18 Most Iron Rich Food Combos for Non-Meat Eaters

Have you been feeling a little sluggish? Does it seem like you’re dragging your feet and can barely get through the day even though you are physically fit? Well, you might be lacking in iron intake.

Iron is a mineral needed for energy, healthy red blood cells, and providing adequate oxygen to the body. The good news is, carefully balancing your diet and taking supplements can give you the nutrients you need to function optimally.

If you are already eating a varied vegan or vegetarian diet comprised of a wide spectrum of foods, you don’t have to worry about iron because chances are, you are already getting enough. However, if you are concerned that your iron stores are low, you can always increase iron absorption with these tips.

How to Increase Iron Absorption

1. Incorporate a vitamin C food source into your meals.

Pairing Vitamin C with iron has been shown to improve iron absorption by up to 500 percent. For example, you can top your spinach salad with mandarin orange sections or drink a glass of orange juice as you enjoy your favorite fortified cereal in the morning. (1)

2. Use cast iron products when cooking.

Cooking foods in something acidic such as tomato sauce and in cast iron skillets can increase iron consumption. (2)

A study conducted in 2007 showed that cooking an acidic sauce in a cast iron pan increased the iron content of the sauce, and showed a corresponding increase in iron status in the young adult lacto-ovo vegetarian participants. (3)

3. Supplement with L-lysine.

The amino acid, L-lysine plays a role in the absorption of zinc and iron. L-lysine is abundant in leas, lentils, beans, peanuts and quinoa, and non-meat-eaters who do not eat these foods may find themselves falling short of this amino acid. (4)

4. Avoid coffee and tea during meals.

Drinking coffee or tea could result in iron deficiency if you don’t consume an adequate amount of iron as it could impair absorption. Studies have shown that tea, particularly black tea and green tea, decreases the absorption of iron and should not be taken with iron-rich foods. (5)

5. Supplement with iron.

It has been shown that anemia in meat-eaters is typically treated with iron supplements, not necessarily through an increase in meat consumption.  Similarly, vegetarians and vegans who have anemia do not have to start eating meat, as long as there is an increase in intake of iron-rich foods and vitamin C, or iron supplements are incorporated into the diet. (6)

6. Avoid calcium during meals.

Calcium is found in dairy products like yogurt, cheese, and milk, however vegan products that are dairy-free may still contain calcium. Make sure to read labels thoroughly and do prior research so as not to interfere with iron uptake by having too much calcium with your meals. Trace amounts do not matter much and are unavoidable at times, but save your calcium supplements for another time.

18 Most Iron Rich Food Combos for Non-Meat Eaters

Making some creative food combinations can help you get the most out of plant-based iron rich food while enjoying the possible flavor and texture combinations. Get crafty and come up with your own combinations using the various food from the list below.

1. Black Beans and Tomatoes

Black beans and tomatoes are a great pairing. Try adding black beans to salsa as a filler for your taco or tortilla. You can also make a black bean and tomato soup or just throw together a Mexican inspired salad.

2. Black Beans and Cabbage

Make sure to give black bean stuffed cabbage rolls or black bean tacos with a vinegar-based slaw a try. To make thing simpler, you can just mix up black beans with cabbage and any sauce of your choice.

3. Black Beans and Molasses

There are so many different recipes you can make with black beans and molasses.

A tasty, savory snack that’s simple to make is a bowl of black beans, molasses, smoked bacon bits, and caramelized onions. This hearty dish will leave you asking for more.

4. Black Beans and Quinoa

Great together in a bowl with cumin seasonings or as a quinoa salad. Quinoa goes great with all sorts of vegetables and fixings because it is mild in flavor but has great texture. You can also cook the black beans in chicken or beef broth with herbs before combining with quinoa for more flavor.

5. Spinach and Red Bell Peppers

There are several ways to pair spinach and red bell peppers. A chopped spinach salad with minced red bell peppers with a light vinaigrette makes a great, healthy lunch. You can also try sautéing sliced red peppers with garlic and spinach for a delicious meal.

