In our bodies iron makes up part of the haemoglobin protein found on red blood cells which carries oxygen around the body. It also has a role in many enzyme activities including energy production, immune function and mental processing. Deficiency can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath and hair loss.

Surprisingly most people who eat a plant based diet consume more iron than meat eaters. The main difference is that iron from plants (non-heme iron) is less well absorbed than from animals (heme iron). Non-heme iron absorption can be influenced by a variety of dietary factors. Tannins from tea and coffee can reduce iron absorption as can high levels of calcium intake. Conversely vitamin C eaten at the same time as iron rich food can increase iron absorption.

 

Recommended daily iron intake

RDI
Men 8mg/day
Woman aged 19-50 years 18mg/day
Women >50 years 8mg/day
Boys 14-18 years 11mg/day
Girls 14-18 years 15mg/day
Children 1-13 years 8-10mg/day


Given that non- heme iron is not as well absorbed the recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron on a plant based diet will need to be slightly higher. How much more is controversial as most research done has not looked at plant based diets, which are usually high in vitamin C. The general recommendations currently are thought to be 1.8x more iron intake than the RDI for the general public.

 

Foods high in Iron

Food Iron per 100g Iron per typical serve
Fillet steak 4.2mg 7.3mg (1 steak)
Pumpkin seeds 15mg 7.5mg (1/2 cup)
Weetbix sanitarium 15.4mg 5.24mg (2 weetbix)
Pistachio raw 6.8mg 5.1mg (1/2 cup)
Wheatgerm 9.8mg 4.8mg (1/2 cup)
Cashew 6.3mg 4.7mg (1/2 cup)
Sunflower seeds 6.7mg 4.4mg(1/2 cup)
Navy beans 2.5mg 4.2mg (1 cup)
Wheatbran 13.5mg 4mg (1/2 cup)
Molasses 13mg 4mg (1 Tablespoon)
Lentils 2.4mg 3.8mg (1 cup)
Black beans 2.1mg 3.6mg (1 cup)
Almonds raw 4.5mg 3.4mg (1/2 cup)
Tempeh 2.7mg 3.4mg (1/2 cup)
Tofu 2.4mg 3mg (1/2 cup)
Dark chocolate 70% 11.9mg 3mg(25g)
Kidney beans canned 1.7mg 2.9mg (1 cup)
Chickpeas 1.3mg 2.1mg (1 cup)
Marmite 42mg (vegemite 2.7mg) 2.1mg (1 teaspoon)
Rolled Oats 3.7mg 1.7mg (1/2 cup)
Sesame seeds 7.7mg 1.4mg (1/2 cup)
Spinach raw 4.4mg (2.5mg boiled) 1.3mg(1 cup)(1.8mg boiled)
Nori (seaweed) 20mg 0.6 (3g sheet)

*Information sourced from NZ food composition database per 100g - www.foodcomposition.co.nz

Tips for getting enough Iron

  1. Avoid tea and coffee around meal times, this includes herbal teas (because of tannins)

  2. Mix iron rich foods with foods high in vitamin C- eg citrus fruit, strawberries, kiwifruit, green leafy vegetables, capsicums and cauliflower.

  3. Consider adding some sea vegetables into your weekly meals (e.g kombu, dulse, nori)

  4. Increase your daily intake by choosing foods that are iron enriched like Weet-bix.