10 Iron-Packed Veggies That Will Help You Up Your Daily Intake—and Boost Your Energy Levels

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If protein is the star of the nutrition world, then iron is the scene-stealing supporting actress: essential for the health of your body, but under-appreciated (and in need of better PR). And if you don't eat meat—the easiest source of iron—getting enough iron in your diet can be tricky. Luckily, there are plenty of legumes and vegetables with iron that will help you out.

To be clear, your body needs iron. The mineral is used to make two different proteins: hemoglobin, which clings to red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body; and myoglobin, which delivers oxygen to your muscles. If there's not enough iron in your body—whether that's due to your diet or blood loss (and yes, losing blood during your period totally counts!)—you can develop anemia, a condition that can make you feel tired, dizzy, and give you headaches. Additionally, your immune system can also take a hit if you have depleted levels of the nutrient and fall into an iron deficiency.

Experts In This Article

So yeah, getting enough iron in your diet is pretty important. What's a plant-based eater to do? Prioritize iron-rich vegetables and legumes, of course! Keep reading to learn more.

What food is highest in iron?

Technically, red meat is one of the most bioavailable iron sources, says Caroline Thomason, RD, meaning it has a lot of iron that your body can easily use. (One cooked steak, for example, has a whopping 12.7 milligrams of iron.) However, there are plenty of legumes and vegetables with iron—just a different form of it.

There are two kinds of iron we eat in food: heme and non-heme. Heme is found only in animal-derived foods, such as meat, poultry, and seafood. Non-heme iron includes plant-based sources such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens. You get a bit more (iron) bang for your buck with heme iron; studies show that your body absorbs 30 percent of heme iron1, compared to 10 percent (or less!) of non-heme iron2.

That said, both food sources are great options for meeting your daily requirements! For plant eaters, the name of the game is increasing iron absorption, which we'll talk about in a bit.

Which vegetables are rich in iron?

There's one super-simple way to make sure you're eating enough iron every day, especially if you eat plant-based: filling your plate with a whole lot of iron-rich, body-boosting vegetables and legumes. As an added bonus, you'll get plenty of other important vitamins and minerals in the process, too. So, which ones should you pile on your plate? Start planning your meals around these superstar ingredients.

1. Spinach

In addition to being a vegetable high in iron, Thomason says spinach also offers a variety of other nutrients including vitamin C, magnesium, and fiber.

2. Mushrooms

To maximize the amount of iron you get from mushrooms, consuming them cooked is definitely the way to go. “Cooking mushrooms can increase the total amount of iron, mostly because the mushrooms shrink in size when they are cooked,” Thomason says. She adds that oyster mushrooms offer the highest iron content compared to other mushrooms.

3. Asparagus

Asparagus really packs a punch when it comes to iron content, particularly when eaten raw, Thomason says.

4. Potatoes

Potato lovers, rejoice. The vegetable is another good source of plant-based iron (especially if you keep the skin on). Thomason adds that potatoes are a great source of vitamin C, which helps improve iron absorption.

5. Black beans

Delivering over four milligrams of iron per cup, black beans don’t mess around in the nutrition department. Thomason notes that they are an excellent source of soluble fiber which can help decrease cholesterol and improve digestion.

6. Chickpeas

When you really want to step up your iron consumption, chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are a good option with nearly five milligrams of iron per cup of cooked beans. Plus, Thomason says, “these little beans are high in potassium and magnesium as well—two major electrolytes that help manage fluid retention and blood pressure.”

7. Lentils

Thomason describes lentils as an “iron-packed superfood” thanks to their nearly seven milligrams of iron per cooked cup. “Like beans, lentils are high in fiber and nutrients like potassium which can help lower blood pressure,” she says.

8. Broccoli

Although broccoli isn’t as high in iron as other veggies, Thomason notes it still makes the list for its other redeeming qualities. “Broccoli is high in vitamin C, vitamin K, and potassium,” she says. “These nutrients work to keep our skin and bones healthy.”

9. Navy beans

Like other beans, navy beans too are a vegetable high in iron providing about four milligrams of iron per cooked cup. Also, Thomason says, “Navy beans are high in fiber and can be helpful in lowering chronic disease risk through our diet.”

10. Kale

Kale is considered a nutritional powerhouse with considerable amounts of essential nutrients like calcium, vitamin C, potassium, and iron. It's also a great source of carotenoids and anti-inflammatory antioxidants that support overall well-being.

