15 Iron-Rich Vegan Food Combinations
15 Iron-Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping

Today I’m checking in with a continuation of my series of posts on nutrient-rich combinations of plant foods. First I tackled protein, and then I addressed calcium. Today I’m chatting about iron within a vegan diet, and I’m offering you 15 iron-rich combinations of plant food, along with ideas for how to enjoy them.

All About Iron

Iron is needed by red blood cells in order to deliver oxygen throughout the body. It’s essential for energy maintenance, and it also plays a role in DNA synthesis and immunity. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide, and it’s more common among women than men, in part because women lose iron through menstruation. Low iron stores lead commonly to iron-deficiency anemia; symptoms include fatigue, pallor, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath.

When we think about iron, our minds might immediately turn to red meat, liver, or any of the foods we were told to eat for iron when we were growing up. It’s true that red meat is a great source of iron, but so are many plant foods, including lentils, soybeans, and leafy greens; in fact, an average serving of lentils contains more iron than a 3-ounce serving of beef. A cup of cooked turnip greens or beet greens contains about 20%. Surveys of vegans show them to be at no greater risk for iron deficiency than omnivores [1, 2], and some research suggests that vegans may consume more iron, on average, than do non-vegans [3].

Vegan Diets and Iron Absorption

In spite of the fact that vegan diets can easily be abundant in iron, there are some factors that vegans should consider beyond the actual amount of iron consumed–namely, issues of bioavailability and absorption.

The type of iron in plant foods, known as non-heme iron, is less well absorbed than heme iron, which comprises about 40% of the iron found in meat, poultry, and fish. Some research suggests that the bioavailability of iron from diets that contain substantial amounts of animal protein is about 14-18%, while it’s closer to 5% to 12% from vegetarian diets [4]. Vegans may need to consume more iron in order to account for this difference. 

Many iron-rich plant foods are also high in phytates (also known as phytic acid). Phytates bind to iron and other minerals, preventing their absorption. Phytates are abundant in some of the most healthful and nutrient-dense plant foods, including whole grains and legumes, and they’re associated with some potential health benefits, so they shouldn’t be avoided; rather, vegans should take care to eat ample iron-rich foods and be mindful of strategies than can help to increase absorption.

One of these strategies is to eat foods that are rich in vitamin C (ascorbic acid) along with foods that are rich in iron, since vitamin C significantly increases the absorption of non-heme iron. Vitamin C, which is found in plant-based foods including bell pepper, strawberries, certain crucifers, and citrus, can increase iron absorption up to six-fold, which may ultimately outweigh the differences in bioavailability between heme and non-heme iron [5]. The fermentation process used to make breads such as whole wheat sourdough can also help to increase absorption.

Finally, tannins–found in coffee and tea–can decrease iron absorption, as can calcium. For this reason, it’s wise to each iron-rich food a few hours before or after coffee and/or calcium supplements, if you take them [6].

Iron Recommendations

As far as iron recommendations go, the RDA for women between the ages of nineteen and fifty is 18 milligrams daily. It’s lower for men–8 milligrams daily–to account for the fact that women lose some iron through blood loss during menstruation. For women 51+, the recommendation is 8 mg daily, and for teens (14-18 years), it’s 15 mg daily.

While the Institutes of Medicine recommends that vegetarians and vegans get 1.8 times the RDA [7], an increased intake of this magnitude may not be necessary.

In her iron primer for vegans, Ginny Messina notes that the current iron need determinations were based on limited research. She also cites studies suggesting that human bodies may adapt to lower iron bioavailability with enhanced absorption [8, 9].

In other words, it probably behooves vegans to increase iron intake above the RDA, but it may not be necessary to essentially double iron intake beyond what’s recommended for omnivores. No matter what, vegans should keep in mind the additional factors (like vitamin C consumption) that impact how iron is absorbed.

The plant-food combinations I’m sharing in this post, and my calculations of how they help you to reach the RDA, use the standard recommendation of 18 milligrams per day for women. My vegan readers can increase intake well beyond that by maximizing consumption of beans, soy foods, leafy greens, certain grains (especially quinoa, bulgur, and pearled barley), blackstrap molasses, cashews, and sesame seeds/tahini, among other foods.

