Iron is a trace mineral needed by our bodies to transport oxygen to cells and tissues through the production of hemoglobin. This gives us our strength and healthy look (rosy cheeks). Unfortunately there are some things that can make this mineral a little more difficult for us vegan women to get. Do not fear. This post is all about the food to increase your iron levels and ways to increase absorption.

One of the first signs of low iron is decreased stamina, fatigue, and weakness, and over time, as the body’s ability to carry oxygen decreases, anemia can occur.

Recommended daily intake:

  • Women in menstrual years need 18 mg of iron per day.
  • Pregnant women need 27 mg/day.
  • Breastfeeding women need 9 mg/day.
These are the minimum requirements. The max for all three phases is 45 mg. Any more than this per day and you risk iron toxicity which is not common in women, but possible.

A special note about oral contraceptives – it has been found that women who are on oral contraceptives actually need less iron than those who are not. The recommended intake for those who are on oral contraceptives is 10.9 mg daily. This would be good to talk about with your health care provider to see if you need less or more.

Iron is needed in higher amounts during times of growth like childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy as well as breastfeeding. Another time iron can become low is if your periods are heavy and/or last for longer than normal – any time there is significant blood loss. These are important times to pay attention to the things that may be hindering iron absorption in the gut and try to decrease them.

As women, we need a stable source of iron because we do lose some during our periods. Here is a list of food sources of iron. This list is not extensive because so many foods do contain iron. These are foods that are easy to add to the diet and have higher levels of iron. Enjoy!

1) Soybeans

These are a good source of iron and can be eaten in many ways:

1. Tempeh is fermented soybeans. It has got a distinct fermented flavour and can be added to any meal. It can be chopped, grated, or sliced to make veggie bacon.

2. Soybeans can also be eaten, but do not eat them raw (they can be poisonous.) These can be cooked like other beans or they can be sprouted. To learn how to sprout, check out this post. Soybeans have the highest iron levels of these four items.

  • Special note on soybeans – most of the soybeans grown these days are GMO. It is too early to tell if there are health issues related to them, so at this time, I always recommend to get organic, non-GMO soybean products to avoid being a guinea pig.
3. Edamame is the immature soybean and to eat, just boil.

4. Tofu is mashed soybean that is pressed into the blocks we recognize. It can be marinated and then fried, crumbled and scrambled, thrown into a dip or sauce, and even used for desserts. Tofu can contain calcium if preserved this way, so if you are having problems absorbing iron, look for tofu without calcium.

2) Lentils

Another good source of iron as well as quite high in folate and fiber is lentils. These quick cooking legumes are great added to soups and stews, and can also be cooked on their own as a side dish.

3) Spinach

Spinach also contains vitamins K and A as well as good amounts of folate and magnesium. Lightly steam, saute, or boil for a short time to get the most out of this dark, leafy green. Spinach can be added to any meal as a side or directly to the dish for added flavour and colour.

4) Whole Grains

This is a large category because it is the bran and germ of the grain that contains the iron. When a grain is processed, eg. flour, the bran and germ are removed (when not whole grain flour.) Eating grains in their whole form can be as simple as boiling them until softened, like you would with rice. Some great choices are amaranth, barley, millet, wild rice, rye, and wheat.

5) Quinoa

Technically a seed, not a grain, quinoa is high in iron as well as protein and calcium. It is quick to cook (20 minutes) and can be added to just about anything – casseroles, sautes, smoothies, baking. Be sure to rinse and drain the quinoa prior to use to remove the soap-like coating on each seed.

6) Bok Choy

Bok choy also high in vitamins K and C and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This is another quick green to add to most meals. To prepare, chop into pieces and add to a skillet on med-high heat with coconut oil, veggie broth, or water and allow to cook for about 4 minutes.
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7) Sea Vegetables

This category of vegetable are some of the most nutrient-rich foods we can eat. Great for iodine, calcium, and potassium in addition to iron. These are usually soaked until soft and then added to meals uncooked. Dulse is one that can be added to boiling water for beans, grains, or soups to add minerals and flavour. Note that you may want to check to see if the product you are purchasing is organic because there are issues with water toxicity these days, and you don’t want mercury, arsenic, or lead in your sea veggies.

