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Iron For Vegetarians and Plant-based Women – A Complete Guide

I’m Kayli Anderson, dietitian and natural foods chef. PBM is your headquarters for empowering, woman-centered plant-based nutrition and lifestyle guidance. 

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Iron is an important nutrient for plant-based women to know about. It’s critical to health and energy, and women’s iron needs are 50% higher than men’s at certain phases of her life. In this complete guide for iron for vegetarians and plant-based women, you’ll learn where to find iron and how to get enough from plants.

Why is iron important for women?

Iron plays a role in our blood’s ability to transport oxygen throughout the body and in our immune function.

Women’s iron needs fluctuate throughout life with menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause, so it is important for women to be aware of their needs as they change. Premenopausal women, pregnant women, and women in endurance sports like running are at highest risk for iron deficiency.

Best Sources of iron for vegetarians and plant-based women

Iron for vegetarians and plant eaters is a misunderstood topic. Many people assume that because animal foods are so concentrated with iron, they must be the best sources, but this isn’t true. The type of iron found in plant-based foods (non-heme iron) may actually be a safer type of iron than the type found in animal products (heme iron). The body can regulate non-heme iron but not heme iron, and too much heme iron is linked to heart disease and certain types of cancers. Adequate plant-based iron is also associated with normal ovulation and fertility.

Many plant-based foods are rich sources of non-heme iron, but some plant foods also contain a compound called phytate that interferes with iron absorption. Vitamin C has the power to free iron from phytate and increase iron absorption. Because of this, iron-rich plant-based foods should be eaten along with vitamin C-rich foods to help boost absorption. See below for a list of vitamin C-rich foods.

Plant-based foods with iron:

  • Almonds
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Broccoli
  • Beans
  • Bok choy
  • Cashews
  • Dark chocolate
  • Dried figs and raisins
  • Edamame
  • Kale
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts
  • Peas
  • Pistachios
  • Pumpkin
  • Spinach
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Tofu

Plant-based foods that enhance iron absorption:

  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges)
  • Kale
  • Kiwi
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes

How much iron do you need?

Iron is an important nutrient for women to pay attention to. Women’s iron needs are almost twice that of men since women lose blood (and therefore iron) through menstruation, and needs increase even more during pregnancy as a woman’s blood volume expands. The heaviness of a woman’s period also impacts how much iron replenishment she needs.

Related:  How To Get Iodine For Vegan and Plant-based Women

Iron recommendations are based on diets that include animal foods (heme iron). Because plant-based non-heme iron is less readily absorbed than heme iron, it’s likely that the recommended intake of iron for vegetarians and plant eaters is a little higher. The table below includes standard recommendations, so if you are 100% plant-based, you may want to aim a little higher with your iron intake.

Recommended Iron Needs for Women


Tips for getting enough iron for vegetarians and plant eaters

  • Eat vitamin C-rich foods at every meal to enhance iron absorption
  • Tea and coffee can inhibit absorption, so drink them before or after meals instead of during
  • Calcium supplements can also inhibit iron absorption, so do not take them with meals
  • Prepare meals in cast-iron cookware to boost iron content
  • If you have high iron needs (pregnancy, heavy periods, endurance sports), consider an iron supplement

BTW, you might also like The Complete Guide To Plant-based Benefits For Women and Calcium Needs For Women.

Want more help with your nutrition plan?

Join the Plant-based Basics For Women Course! You’ll learn how to meet your unique needs, what to eat for optimal health, and how to make plant-based eating an easy and sustainable part of your life.


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