Vegan Foods that are High in Iron

Now we get to the fun part: food! Specifically, the vegan foods that can best help you to source ample iron in your diet. Here’s a list of twenty plant-based foods that are particularly rich in iron:

Spinach, cooked, 1 cup: 6.4 mg (36%)
Tofu, 4 ounces: 6.4 mg (36%)
Soybeans, cooked, 1/2 cup: 4.4 mg (24%)
Swiss chard, cooked, 1 cup: 4.0 mg (22%)
Blackstrap molasses, 1 tablespoon: 3.6 mg (20%)
Lentils, cooked, 1/2 cup: 3.3 mg (18%)
Potato, cooked, 1 large: 3.2 mg (18%)
Turnip greens, cooked, 1 cup: 3.2 mg (18%)
Quinoa, cooked, 1 cup: 2.8 mg (16%)
Beet greens, cooked, 1 cup: 2.7 mg (15%)
Tahini, 2 tablespoons: 2.7 mg (15%)
Peas, cooked, 1 cup: 2.5 mg (14%)
Tempeh, 4 ounces: 2.4 mg (13%)
Black eyed peas, cooked, 1/2 cup: 2.2 mg (12%)
Cashews, raw or roasted, 1/4 cup: 2.1 mg (12%)
Kidney beans, cooked, 1/2 cup: 2.0 mg (11%)
Chickpeas, cooked, 1/2 cup: 1.8 mg (10%)
Black beans, cooked, 1/2 cup: 1.8 mg (10%)
Bok choy, cooked, 1 cup: 1.8 mg (10%)
Bulgur, cooked, 1 cup: 1.7 mg (10%)

A quick note about spinach: while it’s very high in non-heme iron, it’s also high in polyphenols that are thought to inhibit absorption [10, 11]. So it’s a particularly good food to consume with vitamin C.

15 Iron-Rich Combinations of Plant Food

It’s always one thing to see, or read about, or be told about foods that are high in this-or-that nutrient. From a practical standpoint, though, I think it’s so much more impactful to be told how to incorporate such foods into a real-world, everyday diet. That’s what the goal of this post truly is, and without further ado, here are 15 iron-rich combinations of plant food, as well as some thoughts on how you might enjoy them.


Spinach (36%) + quinoa (16%) = 52%

Prepare a simple quinoa pilaf and stir in cooked spinach, or combine quinoa and spinach in a hearty soup or stew (you can try topping my cream of broccoli and quinoa soup with tempeh bacon or lemon pepper tempeh cubes!).


Blackstrap molasses (20%) + black beans (10%) = 30%

Prepare a batch of baked beans with blackstrap molasses, or try making my iron vegan sweet potato and black bean enchiladas.

15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping

Potato (18%) + turnip greens (18%) = 36%

Prepare a baked potato and stuff it with vegan sour cream or buttery spread and a cup of cooked, dark leafy greens. Or, try combining potatoes and turnip greens in an easy vegan hash.

15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping

Tempeh (13%) + bulgur (10%) = 23%

Make a batch of vegan tabbouleh and top it with my lemon pepper tempeh cubes, or prepare a simple bulgur and vegetable salad, then pile it high with tempeh bacon.


Chickpeas (10%) + quinoa (16%) = 26%

Quinoa and chickpea salads to the rescue! Start with my quinoa chickpea caesar salad, or my quinoa, carrot, and spinach salad with spicy carrot chili vinaigrette.

Other iron-rich options (featuring different beans) include my protein packed black bean and kidney bean quinoa salad, or my quinoa, corn, black bean, and tempeh salad with creamy cilantro dressing.

15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping

Tofu (36%) + spinach (36%) = 72%

Create a quick and easy stir fry using seared tofu, spinach, and your favorite whole grain. Or, for a comfort food meal, try whipping up my vegan eggplant rollatini.

15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping
15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping

Soybeans (24%) + bok choy (10%) = 34%

Create a stir fried rice dinner with soy beans and bok choy, or try my bean noodles with bok choy, edamame, and miso sesame sauce.


Lentils (18%) + quinoa (16%) = 34%

Where to begin? Both of these ingredients are abundant in vegan recipes, and they can be easily folded together in salads, pilafs, and grain bowls. I love combining them in my festive, holiday-worthy quinoa salad with dried cranberries, apricots, lentils, and pecans, or you could try serving my slow cooker masala lentils over a bowl of fluffy quinoa.  


Blackstrap molasses (20%) + cashews (12%) = 32%

Combine molasses and cashews in a bowl of morning porridge or oatmeal, or try combining them in nutrient-dense muffins or quickbread!


Black beans (10%) + quinoa (16%) = 26%

There are so many things I like to do with this combination of ingredients that I’m not sure where to start! They play very nicely together in salads, bowls, and more. Try combining them in my black bean and quinoa salad with quick cumin dressing, or throw them together and let them simmer in my slow cooker black bean, quinoa, and butternut squash chili.