How much iron should you consume daily?

According to the National Institutes of Health, women aged 19 to 50 should eat 18 milligrams of iron per day. If you're pregnant, that number goes up to 27 milligrams. Getting enough iron is critical to avoid feeling lethargic and lousy.

Because iron from plants (non-heme) isn't as easily absorbed as iron from animal products (heme), it's recommended that plant-based eaters eat 1.8 times the standard daily amount. So a vegan woman who isn't pregnant, for example, would want to eat 32 milligrams of iron a day.

How can I raise my iron levels quickly?

To make sure you're getting enough iron (and fast), you'll want to increase your iron intake from a variety of sources and combine that with foods that help you body absorb iron.

Start by pairing your plant-based iron foods with foods with vitamin C—think oranges, pineapple, and cruciferous veggies. Research shows that the two nutrients work together to help your body better absorb the iron3.

Another way to take in more iron is to simply pair iron-rich veggies with other healthy iron-rich foods. Toss some nuts and seeds into your meals, as those are jam-packed with the mineral—particularly pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cashews, and pistachios. You can also cook your food using a cast-iron pan4, which—fun fact!—can up the amount of iron you're getting.

Want to go the extra mile? Consider how you prepare your iron-rich foods—sometimes raw foods have more iron than their cooked counterpart, and vice versa. Beans, says Thomason, have less bioavailable iron after cooking. Meanwhile, one cup of cooked spinach contains more iron than one cup of raw spinach. The reason for this increase in nutrients, Thomason explains, is simply because some foods tend to shrink when heated. (In other words, you’ll need more cooked spinach than you did raw spinach to fill up the same-sized cup.)

Non-vegetable foods high in iron

Vegetables aren’t the only food sources of iron. Here are a few more Thomason recommends.

1. Red meat: Eating red meat can help boost your iron intake. As Thomason mentioned earlier, red meat is the most bioavailable iron source, meaning it’s readily absorbed and used by the body.

2. Dried fruit: Dried fruit is also high in iron. In particular, Thomason says dates and apricots are popular for their iron content. They get bonus points for also containing vitamin C, which helps with iron absorption.

3. Shellfish: Thomason says that clams, oysters, and other forms of shellfish (such as shrimp and crab) are great iron sources and also easy for the body to absorb.

4. Iron-fortified cereals: “Fortified cereal is required to have iron,” Thomason says. “So, if you are getting a healthy dose of whole grains, you are well on your way to an adequate iron diet.”

Foods (and drinks) that can potentially hinder iron absorption

While vitamin C can help increase iron absorption, there are other foods and beverages that do the exact opposite, making it harder for your body to get enough iron. Research shows that calcium (which you get in dairy and certain plant foods) can inhibit iron absorption. The polyphenols in tea, coffee, and red wine can also hinder how much iron you take in6.  So try to space out those foods from each other; if you have to take an iron supplement, take it with OJ rather than coffee or milk.

How to eat for optimal energy, according to a dietitian:

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Skolmowska, Dominika, and Dominika Głąbska. “Analysis of Heme and Non-Heme Iron Intake and Iron Dietary Sources in Adolescent Menstruating Females in a National Polish Sample.” Nutrients vol. 11,5 1049. 10 May. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11051049
  2. Beck, Kathryn L et al. “Dietary determinants of and possible solutions to iron deficiency for young women living in industrialized countries: a review.” Nutrients vol. 6,9 3747-76. 19 Sep. 2014, doi:10.3390/nu6093747
  3. Lynch, S R, and J D Cook. “Interaction of vitamin C and iron.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 355 (1980): 32-44. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1980.tb21325.x
  4. Sharma, Shally et al. “Effect of cooking food in iron-containing cookware on increase in blood hemoglobin level and iron content of the food: A systematic review.” Nepal journal of epidemiology vol. 11,2 994-1005. 30 Jun. 2021, doi:10.3126/nje.v11i2.36682
  5. Lönnerdal, Bo. “Calcium and iron absorption–mechanisms and public health relevance.” International journal for vitamin and nutrition research. Internationale Zeitschrift fur Vitamin- und Ernahrungsforschung. Journal international de vitaminologie et de nutrition vol. 80,4-5 (2010): 293-9. doi:10.1024/0300-9831/a000036
  6. Moustarah F, Daley SF. Dietary Iron. [Updated 2024 Jan 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK540969/

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