Is animal-based iron better than plant-based iron?

There are two different forms of food-derived iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is primarily present in animal-based products, while non-heme iron is abundant in plant-based foods and it is the most present type of iron in all diets. Heme iron tends to have higher absorption rates compared to non-heme iron. For this reason, some food and health organisations recommend a higher intake of iron when following plant-based diets, however, there is no unified consensus on this. Iron absorption also depends on the overall iron status of the individual: the greater the needs, the higher the absorption from the diet and vice versa.

Many healthy plant-based foods are good sources of iron. These include:

  • All legumes ( lentils, soybeans, red beans, black beans, peas, chickpeas)
  • Seeds and nuts ( especially whole sesame)
  • Whole grains, including wholemeal products
  • Green leafy vegetables (e.g. Swiss chard, spinach, and parsley)
  • Dark chocolate

Adding vitamin C-rich fresh vegetables (e.g. red pepper, parsley, broccoli) and fruits (e.g. lemon, orange, or strawberry) to meals can increase iron absorption. Soaking, sprouting, fermenting, milling, and cooking foods can help release iron and reduce phytates (anti-nutrients) from many plant foods, including legumes. To maximise iron absorption, it is a good idea to limit coffee or tea with meals, as they can interfere with iron absorption.