[nutrient spotlight] Iron

© Bhofack2 | Dreamstime.com - Fresh Homemade Strawberry Spinach Salad Photo

© Bhofack2 | Dreamstime.com - Fresh Homemade Strawberry Spinach Salad Photo

By: Denise Ulloa


Do you get tired from running up stairs? Have trouble catching your breath in sports? Feel listless in class? Iron could be to blame: Around one in ten teen girls is deficient in the mineral, which can lead to these and other debilitating symptoms.


Getting enough iron is of extra concern for teens who don’t eat meat. The reason: Animal foods like beef, liver, and turkey are some of the most concentrated sources of the nutrient. That’s not to say, however, that you need to eat meat to get enough iron—some research shows that meat eaters and vegheads are equally at risk for iron deficiency. However, with the most concentrated sources of the mineral off the table, a lot of vegetarians—especially new ones—have trouble consuming the iron they need. So how can you get enough iron on a plant-powered diet? And why is it so important, anyway?


Iron is the essential component of hemoglobin, a protein that transfers oxygen from the lungs to the various tissues throughout your body. Not getting enough of the mineral can put you at a high risk for developing iron-deficiency anemia, a condition in which your body can’t make enough healthy red blood cells to carry hemoglobin—and as a result, oxygen—to the tissues. Symptoms of anemia include feeling really tired, pallor (pale skin), shortness of breath, and in the case of severe anemia that goes untreated, the heart has to work harder to get oxygen to your tissues any way it can. Scary stuff!


The good news? You can prevent iron-deficiency anemia, and no, you don’t need to eat lots of red meat, poultry, or other animal products to do so. There are plenty of vegetarian sources of iron, making it easier than you think (and delicious!) to get the 8-18 mg per day you’ll need, depending on your age.


Here are some iron-rich power plant foods:

  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens)
  • Legumes (black beans, lima beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, soybeans, lentils)
  • Grains (quinoa, oats, brown rice)
  • Cruciferous veggies (brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower)
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts)
  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereals




One important note: Plant-powered sources of iron are considered non-heme iron. Heme iron is the type that comes from animal sources, which your body has an easier time absorbing—non-heme is a bit harder for your cells to use. As a result, vegheads may need a bit more iron than meat eaters.


There are also techniques you can use to make the iron you do eat go further, which is particularly important if you’re only getting non-heme iron. Our favorite: Pairing plant-based sources of iron with vitamin C-rich foods. Vitamin C actually increases the amount of iron your body can absorb—think of vitamin C as a letter opener that unlocks the packages that non-heme iron gets delivered in. Cool, eh?


Here are some Vitamin C-rich foods to pair the iron-rich foods with:

  • Bell peppers (red, green, yellow)
  • Tomatoes
  • Berries (strawberry, blueberry, blackberry)
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple


As you can see, there are so many bright, colorful and delicious foods that contain both iron and vitamin C. Recipe creations pairing these two mineral-containing foods are endless! Here are some delicious ones:


Lentil Salad with Tomato and Watercress


Ginger Chile Tofu with Red Peppers


Southwestern Kale Power Salad


Asparagus and red pepper stir-fry with quinoa



Just as vitamin C can help iron absorption, other compounds in foods can hinder it. Drinking coffee and tea can contribute to decreased iron absorption, as can use of antacids—so do your best not to overdo them, and if you drink tea or coffee do so between meals instead of with.

So how do you know if you’re getting enough iron? A blood test given by your doctor is the only reliable way to find out. If you’re anemic, he or she will likely want you to take a supplement to help bring you back up to healthy iron levels. Our advice: You should also talk to a registered dietitian who can help you figure out ways to incorporate iron-rich plant foods into your meals so you won’t fall short on this all-important mineral again. Find one in your area at: www.eatright.org (we also see clients in the NYC area as well as via Skype!).


Have you had trouble getting enough iron since going veg? How did you get your levels back up?  


Denise Ulloa is a SmartGirlVeg intern who is studying to be a registered dietitian.