Although many of us regularly pump iron in the gym, we also rarely give a second thought to working the other kind of iron—the nutrient—into our diet. Maybe that's why iron deficiency affects more than 3 million Americans. That's not a good thing since the mineral is involved in a number of important bodily functions, from producing red blood cells to keeping our skin, hair, and nails healthy.
The Food and Drug Administration suggests Americans consume 18 mg of iron a day, but you should know that not all iron is created equal. There are two types: heme and nonheme.
Heme iron is found in meat and fish, while nonheme is in certain leafy greens and iron-fortified grains, such as breakfast cereals. Meat eaters have an easier time getting their daily dose of iron because heme iron is more easily absorbed into the body. That’s why the Food and Nutrition Board at the National Academy of Sciences recommends that vegetarians consume nearly two times more iron each day than people who eat meat.
Luckily vegetarians can get some help by eating iron-rich foods with ones packed with vitamin C, which boosts iron absorption, says Vandana Sheth, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It’s also important to steer clear of dairy, coffee, and milk while eating iron-rich foods, which can limit absorption.
Now that you know the details, here are some tasty, meat-free ways to be sure you get your iron.
1. Seeded Bagel
30 percent daily value in 1 bagel (4 inches in diameter)
Before you banish bagels to the “bad carb” list forever, consider keeping them around: Sesame, poppy seed, and everything bagels give you nearly a third of your daily recommended value of iron (though we should clarify that it’s the seeds—not the bagel—that we have to thank for that).
2. Dark Chocolate
19 percent daily value in 1 ounce (28 grams)
We already knew that dark chocolate gives our brains a short-term boost in cognitive thinking skills and helps our bodies regulate the level of the stress hormone cortisol. Now we can add another benefit to the list: One ounce of dark chocolate comes packed with almost 20 percent of our daily iron. Just make sure you nosh dark chocolate made from at least 70 percent cacao and don't go overboard since chocolate isn't exactly low-calorie or low-fat.
3. Breakfast Cereals
100 percent daily value in 3/4 cup Whole Grain Total
Iron doesn’t naturally occur in Froot Loops or Frosted Flakes, but cereal giants have been fortifying the breakfast staple with vitamins and minerals for decades. And if you choose the right cereal—Whole Grain Total and Grape Nuts are great options—you can get your daily dose of iron in less than a cup. Talk about starting the day off right!
45 percent daily value in 1 package (28 grams) Quaker Instant Grits
If cereal isn’t your thing, you can still get an iron-packed breakfast with a good old bowl of grits. The Southern favorite can be a healthy meal, so long as you don’t pile on the cheese and butter, and brands like Quaker fortify their instant grits with iron so you get more bang in every bite. The only problem is grits aren’t super filling. Opt for a fiber-heavy side—blackberries, raspberries, or an avocado does the trick—and you’ll be full through lunch time.
10 percent daily value in 1/2 cup canned
No matter if you call them garbanzo beans, chickpeas, or that thing that makes delicious hummus, one thing is certain: These legumes are a good source of iron. Plus, chickpeas are also fairly high in protein, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc.
15 percent daily value in 1 cup cooked
This South American staple has quickly found its way onto the grocery lists of health nuts everywhere because it’s gluten-free and packed with protein. It also turns out to be a great source of iron. And quinoa is versatile—showing up in everything from muffin bites to stuffed peppers—so you’ll never get bored of the ancient seed.
7. Kidney Beans
10 percent daily value in 1/2 cup canned
From the children’s song, we know “beans, beans, they’re good for your heart.” We also know that they help with bowel movements thanks to a hefty dose of fiber. But beans don’t get enough credit for their other nutrients. In addition to fiber, beans contain protein and (surprise!) iron.
37 percent daily value in 1 cup cooked
This superfood is a fantastic source of iron—and potassium, folate, and antioxidants. And like quinoa, it’s incredibly versatile, finding its way into recipes such as lentil and goat cheese casserole, Greek-style lentil salad, and lemony salmon with dill lentil pilaf. With all these options, you have no excuse not to add this to your diet.