Are your meat-eating buddies giving you a hard time? If you sold your grill on eBay, you might be hearing a lot of bad jokes from your fellow Crossfitters about “not getting enough iron to be pumping iron.” But don’t fret, regardless of whether your dietary lifestyle is vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based, it’s really easy to keep your iron levels where they need to be so you can keep swinging that kettlebell with the best of them.
Absorption vs. Intake
The question is not so much about absorption as it is about intake. It doesn’t matter how much iron you consume if your body isn’t absorbing any of it. Plant-based athletes and Crossfitters do need to be iron-conscious because the nonheme iron contained in plant foods is only 10% absorbable, compared to heme iron from meat, which is 18% absorbable.
But there’s another factor which can hurt or help your iron-intake: food combining. Most fruits and veggies contain a good amount of Vitamin C, which is an iron absorption enhancer, while a few contain absorption inhibitors (tannins, phytates, oxalates). So if you eat iron-rich foods in the same meal with foods high in Vitamin C, your body will absorb more of the iron that’s available. And the inverse is true with foods containing any of the inhibitors. For some examples of foods you might want to minimize in your diet if you’re really trying to get your iron levels up, coffee and tea contain tannins, legumes and grains contain phytates, and spinach (even though it’s full of iron itself) contains oxalates.
To help you get enough iron-rich plant foods, we’ve provided a list of some of the very best below.
Best Iron-Rich Plant Foods
- Cruciferous vegetables (leafy greens): kale, swiss chard, collard greens
- Other vegetables: tomato sauce, asparagus, leek, cooked mushrooms, baked potato
- Fruits: prune juice, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins
- Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews
- Legumes: lentils, soybeans, tofu
- Whole grains: quinoa, oatmeal, bran flakes, brown rice
- Other: blackstrap molasses, dark chocolate
It should be obvious from this list that the answer to the question we posed at the top is a resounding, “yes.” It’s fairly difficult for a vegan or plant-based athlete to be iron-deficient, as their diets are typically full of iron-rich plants. One caveat is that if your meals include more grain products and protein powders and less whole foods, you could be at greater risk of an iron deficiency, in which case you’d want to take a reputable iron supplement. Additionally, as a side note, if you’re eating only whole plants and are very active, you also want to make sure you’re getting enough protein.
We’ll leave you with a couple of recommendations.
1. A great iron-rich meal idea is to sauté kale in a cast iron skillet. Cast iron skillets add to your iron intake, because, you guessed it, small amounts of iron rub off onto your food. And one cup of kale has about 130% of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin C (besides a ton of iron). That iron-Vitamin C combo makes it a real star if you’re worried about your iron levels.
2. You only need one hand to cook kale in a skillet. So swing a kettlebell in the other and post a photo to Instagram to silence your Crossfit naysayers once and for all!