The human body absorbs heme iron–found only in meat and eggs–more easily than it absorbs the non-heme iron provided by vegetables. When non-heme iron is consumed with vitamin C, however, the body absorbs it at least as easily as iron from animal sources. Fortunately, most vegetarian sources of iron also contain vitamin C or are easily paired with foods rich in this vitamin. This may be why vegetarians do not suffer from iron deficiency at a greater rate than omnivores.
Raw pumpkin seeds provide 30 percent of the Recommended Daily Value for iron. When roasted, they supply about 15 percent, approximately the same as other seeds. Nuts such as almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts provide 8 to 10 percent of your daily iron needs. Grab a handful of nuts for a quick snack, or blend them into savory sandwich spreads and pates. Experiment with recipes that combine nuts or seeds with garlic, spices, sun-dried tomatoes or olives. Serve with crackers and raw vegetables or toss with pasta.
A half-cup serving of beans provides about 10 percent of your daily iron needs. Soybean products such as tofu and tempeh are also rich in iron, supplying about 10 to 15 percent iron per 4-oz. serving. You can help your body absorb most of this iron by preparing dishes that combine beans with foods rich in vitamin C. Examples include tomato and bean salad, vegetarian chili, tomato-based soup, tempeh sloppy Joes and tofu-vegetable stir fry. You may also want to add fresh bean sprouts to your diet, as they contain both iron and vitamin C. Toss bean sprouts into salad, soup, scrambled eggs and stir fry, or use in place of lettuce on sandwiches.
Eating a wide variety of vegetables will help you meet your iron needs. Spinach, collard greens, kale, broccoli, peas, brussels sprouts, bok choy and tomatoes contribute both iron and vitamin C to your diet. Spinach is particularly iron-rich, providing 36 percent of your daily need per cooked cup.These vegetables also go well with other iron-rich foods, such as tofu, tempeh and beans.
Many cereals and pastas are fortified with iron; read nutritional labels for the best choices. For a whole grain naturally high in iron, try quinoa or amaranth in place of brown rice and serve with vegetables or beans. For an iron-rich whole-grain breakfast, make hot cereal out of oats or buckwheat. To get your day started with even more iron, add nuts or seeds and some vitamin C-rich fruit, such as blueberries or strawberries, to your cereal.
Two eggs contain about 8 percent of the daily value for iron. Most of the iron found in eggs is heme iron that will be easily absorbed, and will also help your body better absorb non-heme iron from vegetable sources. To get the most out of your eggs, combine with iron-rich vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, beans, bean sprouts or potatoes. Tomatoes, which provide some iron and a lot of vitamin C, also go particularly well with eggs.
One tablespoon of blackstrap molasses provides 15 percent of the Recommended Daily Value for iron. Try mixing molasses with warm milk for a relaxing treat. If you like the flavor, consider adding it to your morning cereal.