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Top 7 Non-Heme Iron-Rich Foods (Best Options for Vegans and Vegetarians)

Medically Approved by Dr. Edward Salko

Table of Contents

Iron is a foundational mineral for producing hemoglobin, the protein that contains oxygen in the blood. It also plays vital roles in muscle functions, immunity, energy synthesis, and more. Meat is a chief source of protein, which is why eliminating it from your diet when you go vegan or vegetarian can impact your protein levels if you don’t properly plan your meals.

In this article, we discuss iron-rich foods for vegetarians and vegans and offer tips to maximize iron absorption.   

Pro tip: Get a vegan/vegetarian profile blood test to monitor multiple nutrient levels and keep you in optimum health. 

Importance of Iron in a Vegetarian/Vegan Diet

Research says that vegans and vegetarians require about 1.8 times more iron(1) than the recommended daily intake. These lifestyles are rooted in plant-based diets and products. 

When it comes to iron intake, meat and other animal-based food products contain the highest amounts. Hence, to satisfy the daily dietary iron intake of 10 to 15 mg(2), alternative sources have to be consumed consistently.   

To better understand this requirement, it’s crucial to know that iron can be distinguished into two types based on its source: heme and non-heme. Heme iron strictly comes from animal flesh, while non-heme iron is contained in plant foods, with some found in plant-eating animal meat. 

Between heme and non-heme iron sources, the body does not readily absorb the latter. Hence, giving up meat and its derivatives can drastically impact your iron levels if proper meal planning is not tailored to your needs. 

In a study published in Nutrients, iron levels were compared between vegetarian and omnivore women within their optimum menstrual years. The results showed that the vegetarian group experienced a higher prevalence of iron deficiency(3) than their omnivore counterparts.

Another study involving vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians in Norway noted an increased risk of iron depletion(4) among women who don’t consume meat and heme iron-food sources. Iron depletion is characterized by low iron stores. 

Read more: 

Non-heme Iron Food Sources for Vegetarians & Vegans

Individuals adopting a plant-based diet have a wide range of selections for iron-rich foods. When planning meals, remember to add them in ample amounts, as recommended by your doctor or nutritionist.  

  1. Legumes
Legumes and beans assortment in different bowls on light stone surface . Top view. Healthy vegan protein food.

Including legumes in your diet boosts your iron levels and provides other essential nutrients, like protein, folate, and fiber. With their incredible versatility, legumes are a powerhouse food choice that can benefit anyone, not just vegans and vegetarians. 

  • Lentils (boiled): 3.3 mg of iron per 100 grams
  • Chickpeas (cooked): ~4.7 mg of iron per cup
  • Kidney beans (cooked): 5.2 mg of iron per cup 
  • White beans (cooked): 3.7 mg of iron per cup
  • Soybeans (cooked): 5.14 mg of iron per cup 

Source: USDA FoodData(5) 

  1. Nuts and Seeds
different variety of nuts and seeds

Various nuts and seeds contain a good amount of non-heme iron. They can also be easily incorporated into many types of dishes and are solid choices for snacks in between meals. The following are some of the options you can add to your diet.

  • Almonds: 3.71 mg of iron per 100 grams
  • Cashews: 8.35 mg of iron per cup
  • Pistachios: 3.92 mg of iron per cup
  • Sunflower seeds: 5.25 of iron per 100 grams
  • Pumpkin seeds (unsalted): 8 to 15 mg of iron per 100 grams 

Source: USDA FoodData(5) 

  1. Dark Leafy Greens
dark leafy greens in bowl

Aside from containing ample nutrients like iron, dark leafy vegetables are some of the most versatile food options for meal preparations. You can make smoothies, salads, soups, and side dishes using the following.

  • Spinach (cooked): 3.75 mg of iron per ½ cup
  • Swiss chard (cooked): 4 mg of iron per cup
  • Collard greens (cooked): 1.13 mg of iron per 100 grams
  • Kale (raw): 1.6 mg of iron per 100 grams

Source: USDA FoodData(5) 

  1. Molasses
Organic Black Cane Sugar Molasses in a Brown Bowl on a Dark Background Perfect for Cooking Baking

Molasses, particularly Backstrap molasses, has a good amount of iron. In fact, it can provide around 20% of your daily dietary recommendation. 

Backstrap molasses contains 3.6 mg of iron per tablespoon. It can be used as a sweetener or marinade, but it is also safe to consume it as is. 

  1. Tofu
Takeaway vegan poke bowl photography

Tofu is made of soybeans and is a great iron and protein alternative to meat. For every 100 grams of regular tofu, you get around 5.36 mg of iron(6)

Tofu has gained popularity among vegans and vegetarians, not only because it is an effective meat substitute in many recipes but also because of its versatility. 

It is also used in many vegan dishes because it easily absorbs various flavors and can be converted into many forms, such as tofu powder.

  1. Dried Fruits

Dried fruits contain more iron per serving than fresh fruits due to water removal during the drying process. This makes the nutrients, including iron, more concentrated. 