15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping

Turnip greens (18%) + black eyed peas (12%)

Of course you might combine these two in a simple bean & green skillet (sort of like my simple stewed pinto beans and collard greens). But for something a little more traditional and festive, try combining them in a vegan hoppin’ John dish, and using turnip greens in place of traditional collards.

15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping

Bulgur (10%) + kidney beans (11%) + tahini (15%) = 36%

Try throwing these ingredients together in a Middle Eastern stew or soup dish. Or, throw together a simple bowl with bulgur wheat, kidney beans, and either tahini dressing or a nice big scoop of hummus and tahini.

15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping

Tofu (36%) + bok choy (10%) = 46%

Try combining these two ingredients together in a simple stir fry dish–with some bell pepper and/or cauliflower thrown in for extra Vitamin C!


Quinoa (16%) + peas (14%) = 30%

I love these ingredients on their own, and I also think they work really nicely in grain salads and pilafs. Try my purple asparagus and quinoa salad with peas, or my lemon herb quinoa with hemp seeds, spring peas, and basil.

15 Calcium Rich Vegan Food Combinations | The Full Helping

Tempeh (13%) + black beans (10%) = 23%

I love putting these two plant protein superstars together–especially in Mexican dishes, like chilis, but also in everyday salads. They’re great in my quinoa, corn, black bean, and tempeh salad.

As you can see, it’s truly not difficult to obtain quite a bit of non-heme iron within a single meal. It’s simply a matter of picking the right foods and then taking care to pair them, if you can, with vitamin C.

More Reading

Curious to read more? There are plenty of great resources on the web, including some of the articles that have helped me to write this post today. Start with Ginny Messina’s practical, comprehensive iron primer (and then take a moment to explore her other vegan nutrition primers). The Vegetarian Resource Group also has a great iron article that includes a comprehensive list of vegan sources of iron. And, true to form, Jack Norris offers extremely thorough and carefully researched information in this article.

Questions? Comments? Request for recipes or meal ideas? Let me know! I hope you find this post useful and practical, and I’m always happy to hear about other nutrition-themed posts that you’d like to read.

And because I can’t resist thinking in recipes, I’ve got one to share with you tomorrow that’s very rich in iron–and also quick, easy, and very delicious. Till soon!


1. Haddad EH, Berk LS, Kettering JD, Hubbard RW, Peters WR. Dietary intake and biochemical, hematologic, and immune status of vegans compared with nonvegetarians. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70(suppl):586S-93S.
2. Obeid R, Geisel J, Schorr H, et al. The impact of vegetarianism on some haematological parameters. Eur J Haematol. 2002;69:275-9.
3. Mangels R MV, Messina M. The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets. 3rd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2011.
4. Hurrell R, Egli I. Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91:1461S-7S.
5. Hallberg L. Bioavailability of dietary iron in man. Ann Rev Nutr 1981;1:123-147.
6. Gleerup A, Rossander Hulthen L, Gramatkovski E, et al. Iron absorption from the whole diet: comparison of the effect of two different distributions of daily calcium intake. Am J Clin Nutr 1995;61:97-104.
7. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc : a Report of the Panel on Micronutrients. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2001.
8. Hunt JR, Roughead ZK. Nonheme-iron absorption, fecal ferritin excretion, and blood indexes of iron status in women consuming controlled lactoovovegetarian diets for 8 wk [see comments]. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;69:944-52.
9. Armah SM, Boy E, Chen D, Candal P, Reddy MB. Regular Consumption of a High-Phytate Diet Reduces the Inhibitory Effect of Phytate on Nonheme-Iron Absorption in Women with Suboptimal Iron Stores. J Nutr 2015
10. Rutzke CJ, Glahn RP, Rutzke MA, Welch RM, Langhans RW, Albright LD, et al. Bioavailability of iron from spinach using an in vitro/human Caco-2 cell bioassay model. Habitation 2004;10:7-14.
11. Gillooly M, Bothwell TH, Torrance JD, MacPhail AP, Derman DP, Bezwoda WR, et al. The effects of organic acids, phytates and polyphenols on the absorption of iron from vegetables. Br J Nutr 1983;49:331-42.

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  1. Fantastic article! Love the recipe food combinations. My mother is quite low in iron, not wanting to consume too much meat, as am I. Forgot about the addition of vitamin C. Lots of recipes to try out. So grateful! A friend on YouTube, with cancer, and very low iron was instructed by his oncologist to consumer more meat and organs. His iron went up, but his other numbers also drastically went the wrong way. So, He stopped animal foods, switched to fish, and spinach. And his numbers and iron all returned to normal. I think he said, no oranges, due to the type of cancer, MM, as I have read elsewhere, but lemons were fine.

