List of iron-rich foods for a vegetarian

Updated April 17, 2017

Red meat and liver are rich sources of iron, essential in the formation of haemoglobin protein. The largest component of red blood cells, haemoglobin is responsible for a red blood cell's ability to collect and transport oxygen from the lungs to organs and tissues. In cases of where the cells cannot absorb sufficient iron, anaemia can occur. Symptoms of anaemia include fatigue, breathlessness, headaches, loss of appetite and pale skin colour.

If you're on a vegetarian diet and can't count on animal sources for iron, you can satisfy daily iron requirements by consuming vegetables rich in iron instead. The US Department of Agriculture's food pyramid suggests vegetarians supplement iron by eating foods from the following groups: green, leafy vegetables, legumes, grains and cereals.

Heme Versus Non-Heme

In food, iron is found in two forms--heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in red blood cells, is readily absorbed and makes up 40 per cent of the iron found in meat, fish and poultry. Plant-based foods, eggs and dairy are 100 per cent non-heme iron which is not found in red blood cells. Because vegetarians count on plant-based food sources for nutrition and iron, maintaining required daily allowances (RDA) of iron is more critical.

To answer the question of whether avoiding iron rich meat can lead to anaemia, researchers from the Agricultural Research Service, Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center conducted a long-term study to analyse the iron status of vegetarian and non-vegetarian women. Subjects' diets differed substantially in terms of meat and phytic acid contents. Phytic acids are substances found in some cruciferous vegetables and in tea which can interfere with iron absorption. Non-heme iron absorption was measured from the whole diets after four weeks. The results indicated that though non-heme iron was less absorbed by vegetarian women than heme iron, in the non-vegetarian diet, absorption had no affect on haemoglobin. In fact, researchers who measured iron excreted in fecal matter found that vegetarian women excreted less iron than non-vegetarian women.

Key to Absorption

According to studies at Harvard University, Vitamin C and citrate-rich foods like citrus fruits, green peppers and green leafy vegetables can increase iron absorption. Citric acid, sugars, amino acids and alcohol can also promote iron absorption. Interestingly enough, stores of iron in the body can also influence iron absorption. Researchers at Harvard University found that subjects with iron deficiencies have higher levels of iron absorption than those with surplus body stores of iron. This finding suggests that vegetarians, despite a diet rich in non-heme iron, a less absorbable iron source, maintain healthy levels of iron.

Vegetables Rich in Iron

For vegetarians, an iron-rich diet includes green leafy vegetables like kale, collard, spinach, legumes including kidney beans, lentils and chick peas, whole grain cereals, nuts, molasses and some dried fruits. Good sources of iron for vegetarians include wholegrain cereals and flours, leafy green vegetables, blackstrap molasses, pulses such as lentils and kidney beans, and some dried fruits. In addition, seaweed is considered a super food rich in iron, calcium and folate. Hijiki and nori can be eaten raw in salads, soups and sushi. To ensure better absorption, add a wide range of Vitamin C rich fruits.

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About the Author

Merle Huerta, an adjunct instructor of English skills, began writing during her husband's combat deployment to Iraq in 2003. Her articles have appeared in "The Jerusalem Post," and USA Travel Tips, among other publications. Huerta has an M.A. in instructional media and technology from Columbia University and is a graduate of CUNY's The Writers Institute.