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dear joan,
I am a 31-year-old female who wants to become a vegetarian. My mother is afraid that my diet is going to be low in iron. I thought that iron was in other foods besides meat. What’s the story?
--vegan bound

dear vegan bound,

There is some truth to your mom’s worry that you won’t be getting enough iron in your diet if you avoid meat or animal foods.

The latest recommendation regarding dietary iron from the Institute of Medicine advises vegetarians, particularly strict vegans who don’t eat any animal foods, to consume almost twice as much iron as people who eat meat and other animal foods. It turns out that iron from plant-based foods is not as well absorbed as the iron from meat, chicken, and fish. Consequently, a vegetarian should eat more iron to meet his or her needs.

A woman, 19 to 50 years old, needs 18 milligrams of iron daily. However, woman in the same age range who are strict vegetarians need about 33 milligrams daily.

That’s a lot of iron and you'll need to plan your meals carefully to meet your needs. Here’s some high ticket, iron-rich plant foods:


Iron (milligrams)

Brown rice, 1 cup cooked


Whole wheat bread, 1 slice


Wheat germ, 2 tablespoons


English Muffin, plain, 1


Oatmeal, 1 cup cooked


Pita, whole wheat, 1- 6 1/2 inch


Spaghetti, enriched, 1 cup, cooked


Raisin bran cereal, 1 cup


Legumes, Seeds, and Soy:


Sunflower seeds, 1 ounce


Soy milk, 1 cup


Kidney beans, ½ cup canned


Chickpeas, ½ cup, canned


Tofu, firm, ½ cup


Tempeh, ½ cup


Soy burger, 1

1.8 -3.9*



Broccoli, ½ cup, boiled


Green beans, ½ cup, boiled


Peas, ½ cup frozen, boiled


Lima beans, baby, frozen, boiled, ½ cup


*Can vary with brand. Check nutrition label.

Eating a fortified cereal along with a varied, balanced diet is probably going to be the best way to help you meet your daily iron needs, if you wish to switch over to a totally plant-based diet.

Here’s another important tip, you can double the amount of iron absorbed from a plant-based meal by adding foods that contain a mere 25 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C. And get this: Your absorption of iron can increase as much as three-to-six fold by adding vitamin C-rich foods that contain 50 mg or more in each meal!

Each of the following foods provide over 50 milligrams of vitamin C: 1/2 cup cooked broccoli, 8 ounces of grapefruit, orange or vegetable juice, a cup of either cantaloupe or strawberries, a kiwi or orange, or a sweet pepper.

Since iron is listed on the nutrition fact panels of food products, you can easily keep track of the iron in your diet. The iron content on the label is provided as a percentage of the daily value, which is set at 18 milligrams. For example, if the label states that a serving of pasta provides 10 percent of the daily value for iron, it will serve up 1.8 mg of iron.

Say "Hi" to your mom for me,



Updated: September 2005