Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of iron, even better on a per calorie basis than meat. Iron absorption is increased markedly by eating foods containing vitamin C along with foods containing iron. Vegetarians do not have a higher incidence of iron deficiency than do meat eaters.

Heme vs. Non-heme Iron

Iron is an essential nutrient because it is a central part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. Iron deficiency anemia is a worldwide health problem that is especially common in young women and in children.

Iron is found in food in two forms, heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron, which makes up 40 percent of the iron in meat, poultry, and fish, is well absorbed. Non-heme iron, 60 percent of the iron in animal tissue and all the iron in plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts) is less well absorbed. Vegan diets only contain non-heme iron. Because of this, iron recommendations are higher for vegetarians (including vegans) than for non-vegetarians. The RDA for iron is 14 milligrams per day for vegetarian men and for women after menopause, and 33 milligrams per day for women prior to menopause .

Iron Status in Vegans

Some might expect that since the vegan diet contains a form of iron that is not that well absorbed, vegans might be prone to developing iron deficiency anemia. However, surveys of vegans 2,3 have found that iron deficiency anemia is no more common among vegetarians than among the general population although vegans tend to have lower iron stores .

Fortunately, many vegetables, such as broccoli and bok choy, which are high in iron, are also high in vitamin C so that the iron in these foods is very well absorbed. Commonly eaten combinations, such as beans and tomato sauce or stir-fried tofu and broccoli, also result in generous levels of iron absorption.

Both calcium and tannins (found in tea and coffee) reduce iron absorption. Tea, coffee, and calcium supplements should be used several hours before a meal that is high in iron.

Iron is an essential mineral used to transport oxygen to all parts of the body. A slight deficiency in iron causes anemia (fatigue/weakness), and a chronic deficiency can lead to organ failure. Conversely, too much iron leads to production of harmful free radicals, and interferes with metabolism, causing damage to organs like the heart and liver. The body is able to regulate uptake of iron, so overdose is rare and usually only occurs when people take supplements. Iron from natural food sources, like the ones listed below, are considered safe and healthy. While iron is better absorbed from heme (meat) sources, non-heme (plant) iron is better regulated causing less damage to the body. The current recommended daily allowance for iron is 18 milligrams (mg). Below is a list of high iron foods.

#1: Dried Herbs
Long used for medicinal purposes, herbs are packed with nutrients and iron is no exception.Dried Thyme contains the most with 124mg per 100g serving, or 687% of the RDA. That is 3.7mg (21% RDA) of iron per tablespoon of dried Thyme. It is followed by dried Parsley (11% RDA per Tblsp), dried Spearmint (10% RDA per Tblsp), Black Pepper, dried Marjoram, Cumin Seed, dried Dill, dried Oregano, Bay Leaf, dried Coriander, dried Basil, ground Tumeric, ground Savory, Anise Seed, Fenugreek Seed, dried Terragon, dried Chervil, and dried Rosemary (5% RDA per Tblsp).

#2: Cocoa Powder and Chocolate
Chocolate is showing more and more health benefits and dark chocolate is coming into vogue. In the case of iron it is pure cocoa powder without any cocoa fat, milk, or sugar that provides the most iron with 36mg in a 100g serving, or 200% of the RDA. That is 1.8mg of iron per tablespoon of cocao powder, or 10% of the RDA. Unsweetened baking chocolate provides 17.4mg per 100g (97% RDA), or 23mg (128% RDA) per grated cup. Most sweetened milk chocolates will provide around 2.4mg per 100g (13% RDA), or 1mg (6% RDA) of iron in an average 1.5 ounce bar.


#3: Liver
Liver is a vitamin rich food, and it is packed with iron. In the early 1900s liver was prescribed as a cure for anemia, and as a supplement for pregnant ladies. Duck liver (Foie Gras) provides the most iron with 30.5mg (170% RDA) per 100g serving, or 13.4mg (75% RDA) per liver. It is followed by pork liver which contains 17.9mg (100% RDA) or 15.2mg (85% RDA) in a 3 oz serving, chicken liver (72% RDA per 100g), turkey liver (67% RDA), lamb liver (57% RDA), and beef liver (36% RDA).

#4: Clams, Oysters, and Mussels
Shellfish can be eaten raw, baked, steamed, fried, or made into chowder. Clams provide the most iron with 28mg (155% RDA) per 100g serving, or about 27mg (150% RDA) in 10 small clams. Oysters provide 12mg (67% RDA) per 100g serving, or 5mg (28% RDA) in 6 medium sized oysters. Mussels provide 6.72mg (37% RDA) per 100g, or 5.7mg (32% RDA) in a 3oz serving.

#5:Roasted Pumpkin and Squash Seeds
A popular food in the Middle East and East Asia pumpkin and squash seeds contain about 15mg (83% RDA) of iron per 100g serving, 20.7mg (115% RDA) per cup, and 4.2mg (23% RDA) in a 1 ounce serving of about 142 seeds. If you can’t find these in your local supermarket you will surely find them in Middle Eastern or East Asian specialty stores. Alternatively, you can also save any pumpkin and squash seeds you have and dry them yourself. The dried seeds contain more iron than roasted, so try to find dried if possible.
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#6: Sesame Butter (Tahini) and Seeds
Sesame butter, also called Tahini, is a common ingredient in the Mediterranean dish Hummus. Toasted Sesame seeds provide 14.8mg (82% RDA) of iron per 100g serving, or 4.1mg (23% RDA) per ounce. Sesame Butter provides 8.95mg of iron (50% RDA) per 100 gram serving, or 1.3mg (7% RDA) per Tblsp.

