Here's a collection of iron-rich vegetarian meals, to ensure your vegetarian or vegan diet is giving you all the nutrients your body needs. Plus, how much iron do we actually need to eat anyway?
A lot of people worry about getting enough protein as a vegetarian (hence my collection of high protein vegetarian meals!), but iron is another nutrient that can be a concern for a lot of vegetarians. So here's a little collection of iron-rich vegetarian meals to inspire you.
A lot of non-vegetarians get the majority of their iron from red meat, so obviously if you cut red meat out of your diet, you're cutting out a major source of iron too. You can take iron supplements if necessary (speak to your doctor first!), but there are also ways of eating plenty of iron as a vegetarian.
In fact, studies have shown that it's more than possible for a vegetarian diet to meet current recommendations for all sorts of nutrients, and in fact a vegan diet could even be more nutritious than a meat-based one.
How much iron do we need to eat?
First, it's important to know how much iron we should be consuming, otherwise all the numbers in this post will be completely meaningless.
According to the NHS, this is how much iron we should aim to get from our diet:
- Men over 18: 8.7mg a day
- Women aged 19 to 50: 14.8mg a day
- Women over 50: 8.7mg a day
Eating too much iron (20mg or more) can actually cause unpleasant side effects, so there's no need to force yourself to consume excessive amounts.
What does iron do for our bodies?
I like this one sentence explanation of what iron does for our bodies:
Iron is important in making red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body.
Unless you're a doctor, that's all you really need to know. It's a hugely important mineral to keep our bodies functioning properly, and if you don't eat enough iron, you can end up developing anaemia.
Vegetarian sources of iron
The NHS lists the best vegetarian sources of iron as:
- beans (e.g. kidney beans, edamame, and chickpeas)
- dried fruit
- soy bean flour
- fortified breakfast cereals
As you can see, the list is pretty small, and contains a few items that a lot of people will very rarely eat. But luckily, there are plenty of other foods that contain smaller amounts of iron, which can easily add up over the course of a day.
What foods are high in iron?
Here are some vegetarian sources of iron. I’ve included a few non-vegetarian items in the table too (in italics and brackets), purely for comparison.
|Food item||Iron per 100g|
|(Chicken liver (cooked))||(11.43mg)|
|(Beef liver (cooked))||(6.49mg)|
|Kidney beans (cooked)||2.94mg|
|(Ground beef (cooked))||(2.47mg)|
As you'll see, liver is generally the best source of iron, but certain nuts and seeds are also very high good sources.
Considering liver isn't even a particularly commonly eaten meat among non-vegetarians, and most other meats are significantly lower in iron, there's no reason why a vegetarian diet can't contain just as much iron as a non-veggie one.
Heme vs. non-heme iron
There are two types of iron: heme iron, and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is only found in animal products. Vegetarian foods contain only non-heme iron.
Unfortunately, non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by our bodies as heme iron. So although vegetarian foods can contain as much iron as meat, it's not quite such a simple comparison.
There are ways we can help our bodies to absorb as much of the non-heme iron as possible. Vitamin C helps to increase its absorption, so it's a good idea to eat something high in vitamin C alongside your iron-rich food, to make sure you're making the most of your food.
For example, it's helpful to drink a glass of orange juice with your fortified breakfast cereal, or to add some red peppers to a meal made with chickpeas. This is especially important for vegetarians who consume only the hard-to-absorb non-heme iron.
Iron-rich vegetarian meals
You don't need to reach your recommended daily intake of iron in just one meal. In fact, it's more likely you'll hit your goal just a couple of mg at a time, across the course of a day. A bowl of fortified corn flakes for breakfast, for example, will give you about 2.4mg of iron. Do that a few times a day, and you'll be well on your way to hitting your iron intake goal.
However, if you do want a boost of iron in one meal, here are plenty of iron-rich vegetarian meals to inspire you. They all contain at least 6.5mg of iron per portion, and will give you a great iron boost.
Mushroom bourguignon [vegan] - 10mg iron per portion
Cheesy lentil pasta - 8mg iron per portion
One pot vegan jambalaya [vegan] - 7.4mg iron per portion
Mushroom and black bean chilli [vegan] - 6.5mg iron per portion
Vegan katsu curry [vegan] - 8mg iron per portion
Cheesy slow cooker lentils - 10mg iron per portion
15 minute mushroom stroganoff - 8.1mg iron per portion
Rustic butter bean cassoulet [vegan] - 13mg iron per portion
Vegan cream of mushroom soup [vegan] - 7mg iron per portion
Tofu 'chicken' nuggets [vegan] - 9.2mg iron per portion
Slow cooker jalapeño and white bean soup - 7mg iron per portion
Creamy roasted carrot dal [vegan] - 7.7mg iron per portion
Sweet potato and chickpea slow cooker tagine [vegan] - 9mg iron per portion
Mushroom stroganoff soup - 7.4mg iron per portion
Spicy sweet potato noodles [vegan] - 9mg iron per portion
Mushroom stroganoff pie - 11mg iron per portion
Kidney bean and sweet potato chilli [vegan] - 11mg iron per portion
And there you go! 17 iron-rich vegetarian meals, which all contain at least 6.5mg of iron per portion. Which would you make first? Have you ever worried about your iron intake as a vegetarian?