Whether you have an iron deficiency or just want to make sure you’re getting a good helping of this important mineral, vegetables high in iron are a great way to increase your iron intake and to guard against the dangers of iron deficiency anemia.
Iron Deficiency: the Symptoms and the Dangers
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the United States. Without sufficient iron, the body cannot produce hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen to where it’s needed in the body. A severe lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which the body lacks enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen, which is why extreme iron deficiency might leave you feeling tired and short of breath.
Iron Deficiency Anemia Symptoms
Other symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- Bodily weakness
- Extreme fatigue
- Inflamed/sore tongue (a medical condition called glossitis)
- Pale or sallow skin
- Pale/brittle nails
- Chest pain or fast heartbeat
- Lightheadedness or headache
- Cold hands/feet
- Poor appetite (especially in children or infants)
- Unusual cravings for non-foods like ice, dirt, or hair (forms of the eating disorder pica)
Who Is Most at Risk of Iron Deficiency Anemia?
Some people are more susceptible to an iron deficiency than others:
- Women who are menstruating (especially those with heavy periods)
- Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have recently given birth
- Those with gastrointestinal diseases (celiac disease, IBS, or Crohn’s disease)
- Those who have undergone major surgery or suffered extreme bodily injury
- Vegetarians, vegans, or others on diets that do not include iron-rich foods from animal sources
- Those who’ve undergone bariatric operations like gastric bypass
- Those with gastrointestinal blood loss from ulcers, gastritis, or angiodysplasia
- Those who suffer chronic nosebleeds
- Those who donate blood too often
The Dangers of Iron Deficiency Anemia
If left uncorrected, this form of anemia could lead to further health problems:
- Irregular heartbeat, rapid heartbeat, an enlarged heart, or heart failure
- Pregnancy complications like premature births and low birth weight (an outcome guarded against in pregnant women who take iron supplements as part of their prenatal care)
- Stunted growth in children and an increased susceptibility to opportunistic infections
Fortunately, iron deficiency is usually quite easy to address, and the simplest solution is to first increase your dietary iron intake.
Vegetables High in Iron
There are two types of iron in our diets: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is only in animal sources like meat, poultry, seafood, and fish. Non-heme iron is the type of iron found in plant-based foods like grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. When seeking food high in iron, there are many options to choose from, particularly if you’re open to animal sources. When it comes to food high in iron, the highest overall are going to be animal sources of iron like oysters, lean beef, chicken, and turkey.
However, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll want to find other alternatives for iron that are not animal products. Plant sources of iron include beans and legumes, potatoes, whole grain bread and fortified cereals, as well as cashews.
But regarding vegetables that contain iron, you may be asking: which ones have the highest amount? The short answer is leafy green veggies of the cabbage family (cruciferous vegetables), but for the long answer, here are the full details of these vegetable sources, along with their daily value (DV) percentages of iron.
Highest on the list with 36% of the daily recommended value for iron, spinach is your best bet. The other nutritional benefits in spinach include carotenoids, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, calcium, vitamins C, B6, B9, E, and K. The more spinach you steam, cook, or blend into smoothies, the more iron you can get along with all of these other nutrients.
Unfortunately, spinach also contains oxalic acid, which inhibits iron absorption, so it’s sort of two steps forward and one step back with spinach when it comes to getting enough iron in your system.
Palm hearts are a tropical vegetable harvested from the inner core of certain palm trees. They’re a fantastic source of fiber, manganese, folate, potassium, and vitamin C. What’s not so well known is the fact that palm hearts also contain a significant amount of iron: 26% of the daily recommended intake.
Palm hearts can be grilled, blended into dips, tossed into a stir-fry, baked with your favorite toppings, or included in salads.
Swiss Chard is an excellent source of magnesium, potassium, and calcium, all minerals that can help maintain healthy blood pressure. With 22% of the recommended daily iron intake per cooked cup, it, too, is high on this list of vegetable sources of iron.
Swiss chard can be cooked with other ingredients or combined into delicious and healthy smoothies (which are great for getting a high concentration of whole food nutrients on the go). Include foods high in vitamin C with those smoothies to enhance iron absorption!
Low in saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol, not only are peas a great source of protein, but they also provide vitamin A, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, and copper. A good source of dietary fiber, peas are small, adaptable to recipes, and easily included in one’s diet if the 18% of daily recommended iron they contain is particularly appealing.
An immune system booster and vitamin C-rich antioxidant source, asparagus has 16% of the daily iron intake recommendation. That iron content helps to ward off an iron deficiency and serves to strengthen bones and joint elasticity. Whether of the green, purple, or white variety, asparagus brings resources that are good for those with urinary tract issues, as well as folate which can be especially valuable for pregnant women (who are at higher risk for iron deficiency already) in the prevention of birth defects.
The green leaves atop turnips are not roughage to be discarded but are actually edible leafy greens in their own right, which makes the turnip both a cruciferous and a leafy green vegetable.
With 16% of the daily recommended iron intake per cooked cup, it’s another double-digit player on the list.
Leeks are an excellent source of vitamin K, vitamin B6, copper, folate, and vitamin C. Leeks also contain vitamin E, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of that on top of a 10% daily value of iron per cup. Leeks can be braised, buttered, or baked in cream or oil for tasty inclusion on your dinner table.
We’re now down into the single digits with daily recommended intake value, but what kale is lacking in iron (at 6% the daily value per cup), it makes up for in value with extremely high amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K.
Including kale in a mixed green salad with some of the other heavier hitters on this list would not only bring its added iron content up, it would also increase the absorption of iron due to kale’s 134% daily value of vitamin C per cup.
Like turnip greens (although unfortunately lower in iron content at 5% the daily value per cup), beet greens are another cruciferous leafy green vegetable. Although they don’t contain that much iron, they do bring along great supplies of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, and calcium.
Easily made into a main dish of their own with green bean casserole, green beans are pea pods rich in protein, niacin, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, and copper. They also can contribute up to 5% of the daily recommended amount of iron per cup.
Scallions (Spring Onions)
With over 250% of the daily value for vitamin K, scallions support vascular health, strengthen the immune system, and help control hyperglycemia in diabetics. Though their iron content is the lowest on the list at 2% the daily value per cup, if you’re looking to put at least a little iron in every meal, scallions can be easily combined in a wide array of dishes, and they bring a whole host of other nutrients as well.
Supplements and Support Vitamins
We’ve mentioned that vitamin C helps with iron absorption. The truth is iron from vegetables (non-heme iron) is not as well absorbed by the body as is the iron from poultry, fish, or red meat. Including extra vegetarian food sources rich in vitamin C along with increasing your dietary iron intake is an excellent way to enhance absorption.
Foods with Vitamin C to Enhance Iron Absorption
You could combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C providers in the same meal, like eating spinach with lemon juice for example. In fact, drinking citrus juice is a great way to quickly take in vitamin C, so definitely put organic orange juice on the grocery list. Here are some of the other top vegetarian sources for vitamin C:
If the amount of iron available in vegetables is not enough, or if your body has so much trouble with the absorption of iron that even over-the-counter multivitamin supplements aren’t helping, a doctor may prescribe up to 150-200 mg per day of elemental iron to bring your levels back into balance. That is your option if all else fails, but fortunately cases of iron deficiency anemia that severe are rare thanks to our plentiful access to dietary sources of iron.
Knowing which vegetables are high in iron is a great first step in making sure you never have to suffer the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia on a vegetarian or vegan diet. Make a habit of eating them now, and thank yourself forever!