Iron is broken down into two categories: Heme and non-heme iron. Heme is found in animal foods and non-heme is found in plant based foods. Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body, but there are a couple of ways to more easily absorb non-heme iron, that I will outline bellow.
Good sources of non-heme iron include:
- Legumes: lentils, dried peas, beans, tofu, tempeh.
- Wholegrains: iron-fortified cereals, quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal.
- Green vegetables such as broccoli, leafy greens, Asian greens, string bean, thyme.
- Nuts, especially cashews, pistacio.
- Seeds: sunflower seeds, unhulled sesame- tahini, pumpkin seeds.
- Other sources: blackstrap molasses, tomato sauce, tumeric.
Vegetarian or not, it is recommended everyone include non-heme [vegetarian sources] of iron rich foods where possible, especially when iron stores are low.
The amount of iron is not the only important part, but how well you absorb it.
How to enhancing iron absorption:
Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) has been shown to enhance the absorption of the non-heme iron found in plant foods by up to 3 to 5 times [depending on which study you read] if consumed at the same time. Combining iron-rich plant foods with foods that are rich in vitamin C can improve your iron intake.
Most fruit or vegetables will supply some vitamin C, but great sources include: citrus fruits, papaya, capsicum, strawberries, kiwifruit, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, spinach. It can be as simple as squeezing lemon juice on some streamed broccoli and greens. Even cooking in a cast iron pan, especially vitamin C rich foods like pasta sauce increases iron, from the iron in the cast iron pan.
Inhibitors of iron absorption:
Tannins are a plant compound called polyphenols. They are found in black tea, some herbal teas such as peppermint tea, red wine, coffee, cocoa and cranberries.
Tannins may have some health benefits, but they can block the non-heme iron, reducing its absorption. It is best to avoid drinking strong black tea, red wine, coffee and cocoa at meal times.