Quick, which has more iron: the tomato sauce or the meatballs?
Did you guess the meatballs?
Well, get ready…
…The tomato sauce wins.
Veggies pump iron
You read that right: A cup of tomato puree has 4.5 mg iron, whereas 3 ounces of Italian-style meatballs contains just 1.5 mg.
I know, I was shocked too! In fact, I never would have guessed it if I hadn’t done this post at the request of fellow plant-based food blogger Miss Polkadot. (Thanks for the great suggestion!) 🙂
Anyhow, it turns out lots of vegetables are loaded with iron.
(Is anyone else envisioning a tomato flexing little veggie arm muscles like Ah-nuld? Da gym is dat way!!!)
The safest way to get your iron
Better yet, the iron found in vegetables and other plant-based foods is the safest form of iron you can eat. Why?
Heme iron, found only in animal products, is absorbed even when your body’s iron stores are full. That’s bad, because excess iron in the body can generate dangerous free radicals. High iron stores have even been linked to cancer.1
The non-heme iron in plants? Your body absorbs it only when needed. So if you’re low in iron, your body can snap it up in a jiffy. If you’re all stocked up? Your body can politely say “no thanks.” How cool is that?2
Of course, the iron in plant-based foods is harder to absorb, thanks to fiber and other plant materials. Luckily, veggies (and fruits) have a trick up their sleeve to help you get the iron you need.
Vitamin C boosts iron absorption
Vitamin C, abundant in vegetables and fruits, helps you absorb iron from plant foods. In fact, just 70 mg of vitamin C—the amount found in a medium orange or ¼ of a yellow bell pepper—can increase absorption of iron from plant foods by up to 600%!2 That makes plant-based iron almost as easy to absorb as iron from animals—without the risk of absorbing too much.#PlantBased tip: Eating foods rich in vitamin C helps you absorb more iron! Click To Tweet
How much iron do you need?
Since plant-based iron is harder to absorb than heme iron from animals, vegetarians are advised to consume extra iron. Here are the U.S. recommended daily allowances (RDAs):
Luckily, getting enough iron is easy when you eat plenty of iron-rich, plant-based foods—including vegetables! (To learn even more about iron on plant-based diets, check out Iron in the Vegan Diet from the Vegetarian Resource Group.) In fact, I’ve never been anemic or iron-deficient on a plant-based diet.
Ready to pump some iron with veggies? Let’s do this!
Note: All data from the USDA’s National Nutrient Database, Release 28.
14 Iron Rich Vegetables
Popeye was right: You really are strong to the finish when you eat your spinach! Cooked spinach has a whopping 6.4 mg of iron per cup. And contrary to popular belief, at least one study found that the oxalate in spinach doesn’t interfere with iron absorption.3 (Although the calcium and other phytochemicals in spinach can decrease absorption somewhat.) So be sure to eat spinach with vitamin-C-rich fruits and veggies for maximum iron. (6.4 mg iron per 1 cup boiled, drained spinach)
2. Hearts of palm
I know, I didn’t expect this one either! But canned hearts of palm are loaded with iron. Try some on your salad tonight! (4.6 mg per 1 cup canned)
3. Edamame (green soy beans)
Not only is edamame rich in calcium (#2 in my 14 Calcium Rich Vegetables post), it’s also an iron powerhouse. Order some with your veggie sushi, and feel great about getting the iron you need—with 30 mg of built-in vitamin C for optimal absorption. Add a salad for an even bigger vitamin C boost! (4.5 mg iron per 1 cup boiled and drained green soy beans)
4. Pureed tomatoes
Italian food lovers, rejoice: Marinara sauce is a great way to get iron. Pureed tomatoes contain 4.5 mg iron per cup, plus 27 mg of vitamin C to boost absorption. (4.5 mg iron per 1 cup canned pureed tomatoes)
Okay, did anyone else know asparagus is rich in iron? 😉 Because I had no clue. Luckily asparagus is super tasty in veggie sushi or skewered into “rafts” on the grill. (4.4 mg iron per 1 cup canned and drained asparagus)
6. Snap peas
