10 iron-packed vegetarian foods (and how to eat them)

It’s little secret that iron is an essential ingredient in, well, living. Your body uses it to make haemoglobin, a protein in our blood cells that carries oxygen to all our hungry tissues. 

So, it makes sense that a lack of iron can lead to seriously low energy levels, irritability, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness and even anaemia, or not enough healthy red blood cells doing red blood celly stuff.

Though requirements will vary based on your stage in life, the recommended daily iron intake is around 18 mg per day for adult women (not pregnant or breastfeeding) and 8 mg per day for adult men.

Heme vs non-heme: the important difference

Iron comes in the form of heme iron (found in animal products) and non-heme iron (found in plants). 

Heme iron tends to be more easily absorbed by our bodies than non-heme iron, which means vegetarians, vegans and those trying to cut down their meat intake need to make sure they’re getting an adequate supply from plant-based soruces. Work to RDI around 1.8 times higher and you should be safe.

It’s also important to note that while veggies contain non-heme iron, they’re also generally rich in vitamin C, which can help enhance iron absorption.

Here are some of the richest sources, and how to add them to your diet.

Tofu: ½ cup of tofu provides about 6.6 mg iron
Serve it up: in stir fries, curries, sandwiches – basically anywhere you’d have chicken

Lentils: 1 cup of cooked lentils also comes in with 6.6 mg iron
Serve it up: stews, salads, curries and pasta sauces as a meat replacement

Chickpeas: 1 cup cooked chickpeas will give you about 4.7 mg iron
Serve it up: falafel and hummus are tasty chickpea-based dishes you should get amongst

Weetbix: Aussie Weetbix are fortified with iron, coming it at 4.2mg per serve (2 biscuits)
Serve it up: with milk and fresh fruit, or blended in a smoothie

Red kidney beans: 1 cup cooked kidneys (the bean version) provides around 4 mg iron
Serve it up: They make a mean base in a taco filler, or a fresh salad

Quinoa: 1 cooked cup of this gluten-free option serves up about 2.8 mg iron
As a rice or pasta replacement, or the base for a salad

Leafy greens: 2 cups raw spinach contains around 2.5 mg iron
Serve it up: add to pretty much anything hot and watch it magically disappear. Also makes a great salad base

Oats: ½ cup oats will give you around 2mg iron
Serve it up: as porridge as breakfast, or crumble as dessert

Cashew nuts: 20 nuts provides around 1.5 mg iron
Serve it up: as an arvo snack, or blended in a nut butter and smeared on toast

Pumpkin seeds: 1 tablespoon provide around 1-2 mg iron
Serve it up: sprinkled over cereal, salads or as a stand-alone snack