Iron is an essential nutrient that plays an important role in many bodily functions.
A diet lacking in iron can result in low energy levels, shortness of breath, headaches, irritability, dizziness or anemia.
Iron can be found in two forms in foods — heme and non-heme. Heme iron is only found in animal products, whereas non-heme iron is only found in plants.
The recommended daily intake (RDI) is based on an average intake of 18 mg per day. However, individual requirements vary based on a person’s gender and life stage.
For instance, men and post-menopausal women generally require around 8 mg of iron per day. This amount increases to 18 mg per day for menstruating women and to 27 mg per day for pregnant women.
And, since non-heme iron tends to be less easily absorbed by our bodies than heme iron, the RDI for vegetarians and vegans is 1.8 times higher than for meat eaters.
Here is a list of 21 plant foods that are high in iron.
Legumes, including beans, peas and lentils, are great sources of iron.
Listed below are the varieties containing the most iron, from highest to lowest.
1. Tofu, Tempeh, Natto and Soybeans
Soybeans and foods derived from soybeans are packed with iron.
In fact, soybeans contain around 8.8 mg of it per cup, or 49% of the RDI. The same portion of natto, a fermented soybean product, offers 15 mg, or 83% of the RDI.
Similarly, 6 ounces (168 grams) of tofu or tempeh each offer 3–3.6 mg of iron, or up to approximately 20% of the RDI.
In addition to iron, these soy products contain between 10–19 grams of protein per portion and are also a good source of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.
Lentils are another iron-filled food, providing 6.6 mg per cup cooked, or 37% of the RDI.
Lentils contain a significant amount of protein, complex carbs, fiber, folate and manganese as well. One cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein and covers around 50% of your recommended daily fiber intake.
3. Other Beans and Peas
Other types of beans contain good amounts of iron as well.
White, lima, red kidney and navy beans closely follow soybeans, offering 4.4–6.6 mg of iron per cup cooked, or 24–37% of the RDI.
However, chickpeas and black-eyed peas have the highest iron content. They provide around 4.6–5.2 mg per cup cooked, or 26–29% of the RDI .
In addition to their iron content, beans and peas are excellent sources of complex carbs, fiber, folate, phosphorus, potassium, manganese and several beneficial plant compounds.
Several studies also link regularly consuming beans and peas to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as reductions in belly fat.
Summary: Beans, peas and lentils are rich in iron. These legumes also contain good amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and beneficial plant compounds that may reduce your risk of various diseases.
4–5: Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds serve as two more iron-rich plant sources.
Those who wish to increase their total daily iron intake should add the following varieties to their diet, as they contain the highest amounts.
4. Pumpkin, Sesame, Hemp and Flaxseeds
Pumpkin, sesame, hemp and flaxseeds are the seeds richest in iron, containing around 1.2–4.2 mg per two tablespoons, or 7–23% of the RDI.
Products derived from these seeds are also worth considering. For instance, two tablespoons of tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds, contain 2.6 mg of iron — which is 14% of the RDI.
Similarly, hummus made from chickpeas and tahini provides you with around 3 mg of iron per half cup, or 17% of the RDI.
Seeds contain good amounts of plant protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, antioxidants and other beneficial plant compounds, too.
They’re also a great source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Hemp seeds, in particular, seem to contain these two fats in the ratio considered optimal for human health .
5. Cashews, Pine Nuts and Other Nuts
Nuts and nut butters contain quite a bit of non-heme iron.
This is especially true for almonds, cashews, pine nuts and macadamia nuts, which contain between 1–1.6 mg of iron per ounce, or around 6–9% of the RDI.
Similarly to seeds, nuts are a great source of protein, fiber, good fats, vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants and beneficial plant compounds .
Keep in mind that blanching or roasting nuts may damage their nutrients, so favor raw and unblanched varieties.
As for nut butters, it’s best to choose a 100% natural variety to avoid an unnecessary dose of added oils, sugars and salt.Summary: Nuts and seeds are good sources of non-heme iron, as well as an array of other vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy fats and beneficial plant compounds. Add a small portion to your menu each day.
Gram per gram, vegetables often have a higher iron content than foods typically associated with high iron, such as meat and eggs.
Though vegetables contain non-heme iron, which is less easily absorbed, they are also generally rich in vitamin C, which helps enhance iron absorption .
The following vegetables and vegetable-derived products offer the most iron per serving.
6. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, swiss chard, collard and beet greens contain between 2.5–6.4 mg of iron per cooked cup, or 14–36% of the RDI.
For example, 100 grams of spinach contains 1.1 times more iron than the same amount of red meat and 2.2 times more than 100 grams of salmon.
This is also 3 times more than 100 grams of boiled eggs and 3.6 times more than the same amount of chicken .
Yet due to their light weight, some can find it difficult to consume 100 grams of raw, leafy greens. In this case, it’s best to consume them cooked.
Other iron-rich veggies that fit in this category include broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, which contain between 1 and 1.8 mg per cooked cup, or around 6–10% of the RDI.
7. Tomato Paste
At 0.5 mg per cup, raw tomatoes contain very little iron. However, when dried or concentrated, they offer a much greater amount .
For instance, half a cup (118 ml) of tomato paste offers 3.9 mg of iron, or 22% of the RDI, whereas 1 cup (237 ml) of tomato sauce offers 1.9 mg, or 11% of the RDI.
Sun-dried tomatoes are another iron-rich source, providing you with 1.3–2.5 mg per half cup, or up to 14% of the RDI .
Tomatoes are also a great source of vitamin C, which helps increase iron absorption. Moreover, they’re a great source of lycopene, an antioxidant linked to a reduced risk of sunburn.
Potatoes contain significant amounts of iron, mostly concentrated in their skins.
More specifically, one large, unpeeled potato (10.5 ounces or 295 grams) provides 3.2 mg of iron, which is 18% of the RDI. Sweet potatoes contain slightly less — around 2.1 mg for the same quantity, or 12% of the RDI.
Potatoes are also a great source of fiber. Additionally, one portion can cover up to 46% of your daily vitamin C, B6 and potassium requirements.
Certain varieties of mushrooms are particularly rich in iron.
For instance, one cooked cup of white mushrooms contains around 2.7 mg, or 15% of the RDI.
Oyster mushrooms may offer up to twice as much iron, whereas portobello and shiitake mushrooms contain very little.
10. Palm Hearts
Palm hearts are a tropical vegetable rich in fiber, potassium, manganese, vitamin C and folate.
A lesser-known fact about palm hearts is that they also contain a fair amount of iron — an impressive 4.6 mg per cup, or 26% of the RDI.
This versatile vegetable can be blended into dips, tossed on the grill, incorporated into a stir-fry, added to salads and even baked with your favorite toppings.