Vegan Vegetarian Iron Absorption Tips

My lil soul sister Taylor (14) has recently decided to join the plant passion revolution which I thought was a good time to review the basics of a healthy vegan diet so I could inform her of the essentials.

Some people think that it is not possible to meet optimal levels of nutritional iron thru a plant based diet alone.  I disagree and have included below some helpful tips on ways to maximize iron adsorption as well as a list of plant foods that are high in iron content.  

If you are vegetarian or vegan, it is possible to thrive on a plant based diet while meeting all your nutritional requirements including iron.  There are however some pointers to keep in mind when it comes to digesting non-heme iron from plant sources for optimal nutrition.


Iron Absorption

To help you meet your iron needs it is important to know that there are factors that both reduce and enhance iron absorption.

Factors that INCREASE Iron Absorption:

  • vitamin C
  • beta-carotene (lesser publicized, but some research indicates)

To increase your absorption of iron eat plants high in iron at the same time as foods or juices that are high in vitamin C.  This can dramatically increase the bioavailability of non-heme iron and increasing its absorption – up to 50% in some studies.  Another tip is to include lemons or tomatoes when you cook with your cast iron pan.

Plant Foods High in Vitamin C broccoli (especially cooked), lemons, chili peppers, red, yellow and green bell peppers, kale, tomatoes, papaya, strawberries, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, pineapples, kiwis, mango, cabbage, oranges, cantaloupe, pink grapefruit, guava, lychee, snow peas, sweet potatoes, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, most all leafy dark greens, apples, sea vegetables, limes, goji berries.


Plant Foods High in Iron: spirulina, sea vegetables, morel mushrooms, lentils, white beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, tahini, dark chocolate and cocoa powder, lima beans, soy beans, navy beans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, butter beans, swiss chard, spinach, black beans, pinto beans, black eyed peas, blackstrap mollases, tofu, asparagus, turnip greens, quinoa, beet greens, white mushrooms, green peas, scotch kale, mulberries, elderberries, mung beans, oatmeal, barley, dandelion greens, rice, chanterelle mushrooms, dried apricots, bulgar, leeks, coconut, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, pine nuts, yellow snap beans, dried peaches, olives, kale, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pistachios, buckwheat, dried prunes and currants, strawberries, raisins, oyster mushrooms, millet, macadamia nuts, raspberries, blackberries, wild blueberries, green snap beans, dried pears, figs, shiitake mushrooms, chia seeds, dried apples, tomato paste.

You can do wonders by just combining foods high in iron with choices high in vitamin C but I personally think these is some extra synergistic powers when they are both contained in the same food…

Plant Foods high in both Iron & Vitamin C (good for synergistic effect) – in order of highest iron content per serving: sea vegetables, cooked swiss chard, spinach, turnip greens, cooked beet greens, green peas, scotch kale, mulberries, elderberriesdandelion greens, yellow snap beans,  dried peaches,  kalepistachios, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries.


There is also some research that supports a connection between vitamin A and beta-carotene aiding in iron absorption.  Eat foods high in beta carotene with a good iron source.

Plant Foods High in Beta Carotene: apricots, beets and beet greens, carrots, collard greens, corn, red grapes, oranges, peaches, prunes, red peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnip greens and yellow squash, dark leafy greens, butternut squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe, red peppers, mango, papaya, romaine lettuce, broccoli, peas, carrots.

Plant Foods High in Vitamin C, and Beta carotene (good for synergistic effect): sweet potatoes, dark leaf greens, broccoli, red peppers, oranges, cantaloupe, mango, swiss chard, kale, tomatoes, papaya.

Plant Foods High in all three: Iron, Vitamin C, and Beta Carotene (good for maximum synergistic effect) in order of highest levels: green peas, yellow snap beans and dried peaches, swiss chard, spinach, turnip greens, beet greens, kale, mulberries, elderberries, and dandelion greens.


From the lists above please note that the foods listed in purple may not be good sources of iron because of their high oxalic content (see below).  There is however mixed research on oxalates & iron absorption of which is some raw food diet experts suggesting that oxalic acid is actually beneficial when consumed from raw.

The foods listed above in blue are high in calcium which may inhibit iron absorption (see below).  Eat foods high in calcium several hours away from meals that include iron.