  • Prunes: 0.93 mg of iron per 100 grams
  • Raisins: 1.79 mg of iron per 100 grams
  • Dried apricots: 2.66 mg of iron per 100 grams
  • Dried peaches: 3.6 mg of iron per 100 grams
  • Dried figs: 4.1 mg of iron per 100 grams

Source: USDA FoodData(5) 

  1. Iron-fortified Cereals

Accessible, convenient, and packed with iron, fortified cereals are a good choice for vegans to reduce food prep time, especially in the morning. 

Fortification is a reliable way to add iron to cereals as it ensures a consistent and accurate amount of the essential mineral. 

Moreover, iron-fortified cereals often include other vital vitamins and minerals. Thus, they provide a comprehensive nutritional package that can benefit your health as a whole. 

Tips to Ensure Optimum Iron Absorption

Aside from eating vegan foods high in iron, it’s imperative to check your food intake concerning other nutrients and how your meals are prepared. Take a look at these ways to enhance your iron absorption. 

  • Add more vitamin C food sources: Vitamin C helps convert non-heme iron (iron found in plants) into an absorbable form. It binds with iron to form a chelate, a soluble compound that makes it easier for the intestine to metabolize iron.

Read more: 8 Foods High in Vitamin C (+ Best Ways To Consume Them)

  • Limit foods that interfere with iron absorption: Certain substances, such as polyphenols, calcium, oxalates, and phytates, can block iron absorption. Avoid drinking coffee and tea with meals. Also, limit dairy products like milk and cheese.
  • Pay attention to your food prep: Some iron blockers can be found in fruits and vegetables with high iron content. But they can be reduced through soaking. Plus, you can also try fermenting. 
  • Consider cooking with an iron pot: Cooking food in cast iron can help increase iron levels. According to research, children in a clinical trial gained 7.9% in hemoglobin(7) when food was cooked in an iron pot. Instead of nonstick pots with Teflon coating, consider using this cookware.

Supplementation is another way to increase iron levels. However, you should get your doctor’s advice before taking any iron supplement pills. Likewise, you should keep an eye on symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia.  

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I increase my iron levels as a vegetarian?

Planning your daily meals and including sufficient iron-rich foods can help increase your iron levels. Strategize your diet and diversify your food. Plus, make sure to get tested if you exhibit symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia, such as tiredness, pale skin, and shortness of breath. If the deficiency is confirmed, you may need supplementation. Talk to your doctor regarding the dosage of the supplement.

How can vegan pregnant women increase their iron levels?

During pregnancy, a woman must have 27 mg of iron per day(8) to ensure optimum maternal and fetal health. While heme iron is high in animal-based foods, supposedly covering such requirements, vegan women can continue relying on non-heme iron sources. Subsequent prenatal monitoring to check for iron depletion is crucial for maintaining healthy iron levels among women.   

Which iron-rich foods are good for babies and toddlers?

Common foods high in iron, such as green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, iron-fortified cereals, and legumes, are recommended for babies and toddlers as well. However, check with a pediatrician regarding the best time to feed your young children with these foods and the best meal prep. 

The Bottom Line

Iron depletion remains a risk for individuals switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet from meals with animal-based products. However, your risk lowers significantly with proper meal planning, which includes sufficient food-sources of iron. In doing so, work with your doctor to determine which iron-rich foods should make your list and which ones to avoid for reasons such as intolerance and allergies.


1 Graham M, Clark C, Scherer A, Ratner M, Keen C. An Analysis of the Nutritional Adequacy of Mass-Marketed Vegan Recipes. Cureus. 2023 Apr 4;15(4):e37131. doi: 10.7759/cureus.37131. PMID: 37153236; PMCID: PMC10159689.

2 Rioux FM, LeBlanc CP. Iron supplementation during pregnancy: what are the risks and benefits of current practices? Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2007 Apr;32(2):282-8. doi: 10.1139/H07-012. PMID: 17486170.

3 Slywitch E, Savalli C, Duarte ACG, Escrivão MAMS. Iron Deficiency in Vegetarian and Omnivorous Individuals: Analysis of 1340 Individuals. Nutrients. 2021 Aug 26;13(9):2964. doi: 10.3390/nu13092964. PMID: 34578841; PMCID: PMC8468774.

4 Henjum, S.; Groufh-Jacobsen, S.; Stea, T.H.; Tonheim, L.E.; Almendingen, K. Iron Status of Vegans, Vegetarians and Pescatarians in Norway. Biomolecules 2021, 11, 454. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom11030454

5 U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (n.d.). FoodData Central. Agricultural Research Service. Retrieved March 11, 2024, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/

6 U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (n.d.). Tofu, raw, regular, prepared with calcium sulfate. FoodData Central. Retrieved March 11, 2024, from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/

7 Kulkarni SA, Ekbote VH, Sonawane A, Jeyakumar A, Chiplonkar SA, Khadilkar AV. Beneficial effect of iron pot cooking on iron status. Indian J Pediatr. 2013 Dec;80(12):985-9. doi: 10.1007/s12098-013-1066-z. Epub 2013 Jul 19. PMID: 23868537.

8 Rioux FM, LeBlanc CP. Iron supplementation during pregnancy: what are the risks and benefits of current practices? Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2007 Apr;32(2):282-8. doi: 10.1139/H07-012. PMID: 17486170.

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