What vegans and vegetarians need to know about haem and non-haem iron1

Haem iron

People absorb haem iron four to five times more easily than non-haem iron.2
Red meat is a rich source of haem iron. This includes beef, lamb, veal and pork. The redder the meat, the higher the iron content. Poultry and fish also have haem iron, but not as much as other types of meat.2

Non-haem iron?

Good sources of non-haem iron include legumes, eggs, potatoes, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, white mushrooms, olives, oats, quinoa and green leafy vegetables like spinach, silverbeet and broccoli.2,3
The low absorption rate of non-haem iron compared with haem iron is one of the main reasons vegetarians and vegans are more likely to experience iron deficiency than meat-eaters.1 For this reason, extra care may be needed with meal planning.

Four ways for vegans and vegetarians to maximise iron absorption

  • Eat plenty of vitamin C-rich food to help with the absorption of your iron-rich meal. Foods with high vitamin C content include citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi fruit, green leafy vegetables and tomatoes.2
  • Tannins in tea and coffee limit iron absorption, making it best to enjoy your hot beverages between meals.2
  • Phytates in legumes, seeds and grains inhibit iron absorption, but their impact may be reduced by soaking, sprouting and fermenting these foods.4
  • Cook your vegetables to increase the amount of available non-haem iron.5


  1. J Am Diet Assoc, Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets, 2009;109: 1266-1282. [cited September 2021] Available from https://jandonline.org/article/S0002-8223(09)00700-7/fulltext
  2. GESA [Internet]. Iron Deficiency Clinical Update (updated October 2015); [cited March 2021] Available from: https://www.gesa.org.au/education/clinical-information
  3. Petre A, Healthline, 21 Vegetarian Foods That Are Loaded with Iron [Internet], 2021; [Cited September 2021] Available from www.healthline.com/nutrition/iron-rich-plant-foods
  4. Hurrell R, Egli I, Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010; https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2010.28674F. [Cited September 2021] Available from https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/91/5/1461S/4597424M
  5. Heward J, Dieticians Australia, Pumping Iron [Internet], 2020. [Cited September 2021. Available from https://dietitiansaustralia.org.au/smart-eating-for-you/smart-eating-fast-facts/nourishing-nutrients/pumping-iron/

FGC-2021-0103. September 2021