8) Sesame Seeds

They are also a great source of calcium, zinc, and potassium. Sesame seeds can be eaten in a variety of ways – raw, tahini (sesame seed butter), halvah (a sesame seed dessert), and gomasio (roasted sesame seeds and salt) sprinkled on dishes.

9) Cumin

This delicious spice used in chili and curry powder also contains calcium, magnesium, and potassium as well as antioxidants. Sprinkle into your next meal and enjoy. Light, oxygen, and moisture will ruin a dried herb’s potency, so store in a dark container away from light with an air-tight lid and store them away from heat sources to keep maximum flavour and colour.

10) Parsley

This is a great addition to any diet. Parsley can be eaten fresh (has the most nutrients) or dried and can be put on any dish. Heating parsley will destroy the great vitamins and minerals, so make sure to add after cooking. In addition to iron, this herb also contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, and folate.

Iron Absorption

Iron needs a longer time to be absorbed than other nutrients and this makes it unique because many things can happen during the time it is in your gut to make it less absorbable. Iron is finicky, so below are a list of ways its absorption can be decreased. Try to minimize these as much as possible:

  • Excess calcium – calcium supplementation
  • Low stomach acid (hydrochloric acid)
  • Antacids – because they decrease stomach acid
  • Phosphates – found in pop/soft drinks
  • Oxalates in spinach and chard and phytates in whole grains, nuts, and seeds. To reduce these lightly steam greens and soak whole grains, nuts, and seeds before cooking and eating.
  • Coffee and black tea – the caffeine and tannic acid reduce iron absorption
  • Fast gut motility – if food is going through the system faster than 18-24 hours, iron may have a harder time getting absorbed.
  • Some drugs – allopurinol (for gout or kidney stones), tetracylines (antibiotic), or high amounts of aspirin can all make iron absorption more difficult.


While minimizing the above points, you will also want to work on increasing the items below. These are ways you can increase iron absorption.

  • Using a cast iron skillet – this adds iron to food as well as makes it more bioavailable
  • Increase stomach acid – if you know that your stomach acid is low you can increase it by eating something bitter before your meal (dandelion leaves, arugula, etc) or go right for the digestive bitters (a liquid found in many health food stores.) The bitter flavour starts the digestive cascade so your stomach will start releasing its juices before you begin to eat. You can also try hydrochloric acid tablets, but make sure you know your acid levels are low, otherwise you may get a burning sensation.
  • Vitamin C – eat food containing vitamin C at or around your meal. Bell peppers, green veggies, berries, onion, citrus, pineapple, Brussels sprouts are just some examples. Some of the foods from the iron-containing list also contain vitamin C, so it is a one stop shop for our iron needs! These include spinach, bok choy, sea vegetables, parsley, cumin.
  • Our body will naturally increase absorption of iron when we need it most like with blood loss, iron deficiency, as well as during times of growth like pregnancy and breastfeeding.


Final Thoughts

Iron is so important to our health and vitality and because of this it is a good nutrient to keep an eye on. Feeling tired, weak, and fatigued, or losing the ‘colour’ in our cheeks can mean low iron, so be sure to get a test through your health care provider if you are feeling this way. It is better to know for sure.

As an overview, when you need to increase your iron levels, remember the points below:

  1. Eat whole foods rich in iron
  2. Remove any foods or circumstances that may decrease absorption
  3. Add in things that can increase absorption

Iron is so important to our overall wellbeing and can be a little tricky to get enough. This list is a great place to get started.

Please feel free to share this post with people who are having a hard time with their iron levels because this information can be a big help if someone doesn’t know what to do or where to look.

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