Iron is a very important nutrient that our body needs to survive. When you have an iron deficiency, you can suffer from shortness of breath, dizziness, and even anemia. Black and brown communities are especially susceptible to iron deficiency. Factors like pollution, lack of access to healthy food and good healthcare, and inadequate housing all contribute to the health disparities we face. There are forms of iron that can be found in food and help restore your iron levels to normal. There's heme iron, which is stored in animal products, and there's non- heme iron, which can be found in plants. The recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron is roughly 18mg a day. However, for a person with an iron deficiency, their doctor may require them to take iron supplements upwards of 65mg (or more) for twice a day until their iron levels return to normal. In addition to taking iron supplements, your doctor may encourage you to eat more iron rich meals. While meat, especially red meat, is a great source of iron, some of you may be vegan, vegetarian, or just looking to switch up your diet for various reasons. Either way, we've compiled this list of iron rich vegetarian foods just for you!
Legumes - Soybeans and foods closely related to it, such as tofu, tempeh, and natto, are all packed with iron. Soybeans have about 9mg of iron per cup, while a cup of natto (fermented soybeans) contain 15 mg. 6 ounces of tofu or tempeh have around 4mg of iron. Lentils, another type of legume, has roughly 4mg of iron when cooked. Lima, white, navy, and red kidney beans have 4-7mg of iron. Black eyed peas and chickpeas have the highest amounts of iron. In addition to iron, all these foods have high amounts of protein, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, fiber, and manganese, which are all essential elements our bodies need.
Nuts and Seeds - Flax seeds, hemp, sesame, and pumpkin are the seeds with the highest concentration of iron, with 1-4mg for every two tablespoons. The products that these seeds produce are also riddled with iron. Two tablespoons of tahini (a paste made from sesame seeds) have about 3mg of iron for every half a cup. Almonds, pine nuts, cashews, and macadamia nuts contain around 1-2mgs of iron per ounce. Cooking nuts in any capacity can strip them of iron, so they should be eaten raw. Both nuts and seeds contain fiber, protein, good fats, and several various minerals the body needs.
3. Vegetables - Leafy greens like swiss chard, collard greens, spinach, and kale have roughly 2.5- 6.5mg of iron per cooked cup. 100 grams of spinach contains 1.1 times more than the same amount of red meat and 2.2 times more than 100 grams of salmon. It may seem outlandish to consume 100 grams of of greens, however that's why they're best consumed cooked down. Raw, tomatoes offer very little iron. But when dried or concentrated, they contain a greater amount. Half a cup of tomato paste has 4mg of iron, while 1 cup of tomato sauce has 2 mg. Potatoes and several varieties of mushroom also boast high levels of iron.
4. Fruits - While prune juice is known for being a very efficient laxative, it's also a great source of iron. It contains 3 mg of iron per cup. Interestingly enough, if your doctor has started you on an iron pill regimen, they may also recommend taking them with prune juice because iron supplements cause constipation in the first few weeks of use. Prune juice, as well as orange juice, actually increases the rate at which your body absorbs iron. While it may not seem like they belong in this category, olives are technically a fruit that's a great source of iron. Olives have 3mg of iron per 3.5 ounces, and as an added bonus, are thought to lower one's risk for heart disease.
5. Whole Grains - Whole grains have a wide range of health benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, as well as overall increased longevity. However, since grain processing removes the fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and even the iron, only whole grains should be considered for an iron deficiency. Amaranth is a gluten- free whole grain you may not have heard of before. It doesn't grow from grass like most grains do. Amaranth contains roughly 5mg of iron per cooked cup. Spelt is another grain that's rich in iron, containing 3mg of iron per cooked cup. Oats are a well- known whole grain that has around 3mg of iron per cooked cup. Oats also have a fiber called beta- glucan which helps maintain gut health and reduces cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Quinoa is a whole grain that has gained popularity in recent years. Like amaranth, it is not grown from grasses. It contains around 3mg of iron per cooked cup.
Eating iron rich foods when you have a deficiency is a great step in the right direction. However, it's also important to make sure you're consuming foods and employing practices that increase, not decrease the absorption of iron. Heme iron (found in meats) has a greater rate of absorption than the non heme iron found in plants, which is why vegans and vegetarians need to take extra steps to ensure they're getting their RDI of iron. Consuming vitamin C rich foods (such as the aforementioned prune and orange juices) increases iron absorption by 300%. It's also important not to drink coffee or tea along with iron rich foods, as they decrease the rate of absorption by 50- 90%. And believe it or not, it has been scientifically proven that cooking your meals in a cast iron skillet increases the amount of iron in the food you're preparing. All in all, iron is a vital element for our bodies, and whether we are deficient in it or not, we should all make efforts to eat more iron rich foods!