It’s tough to be a vegetarian, and even harder to be a vegan, and still get the proper nutrients and vitamins your body needs to function optimally.
Luckily, new studies and research are making that gambit easier and easier, for those who are strong enough to walk the path of the vegan or vegetarian.
Without meat, fish, or dairy, you have to look into other options to obtain enough iron and protein. A lot of vital minerals are found in animal products, so this can be a little difficult.
However, it is not at all impossible. Here is a list of 31 iron-rich foods that are essential for anyone on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
#1 Brussel Sprouts
Brussel sprouts, though perhaps not the most delicious vegetable, are packed with health benefits.
They do have a high iron content, but more importantly, they have a tremendously high vitamin C content. The value to that; vitamin C helps your body absorb iron.
Sprouts are also really rich in antioxidants, which explains the findings that show relieved cellular stress and reduced inflammation, as well as cancer-fighting capabilities.
Brussel sprouts are also high in vitamins A and K, as well as in Fiber, Protein, Folate, and Manganese.
When cooking them, try not to cook them for too long, as the longer they are cooked, the less nutrients you’ll be getting. (Chopped brussel sprouts sauteed with some shallots and garlic is a delicious option).
Raisins are easy to eat; by the handful, as a salad topping, with a trail mix, or on yogurt. They are high in naturally-occurring sugar and calories, like with all dried fruit, but that does not negate their health benefits.
A half-cup of raisins contains 7% of the daily iron requirement for men, and 16% of the daily iron requirement for women.
They’re also loaded with calcium and antioxidants, which helps your body absorb iron, as well as aiding in the prevention of osteoporosis and cellular damage, which can be linked to cancer prevention.
Grab a handful of these before going for the M&Ms.
Lentils come in many shapes and sizes; there are green, black, and Puy lentils. But all lentils are packed with protein, iron, antioxidants, and essential amino acids, putting these legumes in the category of “SuperFoods.”
They can easily be an essential aspect to the diet of a vegetarian or vegan, as they solve one of the largest vegetarian/vegan concerns, which is lack of protein and iron.
The nutrients found in lentils can also aid in cancer prevention, heart disease prevention, and neurodegenerative disease prevention.
They can also become highly versatile in the kitchen, as salad toppings, and bases or additions to a variety of soups, sauces, and dips.
#4 Dried Peaches
Dried fruit in general has higher nutrient levels than fresh fruit, specifically higher levels of iron, as the drying process concentrates certain nutrients, while reducing the levels of others.
C, for instance, is lower in dried fruit, as reduced water content reduces vitamin C content. Iron is one of those nutrients that becomes highly concentrated during the drying process.
Dried peaches are loaded with fiber, potassium, and non-heme iron, which is less easily absorbed than heme iron, though consumption with a source of vitamin C will aid in the absorption process.
#5 Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds might seem like something that belongs in the garbage after you’re finished scooping out your Jack-O-Lantern, but it’s not a bad idea to transfer them to your pantry (or your mouth) instead.
Pumpkin seeds are full of nutrients, fiber, protein, Manganese, Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Copper, and Vitamin K.
Their high level of antioxidants aids in the prevention of cellular damage, which in turn works to fight against cancer and heart disease.
Their high levels of iron and protein make them a must-have for vegans and vegetarians, and a great addition to anyone’s diet.
Soy is another legume, and resides in the same family as lentils.
Soy products are an essential aspect of a vegan or vegetarian diet, as their protein and amino acid content is equivalent to that in cooked meat (3/4 cup of soy equals the protein in 1/2 cup of cooked meat).
Soy is also a great source of iron and calcium. Soy is an all around must-have, especially on a vegan diet, as soy products come in a variety of forms and contains all the nutrients required to function optimally.
#7 Pinto Beans
Like most beans, pinto beans are loaded with protein, iron, folate, fiber, phosphorus, copper, manganese, magnesium, and vitamin B.
