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Sources of iron for vegetarians and vegans


As a vegetarian athlete, I’ve always paid close attention to my diet to ensure I get a proper mix of nutrients. For the longest time, I heard from everyone around me the best bet for getting iron in my diet was red meat. Even during my pregnancy, my family urged me to add steaks and other foods to my diet to fill the perceived gap and avoid dreaded anemia.

Iron – through the protein hemoglobin – is responsible for carrying oxygen from our lungs throughout our entire bodies. It also creates red blood cells, transports electrons (releases energy from cells), and is part of an overall healthy immune system. In the case of runners, specifically, low iron levels “can impair aerobic metabolism by decreasing the delivery of oxygen to tissues and reducing the capacity of muscles to use oxygen for the oxidative production of energy.”

If you’re a vegetarian athlete, you may wonder how much iron you need to stay in the green zone and avoid issues like iron deficient anemia.

The Center for Disease Control recommends adult males consume about 8 milligrams of iron each day. For women, the amount is a bit more tricky, with those in the childbearing years requiring as much as 18 milligrams. And pregnant women need a whopping 27 milligrams!

No matter where you fall on this spectrum, the suggested iron intake for athletes of all shapes and sizes is “1.3 to 1.7 times higher  … and 1.8 times higher for vegetarians than meat eaters.” Over the years I’ve learned there are numerous plant-based sources that give the traditional animal stuff a run for their money.

For example:

  • 1 cup cooked spinach contains 6.4 milligrams
  • 1 cup cooked lentils contains 6.6 milligrams
  • 1 cup cooked soybeans contains 8.8 milligrams
  • 1 cup cooked chickpeas contains 4.7 milligrams
  • 1 cup cooked swiss chard contains 4 milligrams

And all of these foods compare to a single serving (3 ounces) of steak that packs only 1.5 milligrams of iron. Other vegetarian sources that are solid include egg yolks, blackstrap molasses, fortified breads and cereals, lima and kidney beans, tofu, black-eyed peas, potatoes, and even prune juice.

Another fun trick for vegetarians to pick up? Cook meals with a cast iron skillet! The process will coat your meal with a little extra iron regardless of what you’re cooking. Here’s a fantastic recipe for cast iron tofu.

Note: The earliest signs of anemia can often be difficult to detect in the middle of a hard training cycle. But if you’re feeling particularly tired or weak, getting sick more easily, or having some mental confusion, it might be worth a trip to your practitioner to check your levels and discuss the next steps with your doctor.

Written by Ashley Marcin.

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