#7: Caviar (Fish Eggs)
Caviar is most often eaten as hors d’oeuvres, garnishes, or spreads, and is more affordable than people think. 100 grams of caviar will provide 11.9mg (66% RDA) of iron, 3.3mg (19% RDA) per ounce,and 1.9mg (11% RDA) per Tblsp.
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#8: Sun Dried Tomatoes
Sun Dried Tomatoes are delicious in a sandwich or as an ingredient in pasta sauce. 100 grams (about 2 cups) will provide 9.1mg or 51% of the RDA. One cup will provide 4.9mg (27% RDA), and one piece will provide 0.2mg (1% RDA) of iron.

#9: Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are the number one source of vitamin E, and a good source of thiamin, and magnesium. Sunflower seeds provide 5.3mg (29% RDA) of iron per 100 gram serving, or 7.4mg (41% RDA) per cup.

#10: Dried Apricots
Most common as a snack, dried apricots can also be chopped and served in a salad. A good source of Vitamin A and potassium, apricots provide 6.3mg (35%RDA) of iron per 100g serving (about 20 dried apricots), or 7.5mg (42% RDA) of iron per cup.

High Risk Groups for an Iron Deficiency

Menstruating Women – Due to blood loss during menstruation women of child bearing age are at risk of iron deficiency, the greater the blood loss the greater the risk.
Individuals with Kidney Failure – People with kidney failure, and especially those on dialysis, are at high risk of iron deficiency anemia. This is due to an inability of the kidney to create adequate amounts of the hormone erythropoietin which is necessary for red blood cell creation, and therefore, retaining iron.
Pregnant and lactating women – A developing fetus requires a high amount of iron, likewise, there is a high amount of iron lost through breast milk after birth.

Older infants and toddlers

People with low levels of Vitamin A – Vitamin A greatly helps move iron from storage in the body, without adequate amounts of vitamin A the body cannot regulate iron properly leading to an iron deficiency.
People with gastrointestinal disorders – Diarrhea, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal disorders and diseases can lead to an inadequate iron absorption.


Iron is essential to all body cells. Iron functions primarily as a carrier of oxygen in the body, both as a part of hemoglobin in the blood and of myoglobin in the muscles. Iron deficiency anemia occurs when there is not enough iron in the red blood cells. This is a common problem often caused by pregnancy, blood loss, and a diet low in iron or poor absorption of iron by the body.

There are a variety of possible symptoms of iron deficiency including:

  • lack of energy or tiredness
  • extreme fatigue and feeling of weakness
  • light headedness
  • headache
  • pale skin on the lining of the eyes, the inner mouth and the nails
  • rapid and forceful heartbeat
  • low blood pressure with position change from sitting to standing up
  • finger nails that become thin, brittle and white – they may grow abnormally and get a spoon-shaped appearance
  • tongue may become sore, smooth and reddened
  • decrease in appetite
  • shortness of breath during exercise
  • brittle hair
  • reduction in immunity and increased vulnerability to infection
  • a strong desire to eat nonfoods such as ice, paint or dirt (a condition called Pica)
  • disturbed sleep
  • abdominal pain

Because the typical symptoms of iron deficiency have many causes, diagnosis by a blood test is needed to confirm the presence of iron deficiency anemia.

If your blood iron level is low, your health care provider may refer you to a dietitian to discuss dietary increase of iron-rich foods as well as a multivitamin pill or an iron supplement. Although iron is found in a variety of different foods and supplements, its availability to the body varies significantly. In general, iron is not readily absorbed by the body. Availability is partially determined by whether the iron is found in the form of HEME or NON-HEME iron.

HEME iron is found only in meat, fish and poultry and is absorbed much more easily than NON-HEME iron, which is found primarily in fruits, vegetables, dried beans, nuts and grain products.

The following factors will increase the iron absorption from non-heme foods:

A good source of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) – i.e., oranges, grapefruits, tomatoes, broccoli and strawberries, eaten with a NON-HEME food
A HEME and NON-HEME food eaten together
A NON-HEME food cooked in an iron pot, such as a cast iron skillet

The following factors will decrease non-heme iron absorption:

Large amounts of tea or coffee consumed with a meal (the polyphenols bind the iron).
Excess consumption of high fiber foods or bran supplements (the phytates in such foods inhibit absorption).
High intake of calcium – take your calcium supplement at a different time from your iron supplement.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron for non-vegetarian pre-menopausal women is 18 mg/day.  The RDA for non-vegetarian men and post-menopausal women is 8 mg/day. Because of iron absorption issues in a healthful, high-fiber vegetarian diet, the RDAs for vegetarians are higher – 14 mg/day for vegetarian men and 33 mg/day for vegetarian women. Iron absorption should be twice for vegans who exclude all animal products. The upper level of intake should not exceed 45mg/day.

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