Updated: Jul 17
Iron is one of the most critical elements of all organisms. Iron is one of the constituents of hemoglobin, A protein in red blood cells. It has a significant function in transporting oxygen from the lungs to all body parts. When the iron level is low, enough red blood cells are not formed, leading to iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency is globally prevalent, especially in women. It is crucial to ensure appropriate iron intake for everyone, especially kids, pubescent girls, and women of childbearing /menstruating age.
The recommended daily iron intake:
Women- 15 mg
Men – 10 mg
Pregnant women – 30 mg
Lactating women- 20 mg
Types of the Iron Present in Food
There are two primary forms of dietary iron.
Heme Iron -Heme iron comes from an animal-based food source, and the body quickly absorbs it.
Non-heme Iron -Non-heme iron comes from a plant-based food source and is better regulated by the body than heme iron.
The hemoglobin level is the amount in grams (gm) per deciliter (dL) of whole blood. The range of hemoglobin in a person depends on age and gender.
Children: 11 to 13 gm/dL
Adult males: 14 to 18 gm/dL
Adult women: 12 to 16 gm/dL
Until a few years ago, I struggled to have an optimum hemoglobin count. Those days, I ate food just for taste and pleasure and not precisely to nourish my body. My doctors advised me to include more chicken and red meat in my diet as iron in non-vegetarian food has heme iron, which is more bioavailable for the body. Yes, this is a piece of pretty standard advice you’ll get from your doctors. My notion about heme iron completely changed when I encountered a young lady who worked as a domestic helper in my native place back in India. She wanted help to understand her blood report. She had a hemoglobin level of 13.5mg/dl. To my surprise, she was a complete vegetarian and had never tasted any non-vegetarian food as it was unaffordable. Then what does she eat? Grains, greens, lentils, and locally grown veggies. That’s all?
You can have an optimum iron level being a vegetarian/vegan if your meal is planned and well-balanced. Studies have shown that consuming too much heme iron can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, (1) heart disease, (2) and numerous inflammatory conditions, including a specific type of cancer (3). Moreover, our body does not have a mechanism to eliminate excess iron. Non-heme iron is the healthiest source of iron, which is present in ample amounts in whole grains, beans, dark leafy vegetables, dried fruits, and seeds.
Factors to boost iron absorption:
1. Cooking in cast iron pans/wok is an excellent way to promote your iron intake significantly. (8)
3. Avoid phytates with an iron-rich meal. Dark leafy vegetables are a great source of non-heme iron. Still, some leafy vegetables like spinach, Swiss chard, and beet greens contain a considerable amount of oxalic acid (oxalates). Oxalic acid tends to bind with iron, resulting in low iron absorption. Cooking/steaming the greens and discarding the water reduces the number of oxalic acids by 80-90%. (14)
5. Calcium-rich food should be avoided for iron absorption. Eating calcium-rich dairy products with an iron-rich meal is probably not a good idea to absorb iron as calcium can reduce the amount of iron absorption. (11)
6. Avoiding tea and coffee can increase iron absorption. Polyphenols present in tea and coffee inhibit non-heme iron absorption. (12)
7. Adding onion and garlic (or chives, leek) to grain-based meals can increase iron absorption. (13)
Some Non-heme iron-rich food sources
Some of the Iron rich recipes:
As they say, eating vegetables is a perfect way of adding nutrients to our meals, but few vegetables stand out regarding nutrient density. Beetroot is one of the honorable mentions. Beetroot is one of the most recommended plants for people with iron deficiency anemia. Eating beetroot has many health benefits, including boosting essential minerals and helping organ systems work accurately. Any beetroot preparation is good for health, but juicing is the best way to retain its nutritional profile.
Lemon juice – 1tbsp
1. Add all the ingredients to a juicer, juice it, and enjoy the fresh taste.
(Note- Drinking fresh juice is always advisable, and not storing it for a long time.)
Red lentil and beet curry
Lentils itself is an iron-rich healthy food not to forget, budget-friendly, and easy to make. Adding some healthy veggies enhances its flavor and makes it a wholesome meal. I make lentils with beetroot to boost some iron. Finishing it with flavorful herbs and squeezing some lemon juice into it gives it a final kick and helps absorb iron efficiently. It's a win-win. I prefer to cook lentils without oil. Oils, significantly refined oils, have no health benefits. Moreover, lentils taste so good it doesn't need any.
Red lentil- 1 cup
Beet -1 large grated
Onion 1 large
Tomatoes -2 medium chopped
Cumin seeds- 1tsp
Turmeric powder- 1tsp
Ginger garlic paste – 1 tbsp
Garam masala powder- 1tsp
Red chili powder- 1tsp (optional)
Soak lentils for 8 hours.
Cook lentils with salt and water and grated beetroot.
Take a pot—dry roast cumin seeds.
Add two tbs of lentil broth. Sauté onions in broth for 3-4 mins.
Add ginger-garlic paste. Sauté for 2 mins
Add chopped tomatoes
Add salt and turmeric powder.
Add freshly crushed peppercorn.
Sauté the mixture till mushy.
Add cooked lentils and beetroot.
Add garam masala allspice powder.
Cover the lid. Let it simmer for 5 mins.
Add lemon juice. Garnish it with cilantro.
Serve it hot with white or brown rice.