Their high fiber content helps with digestion, and even with the prevention of certain disorders like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). They also give you tons of energy, owing to their high iron and protein content.
On top of all that, they are easy to eat, and can be added to rice, blended into sauces, or served alone, even with breakfast (if you’re feeling adventurous).
Arugula is in the same family as brussel sprouts, and, like most leafy greens, is packed with nutrients and minerals, specifically iron, potassium, calcium, and vitamins C, K, and A.
Part of the lure surrounding arugula is the ease in which it can be consumed; raw in a salad, sauteed with any variety of vegetables, blended into sauces, or even consumed as a juice.
Arugula, like with most leafy greens, has such a high content of nutrients, (while still tasting good), that it becomes an essential part of a vegan or vegetarian diet.
#9 Whole Wheat Pasta
This one does feel out of place on a list full of vegetables and beans, but its import is high regardless.
Carbs do, in fact, factor into a healthy, balanced diet, and whole-grain pasta gets you certain nutrients like iron, manganese, and protein, without all the added carbs and calories that are found in refined pasta.
It also happens to taste similar to white pasta, and, if it is a little bland, is easy to doctor up with some salt, pepper, and red sauce, to make delicious, instead of just barely edible.
#10 Collard Greens
Collard greens are in the same boat as brussel sprouts and arugula, and so of course contain high amounts of iron and calcium, as well as a variety of vitamins and other nutrients and minerals.
It’s no surprise that collard greens serve as a possible cancer preventative. Their high levels of iron help you maintain energy levels and efficient energy usage, also helping to prevent anemia, which can cause hair loss.
While the taste can often be bitter, so long as you saute them with the right additives (I love my shallots and garlic) and cook to your desired tenderness, they become much more palatable.
Tahini, made from ground sesame seeds, is the key-ingredient to hummus, and comes absolutely loaded with protein and iron.
In fact, tahini has more protein than nuts or milk, and it only takes a small amount of tahini to reap all the benefits. This makes it one of the essential aspects to a vegan or vegetarian diet.
A great tip is to spread a thick layer of humus on toasted spelt bread, or even on a plate, and pile roasted veggies on top for a filling, nutrient-crammed meal.
Legumes are an umbrella term for large plant seeds. Beans, peas, lentils, and soybeans are considered legumes.
Legumes can quickly become a must have on a vegan or vegetarian diet, as they are full of protein, iron, and calcium, among other nutrients and minerals, and are low in fat.
The filling little seeds grant you tons of energy, something that is often looked for on a meatless diet.
Tofu, a popular Asian dish, is a bean curd derived from soy.
Tofu provides all nine essential amino acids, as well as calcium, iron, protein, and a variety of other nutrients and minerals.
Because of its neutral taste, the spongy food is relatively versatile, as a good addition to soup, or even pan-fried in soy sauce.
If you have a history of oxalate or kidney stones, you should limit the amount of tofu, or soy products you consume. If you’re concerned, you should talk to a doctor before integrating large amounts of tofu or soy into your diet.
Chickpeas, also known as Garbanzo beans, reside in the legume family, and so are packed with protein, iron, vitamins, and other nutrients and minerals.
They are the star ingredient to hummus, making it that much easier to consume in large quantities.
Chickpeas also help with bone health, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, IBS, cholesterol, and inflammation. Their high levels of protein and iron make them a necessary part of a vegan or vegetarian diet.
#15 Black-eyed Peas
Black-eyed peas are another type of legume that can be vital to a vegan diet.
Because of their high amounts of protein, fiber, and complex carbs, they help to make you feel full sooner, while also providing a ton of iron to keep energy levels high.
Their fiber content helps with digestive health, and their iron and protein content makes them essential to a diet that lacks the usual sources of iron and protein found in meat.
Nuts are an essential aspect of a non-meat diet, as they are a filling snack loaded with protein, healthy fat, and iron.
Especially in their raw form, nuts provide an easy, tasty snack that is a vital source of energy to a vegan or vegetarian.
