty of life-sustaining micronutrients. Besides, three tablespoons of hemp seeds provide a little over two grams of iron. Scooping a few spoonfuls of hemp seeds into your morning smoothie could help you maintain healthy iron levels.

Lentils

Lentils are somewhat controversial due to their antinutrient content. However, a substantial percentage of those antinutrients are reduced by cooking the lentils before consuming them, and one cup of cooked lentils provides nearly 40% of your recommended intake of iron.

These seeds can be added to stews or soups, or they can be cooked as a side dish. Some may not enjoy the earthy taste of this bean-like legume seed, but adding spices (such as freshly cracked black pepper, turmeric, or chopped garlic) could help enhance both the flavor and the nutritional benefits of the lentils.

Lentils are also a source of copper, zinc, and potassium. If you feel like enjoying a trifecta of powerhouse vegan ingredients, you may even want to consider combining hemp seeds, lentils, and the following iron-friendly food. 

Chia Seeds

One ounce of chia seeds provides just over two grams of iron. That’s quite a lot of iron, especially when you realize how few seeds one ounce truly amounts to. Still, many in the weight-loss community are already terribly familiar with chia seeds. They’re considered one of the purest and healthiest sources of energy and nutrition.

These seeds are full of dietary fiber and can be beneficial for your cardiovascular system and your brain. They’re often added to water, oatmeal, or smoothies. As such, incorporating chia seeds into your diet may help you stay hydrated throughout the day. 

The mucosal membranes responsible for absorbing iron must have access to plenty of water, so consuming water-rich foods (or foods often consumed with water) is crucial to improving your iron intake. Besides, chia seeds are a fantastic source of micronutrients, including B vitamins.

Avocados

These green fruits have become wildly popular over the last decade or so, partially due to their high nutrient content. Their creamy texture and omega-3 fatty acids also add to their general mystique. Overall, avocado has become the newest threat to butter, especially when considering what to spread on your morning toast.

But this buttery, earthy fruit could also be a great dietary option for vegan hoping to improve their iron intake and absorption. One cup of chopped avocado contains about one gram of iron and a substantial amount of vitamin C. In this way, it’s almost as if avocados were designed to increase their consumer’s iron intake.

These fruits work well in a variety of dishes and may work as a fat substitute for several of your favorite snacks. Avocados are a tasty source of potassium, several B vitamins, and skin-friendly vitamin E.

Cabbage

If you enjoy taco night, you may already be a huge fan of cabbage. It is a crisp alternative to other types of leafy greens, and it is surprisingly chock-full of essential vitamins and minerals. Half a cup of cooked cabbage provides plenty of vitamin C and vitamin A for iron absorption.

Cabbage may also help fight cardiovascular inflammation. This is a condition in which the veins, arteries, and blood vessels of the body constrict, hindering the passage of blood. When the inflammation subsides, the heart can pump blood more effectively. 

While this interaction may not directly help with iron intake, it can indirectly improve the body’s iron levels. After all, when blood can travel around the body more quickly and in higher volumes, it’s able to carry a greater number of nutrients via the circulatory system.

In this way, eating cabbage just might improve your iron intake. Of course, cashews are also a viable option.

Cashews

Unlike tree nuts or earthy legumes, cashews are strangely delicious seeds that grow from the cashew tree. While these seeds (often called nuts) might not be rich in vitamin A, vitamin C, or beta-carotene, they could still make an excellent snack for vegan dieters hoping to up their iron intake.

That’s because cashews are a fair source of non-heme iron. An ounce of cashews provides about 11% of your daily recommended intake of iron. Cashews also contain copper, magnesium, zinc, and manganese. They’re rich in vital micronutrients, and while cashews are relatively high in fats, these are unsaturated fats that may improve cardiovascular health.

Button Mushrooms

Button mushrooms (also called white mushrooms) are a relatively common type of fungus available in grocery stores near the fresh produce section. They tend to be white, though they may have grey or black gills. They are shaped like doorknobs or overly large buttons, hence their name.

These mushrooms are a great source of vitamin B12, something that is often lacking in the vegan diet. However, they do contain polyphenols. As such, it may be best to pair this particular snack with calcium-rich foods. 

While eating button mushrooms can contribute to improved overall health (and general vitamin absorption), it might not be best to pair it with the other foods included within this list. Also, you could choose to eat these mushrooms raw, but it’s far safer to cook them before enjoying them.

Butternut Squash

When it comes to vitamin A, it’s difficult to find a vegetable that provides more than butternut squash. A single cooked cup of the stuff provides nearly 500% of the daily recommended dose of vitamin A. It also provides vitamin C, vitamin E, and a litany of useful micronutrients. One of the most popular dishes featuring this ingredient is butternut squash soup.

This colorful fruit is often enjoyed as a vegetable, and it gets its color from beta-carotene. Due to its wide array of nutrients, outstanding vitamin A content, and beta-carotene, butternut squash is one of the best vegan foods to help you increase your iron intake. Besides, it pairs well with a wide variety of main dishes.

Conclusion

The best vegan foods for improving iron intake are ones that contain non-heme iron, vitamin C, vitamin A, and/or beta-carotene. It’s also worthwhile to avoid foods rich in calcium or polyphenols when enjoying iron-friendly vegan meals and snacks. 

Oranges, kale, hemp seeds, and butternut squash are all excellent examples of vegan foods that may help improve your iron intake. Still, you can utilize this full list to mix and match various ingredients you like, creating personalized dishes designed to increase your iron levels.

Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS

Compliment Your Body, LLC
1441 Broadway #6087
New York, NY. 10018
(646) 868-8956

Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate chair massage and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs since 2004. We are local to New York City and pride ourselves on our team of local therapists. All of our therapists are hand-picked and thoroughly vetted. We don’t hire over the phone, we meet our team on the field.

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Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS, owner and CEO of Compliment Your Body, LLC has over fifteen years of experience in the health and wellness field. During his career he has worked in a multitude of settings, including spas, chiropractic offices, and on the field at IronMan competitions. Richard was hired in 2005 with the United States Tennis Association as a Massage Therapist and provided therapy to the professional athletes at the US Open Tennis Championships from 2005 - 2010. Richard graduated in 2004 from The Swedish Institute College of Health Sciences. He is a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He also completed the Plant Based Nutrition course at the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a Level 2 Nutrition Coach with Precision Nutrition. Compliment Your Body has been providing corporate / event massage therapy, and in-home massage therapy to New York City and the surrounding boroughs for over fifteen years, and has been the corporate massage provider to the New York Times throughout this time. Commitment, compassion, connection and charity are the pillars of our business. Experience the CYBNYC difference!

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