Iron in the Vegan Diet
by Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D.
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Dried beans and dark leafy green vegetables are especially good
sources of iron, better on a per calorie basis than meat. Iron
absorption is increased markedly by eating foods containing vitamin C
along with foods containing iron. Vegetarians do not have a higher
incidence of iron deficiency than do meat eaters.
Iron is an essential nutrient because it is a central part of
hemoglobin which carries oxygen in the blood. Iron deficiency anemia is
a worldwide health problem which is especially common in young women and
Iron is found in food in two forms, heme and non-heme iron. Heme
iron, which makes up 40 percent of the iron in meat, poultry, and fish
is well absorbed. Non-heme iron, 60 percent of the iron in animal tissue
and all the iron in plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts) is less
well absorbed. Some might expect that since the vegan diet contains a
form of iron which is not that well absorbed, vegans might be prone to
developing iron deficiency anemia. However, recent surveys of vegans and
[1, 2, 3] have shown that iron deficiency anemia is no more common
among vegetarians than among the general population.
The reason for the satisfactory iron status of many vegans may be
that commonly eaten foods are high in iron, as
shows. In fact, if the amount of iron in these foods is expressed as
milligrams of iron per 100 calories, many foods eaten by vegans are
superior to animal-derived foods. This concept is illustrated in
Table 2. For
example, you would have to eat 340 calories of sirloin steak to get the
same amount of iron as found in 100 calories of spinach.
Another reason for the satisfactory iron status of vegans is that
vegan diets are high in vitamin C. Vitamin C acts to markedly increase
absorption of non-heme iron. Adding a vitamin C source to a meal
increases non-heme iron absorption up to six-fold which makes the
absorption of non-heme iron as good or better than that of heme iron
Fortunately, many vegetables, such as broccoli and bok choy, which
are high in iron are also high in vitamin C so that the iron in these
foods is very well absorbed. Commonly eaten combinations, such as beans
and tomato sauce or stir-fried tofu and broccoli, also result in
generous levels of iron absorption.
It is easy to obtain plenty of iron on a vegan diet.
Table 3 shows
several menus which would meet the RDA
 of 15
milligrams of iron per day for an adult woman. Men and post-menopausal
women need about one-third less iron, 10 milligrams daily.
Both calcium and tannins (found in tea and coffee) reduce iron
absorption. Tea, coffee, and calcium supplements should be used several
hours before a meal which is high in iron
1. Anderson BM, Gibson RS, Sabry JH: The iron and zinc status of
long-term vegetarian women. Am J Clin Nutr 1981; 34: 1042-1048.
2. Latta D and Liebman M: Iron and zinc status of vegetarian and
non-vegetarian males. Nutr Rep Int 1984; 30: 141-149.
3. Helman AD and Darnton-Hill I: Vitamin and iron status in new
vegetarians. Am J Clin Nutr 1987; 45: 785-789.
4. Hallberg L: Bioavailability of dietary iron in man. Ann Rev
Nutr 1981; 1: 123-147.
5. Food and Nutrition Board, National Research Council:
Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th ed. Washington, DC: National
Academy Press, 1989.
6. Gleerup A, Rossander Hulthen L, Gramatkovski E, et al. Iron
absorption from the whole diet: comparison of the effect of two
different distributions of daily calcium intake. Am J Clin Nutr
1995; 61: 97-104.
FOOD AMOUNT IRON (mg)
Soybeans, cooked 1 cup 8.8
Blackstrap molasses 2 Tbsp 7.0
Lentils, cooked 1 cup 6.6
Tofu 4 oz 0.7-6.6
Quinoa, cooked 1 cup 6.3
Kidney beans, cooked 1 cup 5.2
Chickpeas, cooked 1 cup 4.7
Lima beans, cooked 1 cup 4.5
Pinto beans, cooked 1 cup 4.5
commercial 1 patty 1.1-4.5
Black-eyed peas, cooked 1 cup 4.3
Swiss chard, cooked 1 cup 4.0
Tempeh 1 cup 3.8
Black beans, cooked 1 cup 3.6
Bagel, enriched 3 oz 3.2
Turnip greens, cooked 1 cup 3.2
Prune juice 8 oz 3.0
Spinach, cooked 1 cup 2.9
Beet greens, cooked 1 cup 2.7
Tahini 2 Tbsp 2.6
Raisins 1/2 cup 2.2
Cashews 1/4 cup 2.0
Figs, dried 5 medium 2.0
Seitan 4 oz 2.0
Bok choy, cooked 1 cup 1.8
Bulgur, cooked 1 cup 1.7
Apricots, dried 10 halves 1.6
Potato 1 large 1.4
Soy yogurt 6 oz 1.4
Tomato juice 8 oz 1.4
Veggie hot dog 1 hot dog 1.4
Almonds 1/4 cup 1.3
Peas, cooked 1 cup 1.3
Green beans, cooked 1 cup 1.2
Kale, cooked 1 cup 1.2
Sesame seeds 2 Tbsp 1.2
Sunflower seeds 1/4 cup 1.2
Broccoli, cooked 1 cup 1.1
Brussels sprouts,cooked 1 cup 1.1
Millet, cooked 1 cup 1.0
Prunes 5 medium 1.0
Watermelon 1/8 medium 1.0
Sources: USDA Nutrient Data Base for Standard Reference, Release 12,
1998. Manufacturer's information.
The RDA for iron is 10 mg/day for adult men and for post-menopausal
women and 15 mg/day for pre-menopausal women.
FOOD IRON (mg/100 calories)
Spinach, cooked 5.4
Collard greens, cooked 3.1
Lentils, cooked 2.9
Broccoli, cooked 2.1
Chickpeas, cooked 1.7
Sirloin steak,choice,broiled 1.6
Figs, dried 0.8
Hamburger, lean, broiled 0.8
Chicken, roasted, no skin 0.6
Flounder, baked 0.3
Pork Chop, pan fried 0.2
Milk, skim 0.1
Note that the top iron sources are vegan.
1 serving Oatmeal Plus (p. 23) 3.8
1 serving Tempeh/Rice Pocket
Sandwich (p. 94) 4.7
10 Dried Apricots 1.6
1 serving Black-Eyed Peas
and Collards (p. 76) 2.1
1 serving Corn Bread (p. 21) 2.6
1 slice Watermelon 1.0
Cereal with 8 ounces
of Soymilk 1.5
Kidney Bean Chili
(1 cup kidney beans) 5.2
1/4 cup Sunflower Seeds 1.2
1/4 cup raisins 1.1
4 ounces Seitan stir-fried with 4.0
1 cup Bok Choy 1.8
and sprinkled with
2 Tbsp Sesame Seeds 1.2
Additional foods should be added to these menus to provide adequate
calories and to meet additional nutritional requirements.
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