  2. Hi! Thanks for your post! I was just wondering if you could give us some breakfast ideas (sweet breakfast). I learnt that 100% cacao powder has huge amounts of iron, so I was taking it with some yogurt (animal milk), fruits and lemon juice. Now that I’m pregnant, I decided to stop dairy so I replaced the yogurt for soya ones..and now I’m very anemic. Any suggestion on a good breakfast combination? As I can’t use soya, oats nor nuts..I running out of ideas =/
    Thanks again!

  3. This is great list. It very helpful for us who wanna be healthy but cant afford a nutritionist. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for the list. I should really switch up my diet more. I’m pregnant and since the body is producing more blood (so weird to think that some of the pregnancy weight gain is just extra blood o___o) I am very concerned about my iron levels. I’ve been making an iron packed shake- mostly filled with greens, cocoa/cacao powder, fortified soy milk, and spirulina. I am a little sad to see cocoa isn’t on your list… but then again, it isn’t the best thing to eat a ton of if you are looking for a nutrient (because it is mostly served with sugar or fats.) But I betcha could make a great tasting savory mole dish.

  5. Did I miss the part where you talk about recommendations for post-menopausal women? There’s a few of us out here 😉

    • Quinn, I’m sorry. I totally ought to have included other age ranges! They’re as follows:

      9-13 years: 8 mg
      14-18 years: 15 mg
      51+: 8 mg

      As you can see, there’s a big drop — presumably to compensate for menopause. Thanks for the reminder — adding this to the post 🙂

  6. Thank you x 100 for this. I struggle with anaemia due to an underlying health issue, and this is just what I needed. Anaemia is a b**ch, and it’s only when one has experienced the large number of ways it manifests itself, that the huge importance of vigilant iron intake becomes clear. Thank you for a clear and informative post as always.

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been vegan for 16 years, and for the first time this year my iron levels were on the lowest end of normal. I had spent the last year eating huge amounts of raw baby spinach, and it has been suggested to me that that may have been impeding my iron absorption and I should try and eat it cooked for the most part to increase absorption. Anyway, I’ve been supplementing (in the evenings, away from my morning glass of Ca-fortified oat milk) and trying to eat with a more iron-focus. So this post is just really useful. Thank you!

  8. Can I just say that I appreciate these types of posts so much? I feel like there are far too few evidence-based, balanced vegan nutrition posts out there that acknowledge the fact that there are some nutrition special challenges that come along with a vegan diet… but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad diet! I feel like there are so many “silver bullet” type posts out there that refuse to acknowledge the challenges vegan diets can pose… so thank you! I have been a huge fan of Ginny’s nutrition primers for a long time.

    Now for my request- I love that you give actual meal ideas as opposed to just listing food sources of a nutrient… but I still don’t find these as helpful as they could be. Because I’m not just concerned with getting enough iron, I’m concerned with getting enough calcium, vitamins, and other minerals as well. I know not every meal has to have every nutrient- balance, variety, consistency etc can all take care of that. I would love to see a post that gave a sample week or 3-day period that met both calcium AND iron needs each day. I have a hard time meeting both unless I’m eating leafy greens and beans at every single meal…. I’m curious as to what that would really look like. I know you don’t want to prescribe meal plans, but I would find some examples of meals/snacks for a whole day that are reasonable on calories and meet both iron and calcium needs AND 100% vegan would be super helpful. I think it would be a great next step for this series!

  9. I love these posts! Always good things to keep in mind. I’m getting blood work done soon (something I should do more often), so if I am low on iron I’m totally coming back here for ideas.

    Side note – my father-in-law (and subsequently my husband) won’t eat spinach raw because he claims it blocks absorption of vitamin C. Any thoughts on this?

  10. Great post Gena! I will be counting up my iron tonight when I make my stir fry with leftover black rice, edamame and baby bok choi! (And maybe a little dressing of tahini, lemon and molasses. . .who knows. . .:) ) Thank you–I loved all the great photos of the food and food ideas too. Yummy! xo

  11. Absolutely loved this and your other posts on calcium and protein! I definitely will be book-marking these.

  12. Reading this during lunchtime is not advised. Your pictures, ideas and recipes made my lunch seem quite dull…although, it did include chickpeas and spinach!! Thanks for sharing, and love your blog as always!

  13. This was so informative and helpful Gena! Thank you tons. As someone who is very anemic, this really helps me understand how to make sure the iron I am getting is actually being absorbed. You are a wealth of knowledge, friend. – xx