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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.

Heme vs. Non-heme Iron

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 in children.

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 vegetarians [1, 2, 3] have shown that iron deficiency anemia is no more common among vegetarians than among the general population.

Iron Status in Vegans

The reason for the satisfactory iron status of many vegans may be that commonly eaten foods are high in iron, as Table 1 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 [4].

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 [5] 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 [6].


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.

Table 1: Iron Content of Selected Vegan Foods


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
Veggie burger, 
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.

Table 2: Comparison of Iron Sources

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.

Table 3: Sample Menus Providing More Than 15 milligrams of Iron

                                        IRON (mg) 
     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
TOTAL                                   15.8

     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
TOTAL                                   16.0

Additional foods should be added to these menus to provide adequate calories and to meet additional nutritional requirements.

SIMPLY VEGAN COVER This article originally appeared in the book Simply Vegan: Quick Vegetarian Meals by Debra Wasserman. Nutrition section by Reed Mangels Ph.D., R.D. (ISBN 0-931411-20-3)
1996-2003 The Vegetarian Resource Group
PO Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203
(410) 366-8343   Email: [email protected]
Last Updated
September 2, 2003

The contents of this website and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your own best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research or confirmation on your own.

Web site questions or comments? Please email [email protected].

Andy Glick
Woodstock, NY


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The Meat Free Zone (MFZ) campaign is intended to make the MeatFreeZone logo as recognizable a symbol as the "Smoke Free Zone". The idea was originally conceived  when The WARM Store in Woodstock, NY, was in operation throughout the '90's (Woodstock Animal Rights Movement).  The store was truly a meat free zone as it was the first cruelty-free, Vegan, socially conscious animal rights store in the United States.  Now  that  the Vegan and Vegetarian movements have been growing so rapidly, more and more people are showing concern about the food in their diet and their overall  health and nutrition.  Many people are giving up eating fish, chicken, beef, pork (pigs ), dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream) and eggs.  Headlines of Mad Cow disease, E-coli and salmonella are in the news with greater frequency.  Vegan and vegetarian recipe cookbooks are standard now  in all bookstores and many restaurants have added Vegan and Vegetarian options to their menus. We hope you will help us with the Meat Free Zone campaign by putting the signs up in your homes and workplaces and by spreading them to all the vegetarian and vegan restaurants that you know and frequent.  And someday we will have true "meat free zones" in establishments that serve meat. (d-3)

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