#17 Cashews, almonds, and pine nuts
While all nuts are full of health benefits, cashews, almonds, and pine nuts are specifically laden with high levels of iron and protein, and lower levels of unhealthy fat.
Cashews, almonds, and pine nuts contain almost 2 milligrams of iron per ounce, which can be hugely beneficial to someone who doesn’t eat meat.
#18 Sesame, Hemp, and Flaxseeds
These three have some of the highest iron levels found in seeds, containing up to 4 milligrams of iron in every two tablespoons.
These seeds, like most, contain high levels of plant-protein, calcium, magnesium, and iron.
They also provide a good amount of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, in a ratio that is best for optimal biological function.
Spinach is a leafy green that is especially known for its richness in iron, which aids the function of oxygen-bearing red blood cells.
While it may not have been the most attractive vegetable as a kid, when prepared right, it can be quite good, and applicable to breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Sauteed onions, garlic, and spinach provides a great base for cheese and eggs, if you’re a vegetarian. If you’re vegan, spinach alone can make up the base of a salad, or goes great with a vegetable saute.
Kale is similar to spinach, though with a slightly more bitter taste. It is one of the healthiest leafy greens you can eat, and is full of potassium, calcium, iron, and a whole slew of other nutrients and minerals.
Besides being known to help reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, as well as improving bone health, kale is a great vegan/vegetarian option for increased energy.
And believe me, that is something all vegans/vegetarians are constantly on the lookout for, as protein and iron are somewhat hard to come by on a meatless diet.
Kale is great in juices, sautes, or salads, and, if cooked properly, can taste pretty good.
#21 Tomato Paste
Tomato paste has a decent level of iron, though should definitely not be your only source of the mineral.
But the interesting thing around the paste is its high content of Lycopene, which is tremendously beneficial for skin health, even fighting against sunburn and skin cancer.
Tomato paste is an easy and delicious addition to dinner, as a key component in many soups, and provides enough iron and other minerals and nutrients to make it worth mentioning.
Potatoes are made up of complex carbohydrates, Vitamin C, iron, and potassium. And, they’re absolutely delicious.
Are they a super essential part of a vegan diet? Maybe not.
But they easily could be, as they are a strong, filling dietary supplement that adds variety to your usual diet, and packs a punch of energy-sustaining iron at the same time.
Despite their mushy, sometimes slimy visage, mushrooms are, in fact, considered a Superfood.
They have been used as medicine throughout history, and contain a ton of health benefits. They’re low in calories, but high in protein, fiber, nutrients, vitamin D, and iron.
Besides making up an essential aspect of a vegan or vegetarian diet, mushrooms boost longevity, aid your immune system, improve digestion, fight cancer, and even help the planet, by fighting viruses, insects, and pollution.
All in, mushrooms are one of the best things you can eat, and are most definitely a must-have in your vegan or vegetarian diet.
#24 Palm Hearts
Hearts of palm are the firm white cores of a variety of species of palm tree, that are loaded with nutritional benefits, as well as being edible.
They are high in carbs, potassium, Vitamin B, and, of course, iron, and are low in calories, making them a super healthful addition to a stir-fry or salad.
This also makes them a strong survival food, proven by Naked and Afraid, though I hope you’re never in a situation that would warrant that knowledge.
Hearts of palm are a great way to add a little variety to your diet, as well as a healthy selection of minerals and nutrients.
#25 Prune Juice
Prune juice is made from dried prunes. As I mentioned earlier, dried fruit has an increased concentration of certain minerals.
Iron is one of these minerals. And, in the juice form, you’re getting hydration as well as iron.
Prunes, or prune juice, are great for digestion, constipation, cholesterol reduction, bone health, and the maintenance of energy levels, making it a great supplement to a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Olives are a type of stone fruit found mainly in the Mediteranian and are packed with antioxidants, healthy fats, and iron.