6. Spinach and Quinoa

Spinach, quinoa and sun dried tomatoes make a great combination for a healthy, nutritious salad. Don’t forgot to add a zesty lemon dressing and toss in some pine nuts for added iron.

7. Chickpeas and Quinoa

Using cooked quinoa, add in canned chickpeas and minced sautéed garlic, chopped onions, cilantro, diced tomatoes, cumin, red pepper flakes and black pepper for a spicy chickpea and quinoa bowl that’s sure to pack a heavy punch of flavor.

Lots of fiber in this meal, so it’s a great option of your goal is satiety.

8. Broccoli and Tomatoes

Combine sautéed tomatoes, broccoli, onions, mushrooms, garlic, Italian seasoning, olive oil and serve with pasta, rice or quinoa. Another option is to steam the broccoli and mix it with a sundried tomato pesto.

9. Broccoli and Lemon

Lemon and broccoli work well together as a side dish. Simply steam some broccoli and squeeze lemon on it for added flavor. You can also add spices and pepper for an extra kick.

10. Kale and Mandarin Oranges

Put a couple of handfuls of fresh kale and peeled mandarin oranges in a blender and you have a delicious, refreshing smoothie.

For a light meal, you can add slices of mandarin oranges to your kale salad or with some kale chips for a great snack.

11. Kale and Red Peppers

Kale and red pepper is another excellent combination for color and variety. It’s also possible to toss them into your pasta or stir fry and serve over rice.

12. Lentils with Brussels Sprouts

Oven-roast or grill some Brussels sprouts and serve them over 1-2 servings of seasoned lentils for a light, nutritious snack. Lentils absorb a lot of flavor, so season your broth well when cooking.

13. Lentils and Yellow Peppers

Lentils together with yellow peppers make a terrific combination for soups, curries or even salads. Make sure to soften the lentils thoroughly so that they are easily incorporated into any dish.

14. Lentils and Quinoa

Combine these two ingredients with dried cranberries, orange slices, apricots and pecans to consume a meal high in iron that’s light, fruity and refreshing.

15. Turnip Greens and Potato

Bake the potato and throw in some vegan sour cream with cooked turnip greens. Top with chopped chives and parsley and you have yourself a light snack.

16. Turnip Greens and Black Eyed Peas

For a taste of the South, combine turnip greens, black eyed peas and onions and cook in a skillet. Serve with a slice of cornbread for a hearty Southern meal.

17. Tofu and Bok Choy

Try combining these two ingredients with red, yellow or orange bell pepper in a stir fry and serve over rice or quinoa for a taste of Asian cuisine.

Add a tablespoon of soy sauce or oyster sauce with garlic that has been sauteed in sesame oil for more of a kick.

18. Dark Chocolate and Strawberries

One of the easiest, most decadent, and most delicious dessert is chocolate dipped strawberries. Simply melt the chocolate in a double boiler and dip the strawberries.

For a fun and healthy snack, add sliced strawberries and chopped chocolate to your morning oats.

What to Do If You Have Iron Deficiency

If you are concerned about your iron levels, you should have a doctor measure your iron status. If your iron stores are too low, your doctor may suggest taking an iron supplement or eating meat.

For non-meat eaters, it’s important to take measures to correct iron deficiency because of the body’s tendency to absorb more manganese in the absence of iron. Luckily, supplementing with vitamin C is enough to boost iron absorption without increasing manganese absorption.

The Final Word

Get creative with your meals and mix it up a little. Add some of the spices and/or sauces you enjoy the most so that you don’t get bored with your meals. Clean eating does not need to be bland or monotonous.

It’s completely possible to eat a non-meat diet and still obtain plenty of iron. The key is optimizing the absorption wherever you can, and being conscious of your intake to avoid mineral deficiencies.

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