Iron-rich chickpea/lentil salad
A colorful gorgeous chickpea or lentil salad is an eating delight. This bright and vibrant mixture is one of the foods you can't resist eating. The best part of this delicious salad is you can have it any time of the day. Take a cup of soaked and cooked lentil /bean of your choice. Add some greens and herbs, fresh veggies rich in Vitamin C and A, fruits of your choice, crunchy nuts and iron-rich dried fruits, lemon-based dressing, and an Iron-rich, delicious, nutritious meal is ready.
Chickpea- 1 cup (Soaked overnight and cooked)
Carrot – 1 grated
Pomegranate – 1 small
Cashew – 2 tbsp. ( broken in pieces)
Raisins- 2 tbsp.
Dried apricot – 2 ( chopped)
Pepitas – 2 tbsp.
Cilantro- ¼ cup ( chopped)
Lemon juice - 2tbsp
Mustard seed- 2tsp(ground)
Honey- 1 tbsp.
Olive oil – 1 tbsp. (optional)
( Mix all ingredients by whisking them correctly.)
Take a large bowl. Add cooked lentil/chickpea, grated carrot, pomegranate seeds, pepitas, chopped apricot, raisins, and cashew.
Add the prepared dressing.
Mix gently with a spoon.
Spinach carrot salad
This Korean-style side dish is pretty quick and easy to make. I first had this in my friend's house and loved it. The best thing about this salad is it is pretty customizable. The main ingredient in this traditional Korean recipe is spinach, a great source of iron. I add carrot as well for more iron absorption. Moreover, soya sauce(6) helps enhance iron absorption.
Spinach- 8 oz.
Carrot- 1 (grated)
Sesame oil- 1 tbsp.
Sesame seeds- 2tbsp (roasted)
Soy sauce- 1tbsp
Salt - As per taste
1. Clean spinach nicely and Keep spinach leaves in a large bowl
2. Add boiling water to the spinach and blanch for 30 seconds.
3. Squeeze spinach nicely and take all the water out.
4. In a bowl, add all the ingredients except blanched spinach.
5. Mix it properly.
6. Add spinach to it and mix.
7. Enjoy your simple iron-rich salad.
(Note- You can adjust seasoning according to your palate.)
Scrambled tofu with veggies
The veggie-packed tofu (7) recipe is perfect for any meal in the day. This recipe is customizable. You can add spinach or any greens of your choice to increase its nutritional value. You can be creative to add any herb of your choice. One can use it as a filling in a sandwich or wrap. I love adding some hemp seeds to have a nutty taste and add nutrients.
Tofu- 8oz (dried and crumbled)
Red onions- 1 chopped
Bell peppers red, yellow, orange, green- ½ of each (chopped)
Garlic - 2 pods (thinly sliced)
Ginger- ½ inch (thinly sliced)
Tomato – 1 small (optional)
Coriander powder- 1 tbsp.
Turmeric powder -1 tsp
Gram masala powder -1 tsp
Black pepper (2 crushed)
Lemon juice -1 tbsp.
Cilantro leaves - 1 tbsp. (chopped)
Hemp seed- 1 tbsp.
Oil (any cold pressed)- 1 tbsp. (optional)
Heat a heavy bottom stainless steel pan.
Add one tablespoon of oil or water.
Add chopped onions to it. Sauté onions on a medium flame till it turns light brown. If it sticks to the pan, add little water at a time.
Add ginger and garlic and sauté for 2 mins.
Add salt and all the spices.
Stir it nicely.
Add lemon juice to it and garnish it with cilantro.
(Note: You can add your preferred vegetable more and omit less preferred ones as per your palate)
Eating bars of several iron-rich nuts, seeds, and dry fruits is an age-old remedy to maintain the iron level. This iron-rich bar is my absolute favorite snack bar. There is something special about our traditional method of healing. Sometimes I wonder how people were so keen on their nutritional needs in the olden days and used simple and effective ways to cure an imbalance. This recipe is traditionally popular in almost all cultures around the globe. Just a slight change of ingredients here and there. That's the reason you cannot go wrong with this recipe. Adding some elements or omitting a few does not make much of a difference. Moreover, the quantity of the ingredients is customizable. Here the idea is to keep figs and dates more in abundance so that it will be easier to bind the bar and give it a shape. I keep making it with iron-rich nuts, seeds, and dry fruits. For kids, you can make this in a small round shape like a ball (laddoo), as it is easier to grab and enjoy.
Pistachios- ¼ cup
Almonds- ¼ cup
Cashew nuts- ¼ cup
Figs -5-6 (chopped)
Dried apricot – 5-6 (chopped)
Dates- 20-22 ( chopped)
Dried coconut flakes – 2 tablespoon
Sesame seeds – 2 tbs roasted
Poppy seeds – 1 tsp (roasted)
Dry roast cashew, almonds, and pistachios in the oven or stove.
Once nuts get cold enough, crush them in a blender or food processor. (remember, we are not going to grind it in powder. Nuts should be a course in texture). Take it out in a bowl.
3. Add chopped dry fruits, shredded coconut, and sesame seeds and blend them.
4. Now, mix everything in a bowl.
5. Take a square glass container. Grease it with clarified butter or coconut oil.
6. Add the mixture to the greased container.
7. Press the mix with the help of the spatula.
8. Sprinkle roasted poppy seeds throughout the bowl. Press it again with the help of a spatula so that poppy seeds stick to it.
9. Cover the container and put it in a refrigerator So it gets set nicely.
10. Cut the mixture in the form of a bar.
( Note- Store it in an airtight container in a refrigerator)