They are easy to eat; by the handful, in salads, in sauces or dips, on sandwiches, and sometimes in drinks.
Their high levels of nutrients, which include calcium, vitamin E, iron, and copper, make olives incredibly useful in the realm of cancer prevention, as well as better heart and bone health.
They’re a great addition to a vegan diet, but, like most of the items on this list, should belong in every diet.
Similar in taste to figs, mulberries come with an unusually high amount of protein and iron, as well as vitamin C, fiber, and other antioxidants. (They have a higher vitamin C content than oranges).
Mulberries, especially when dried, contain huge amounts of calcium and iron, which is why they made the list.
A great snack, mulberries will help keep your energy levels high, and your taste buds happy.
Spelt is an ancient grain that is similar to wheat, though contains different nutritional value.
Spelt is a great substitute for wheat in many instances, especially if you have a gluten sensitivity (however, not gluten intolerance as it is not completely gluten-free). Beyond that, spelt has almost too many nutritional components to list everything here.
Spelt is high in protein, carbs, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and folate (and has significant traces of a whole slew of other nutrients and minerals).
Spelt contains more protein and fiber than wheat, and can improve heart health, reduce blood pressure, and ease digestion.
This grain could easily be an essential part of a vegan or vegetarian diet, as it will keep you energized, full, and contains a high variety of ancillary health benefits.
Oats are one of the healthiest grains available. They come in many forms; groats, steel-cut, and rolled.
Oat Groats are the purest form of oats, and take a long time to cook, (and have a bitter taste) which is why people generally go for the rolled or steel cut options.
Just a half-cup of oats contains 20% of your daily iron requirement, 40% of your phosphorus requirement, and 34% of your magnesium requirement, as well as a bunch of other nutrients and minerals and protein.
Oats are full of antioxidants, are a known way to reduce cholesterol, and are a great way to start your morning, keeping you full for a long time.
For these reasons, oats can be an essential aspect of a vegan or vegetarian diet, as they are jammed with an endless list of health benefits, the most vital of which are their high levels of iron and protein, something that is rare, though no less valuable, in a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Quinoa is generally very popular in vegan and vegetarian diets because of its high protein content. It is also high in iron, calcium, potassium, and vitamin B.
Quinoa is a great option for people who are gluten intolerant, as it is gluten-free and at the same time provides energy and fills you up.
Even to people who are not, quinoa is a great substitute for rice or couscous, and fits in great with a stir-fry, or even alongside a meat dish. You don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to reap the health benefits (and taste) of this ancient grain.
#31 Coconut Milk
Coconut milk comes from a mix of the white flesh that lines the insides of brown coconuts, and water, creating a rich, creamy alternative to cow’s milk.
Coconut milk is high in calories, but it is also very high in iron, which, if you are a vegan or a vegetarian, is of exceeding importance.
Coconut milk additionally may help with inflammation reduction and infection fighting.
If you choose to integrate some coconut milk into your diet, try to avoid cans of coconut milk, as canned goods contain traces of BPA in the linings that can leach into your food, a chemical you don’t want in your system.
Whether or not you’re a vegan, a vegetarian, or an omnivore, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are all full of a variety of nutritional benefits.
And if you don’t get enough protein or iron (this goes especially for vegans and vegetarians) these are all good options to increase the influx of protein and iron in your system.
The only drawback is that much of plant based iron is non-heme iron, which just means that it is harder to absorb. But if you combine these foods with other foods high in calcium, which aids iron absorption, you’ll be fine.
That’s why many of these foods can be considered essential parts to a vegan or vegetarian diet; their high calcium content helps you to absorb their equally high amounts of iron.
So, yes, it is a notoriously difficult task for vegans and vegetarians to get the amount of iron and protein that the body needs, but clearly, it’s not impossible.
I’m a personal trainer based in Denver (Matrix Gym) and a true fitness nerd. If I’m not training clients or working out at my home gym, I’m probably skiing, cycling or hiking with my dog Rufus.
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