Whether you’ve decided to follow a plant-based diet, you’re pregnant or nursing, or you’ve been diagnosed with a deficiency, finding a way to add more iron to your diet is important. Iron’s an essential mineral to your health – it plays a role in oxygen transport through the blood, in hemoglobin production, in immune system function, and more.

Without enough iron1, your cells would starve of oxygen and then die. Yes, it’s really that crucial. However, that doesn’t mean you need to jump for an iron supplement. As Hippocrates said, “Let thy food be medicine, and medicine be thy food.” And, when it comes to adding iron to your diet, leafy greens can be one of the best solutions.

Why Choose Food Over Supplements?

Before we explore the leafy greens that you can add to your daily diet, we need to address the question of why you need to go with food rather than a supplement. Popping a tablet once per day seems so much easier than sitting down to a plate full of greens. Many people haven’t had much exposure to these vegetables and the thought of a plate full of kale or collards just isn’t all that appealing.

Sadly, taking a supplement is far less effective2 at getting the needed iron into your diet. One reason is that your body does not absorb iron in supplement form as well as it does from food. Another is that iron supplements may include other things – fillers, artificial colors, and the like – that you don’t really want. Finally, not all supplements are the same, and they can contain varying levels of iron. They’re not regulated by the FDA, so there is no oversight or governance here.

In contrast, your body is designed to extract the nutrients it needs from the foods you eat. You can also combine different food types to improve iron extraction during digestion. For instance, eating foods high in vitamin C can help extract iron from leafy greens. Of course, there’s the fact that a balanced diet will help ensure that you’re getting enough iron without you having to worry about it – you’ll never wonder if you forgot to take your supplement that morning, or that you didn’t get by the store to pick up another bottle.

Which Leafy Greens Should You Eat?

When it comes to plants in your diet, the answer is “the more the merrier.” Greens are low in calories, high in fiber, and packed with nutrition. You can load up your plate with as much as you want and never need to worry that you’re overeating or that those extra calories will go straight to your waist or hips. Of course, not all greens have the same level of iron content, so it pays to know which sources offer the most nutritional support3.

  • Spinach: There’s a reason that Popeye loved his spinach so much – it’s packed with iron. In fact, cooked spinach is one of the richest sources of iron out there, even more than red meat. It’s also important that you cook your spinach first. The process of cooking increases the availability of iron in the leaves. Raw spinach does not pack the same punch. Spinach is also a great source of vitamin K and vitamin A, as well as folate and other vital nutrients.
  • Swiss Chard: Like spinach, Swiss chard is packed with iron, but it needs to be cooked to really unlock all that nutrition. It also includes a similar range of nutrients, including vitamin K, vitamin C (which helps with iron absorption), potassium, and more.
  • Collard Greens: Collards are delicious and should be eaten cooked. They’re high in iron, but also vitamin C, folate, vitamin A, and other nutrients. Add them to a soup, or stir fry them if you prefer. They’re also great served as a side, as most Southerners know.
  • Kale: Kale has hit the spotlight in recent years as a so-called superfood, but nutritionists and those following plant-based diets have long known about its powers. Kale is a great source of dietary iron, but also vitamins C and K. If you’re turned off by the bitterness, try massaging the leaves before you cook them to help break down the tissues a little bit. Again, cooking is necessary to really unlock the iron content.
  • Broccoli: Ok, you knew this one was coming. Broccoli is often maligned, but when cooked properly, it’s not only nutritious, but it tastes great, too. Try coating it with a little avocado oil, sprinkling salt and pepper on it, and roasting it at 425 degrees F for about 15 minutes. It’s crisp, crunchy, and delightful. You can also go the steamed route, or eat it raw in salads, if you prefer.
  • Arugula: Better known for its role in salads, arugula is a leafy green that can be used in almost any dish, from sandwiches to pizza toppings. It’s bright and citrusy, packs a huge nutritional punch, and does not need to be cooked to unlock the iron it contains.
  • Turnip Greens: Don’t care for turnips? That’s ok. You can eat just the greens and get plenty of iron in your diet. Like spinach, they need to be cooked to unlock their iron content, but they can be added to soups, stews, stir fry dishes, and many more. Taste-wise, they’re similar to collards.

As you have no doubt noticed, many of the greens we’ve covered need to be cooked in order to really open up their iron content4. Note that you do not need to overcook them. Often, just a little application of heat is all that’s necessary. Overcooking vegetables is actually one of the primary reasons that people find them distasteful, as it damages the flavor and creates a mushy texture that is unappealing.

In Conclusion

In the end, getting enough iron in your diet could come down to making sure you’re piling your plate high with leafy greens. From steamed vegetables to stir fry dishes, sandwiches to salads, there are hundreds of ways to get more greens and improve your health.


  1. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-Consumer/
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-get-your-nutrients-from-food-or-from-supplements
  3. https://youngwomenshealth.org/2012/12/10/dark-green-leafy-vegetables/
  4. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/10-plant-based-foods-packed-with-iron/