No veggie tray is complete without sweet and crunchy sugar snap peas. They’re also delicious in stir-fries! My favorite brand of sugar snap peas is Mann’s, because they’re stringless. (I also like that the company, despite its name, is woman owned.) 😉 (3.8 mg iron per 1 cup frozen, boiled, and drained edible-podded peas)
7. Baby lima beans
Buttery and delicious, baby lima beans are a go-to side dish around here. Tender with a hint of sweetness, they pair nicely with baked sweet potatoes. All they need is a light sprinkle of salt to be tasty! You can also smash them into a tasty dip with crushed garlic and herbs. Better yet, 1 cup of lima beans has the same protein as two eggs! (3.5 mg iron per 1 cup frozen, boiled and drained baby lima beans)
As if you need another reason to love pumpkin! Here are 7 Gluten-Free and Vegan Pumpkin Recipes to help you get your iron in the most delicious way possible. (3.4 mg iron per 1 cup canned pumpkin)
9. Sweet potato
Another nutrition powerhouse, sweet potatoes are rich in both iron and calcium! Enjoy them in Easy Southern Sweet Potato Salad or Low-Fat Chocolate Frosting. (Mmm…frosting. For the iron. 😉 ) (3.4 mg iron per 1 cup canned, mashed sweet potatoes)
10. Russet potato
As mentioned at the beginning of the post, baked potatoes are a great source of iron. Top them with beans and fresh salsa for even more protein and iron-enhancing vitamin C. (3.2 mg iron per 1 large baked Russet potato with skin)
11. Turnip greens
Yet another superfood that’s packed with minerals, turnip greens also clocked in at #3 on the calcium-rich veggies list. Tired of eating the same old greens? Check out these 10 Vegan Turnip Greens Recipes on Yummly. (3.2 mg iron per 1 cup frozen, boiled, drained turnip greens)
12. Sorrel (dock)
A farmer’s market favorite that’s easy to grow in a home garden, sorrel has a fresh, lemony flavor. We use it to brighten up spring-mix salads, so I was delighted to learn that it also delivers a healthy shot of iron! (3.2 mg iron per 1 cup raw, chopped dock (sorrel))
Succotash is a mix of lima beans and corn, sometimes with other vegetables for additional flavor. A protein and iron powerhouse, this budget-friendly dish was was a filling favorite during the Great Depression, according to Wikipedia. (2.9 mg iron per 1 cup boiled and drained succotash)
Love ’em or hate ’em, beets really are good for you. Not only do beets deliver a healthy dose of iron, but the pigments that give them their purple-red color are powerful antioxidants.4 Not a beet lover? Try them in these No-Bake Red Velvet Cookies for a pretty, healthy dessert—that doesn’t taste like beets. (2.9 mg iron per 1 cup canned, drained, diced beets)
Who knew that humble peas are rich in iron? Whether blanched and tossed into a vegan alfredo or slow-cooked into mushy peas, these little green gems are packed with big nutrition. (2.7 mg iron per 1 cup seasoned & canned peas with liquid)
16. White mushrooms
One of my favorite ways to add savory umami flavor to any dish, button mushrooms are also a lovely source of iron. (Cool fact: They may also help prevent breast cancer!) Use button mushrooms to top a cheese-free pizza, or make these weeknight-fast Mushrooms with Garlic and Wilted Spinach. (2.7 mg iron per 1 cup boiled and drained)
Your handy cheat sheet
Here’s everything in one place to make life easy…
- What’s your favorite iron-rich vegetable? Leave a comment and tell me!
1 . Iron: The Double-edged sword. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website. https://www.pcrm.org/health/cancer-resources/diet-cancer/nutrition/iron-the-double-edged-sword.
2. Hallberg L. Bioavailability of dietary iron in man. Annu Rev Nutr. 1981;1:123-47. DOI:
3. genannt Bonsmann SS, Walczyk T, Renggli S, Hurrell RF. Oxalic acid does not influence nonhaem iron absorption in humans: a comparison of kale and spinach meals. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2008 Mar;62(3):336-41. Epub 2007 Apr 18. [Abstract only]
4. Smith J. The power of purple: Purple foods provide healthy nutrients and antioxidants. Kansas State University website. https://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/feb11/purplefood20911.html. February 9, 2011. Accessed August 7, 2016.