The above listed in orange are high in phytates which is a known anti-nutrient to iron. Soak, sprout or ferment these foods to reduce phytate content.

The foods listed in red are foods that contain the anti nutrient phenolic acid.  Consume these at least 2 hours away from your iron-rich meal.


The land of nutrients is a convoluted one, best advice is to follow your own judgement, intuition and always listen to your body.


Factors that REDUCE Iron Absorption:

  • oxalates (oxalic acid): an organic acid found in many plants
  • phytates (phytic acid): a natural compound in plants
  • calcium
  • polyphenols (phenolic acid): naturally occurring plant chemicals rich in antioxidants of which tannins are one of


Common Foods with High/Very High Oxalates

in order of highest content of oxalates per serving …

  • Beet greens
  • Rhubarb
  • Spinach
  • Beets
  • Swiss chard
  • Rhubarb
  • Cocoa powder
  • Dandelion leaves
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Kale
  • Peanuts
  • Turnip greens
  • Chocolate, unsweetened
  • Parsnips
  • Collard greens
  • Pecans
  • Tea
  • Wheat germ

Other foods with a medium amount of oxalates: raspberries • blueberries • celery • concord grapes  • currants • eggplant • green bell pepper • white corn • juices containing berries • leeks • nuts (especially peanuts and pecans)  • parsley •  strawberries • summer squash • potatoes  • tofu • processed tomatoes (canned, sauce or paste), + most berries


Phytates (phytic acid) – a natural component in plant food:   Phytic acid is the storage form of phosphorus in many plant tissues, especially grains, nuts and legumes.  Phosphorus is not readily bioavailable for humans. In addition to blocking phosphorus availability, the “arms” of the phytic acid molecule readily bind with other minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc, making them unavailable as well.

Referenced from

Even low levels of phytate can have a strong negative effect on iron absorption.

Foods high in phytates:
 highest: wheat bran, rice bran, whole wheat, corn, rye, oats, brown rice, soy, pinto, kidney and navy beans, peanuts.

Also found in walnuts, peas, almonds, sesame seeds, dried beans, lentils, chickpeas, cereals, white beans, brazil nuts, potatoes and mung beans.

Three techniques to reduce phytate levels …

Soaking: You can soak your cereal grains and legumes overnight in water to reduce phytate content.

Sprouting: The sprouting of seeds, grains and legumes causes phytate degradation.

Fermentation: Organic acids, formed during fermentation, promote phytate breakdown. Lactic acid fermentation is the preferred method, a good example of which is the making of sourdough.  Sourdough is the best bread to eat with reduced phytate levels.

Click here for more information on soaking, sprouting and fermentation for reduced phytate levels.

 Large amounts of Calcium have been shown to have a negative effect on iron absorption.

Top Plant Foods that contain Calcium – in order of most potency per serving:  Tofu (try to buy without added calcium), sesame seeds, almonds , soy milk with added calcium, spinach, mustard greens, scotch kale, okra,  dandelion greens, swiss chard, turnip greens, rhubarb, collard greens, sweet potato, bok choy, butternut squash, artichokes, oranges, tangerines, green onions, cooked snap beans, rutabagas, kiwi, lemons, lima beans, turnips, pink grapefruit, leeks, cooked celery, watercress, beet greens, broccoli

Eat foods high in calcium several hours away from meals that include iron.


Polyphenols or phenolic acid are high in cocoa, coffee, and black tea.  Also found in apples, spices, walnuts, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, red wine, chamomile, green and peppermint tea.  They are iron-binding compounds and thus reduce iron absorption.  According to the Iron Disorders Institute, cocoa can inhibit 90 percent of iron absorption in the body, while one cup of coffee can prevent iron absorption by as much as 60 percent.  These foods should not be consumed within two hours prior to and following your main iron-rich meal.

Wow that is a lot of information just to dedicate to iron but it is an important topic.  Interesting that the foods that were high in iron were also high in antinutrients phytates and oxalates.  Make sure you soak your beans, that will reduce the phytic acid.

I don’t think that nutrition needs to be a science but there a few things to consider when you want to have a ton of energy, a good immune system, and loads of strength and endurance.   Maintaining your iron levels is in your best interest for health.

Health Hugs!

Danica Arcand

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s