Dietary iron supports overall health and wellness.
Your body needs a wide range of vitamins and minerals to run optimally every day, and that means eating a varied, balanced diet rich in whole foods that contain many nutrients.
Iron is one nutrient that you need to try to consume every day. Janette Wong, a registered dietitian with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California, says that while the body only needs small quantities of iron, “a lack of iron in some people’s diets is still a common issue.”
Laura Bishop-Simo, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, says that your body uses iron to complete a range of metabolic tasks including:
— Aiding in the delivery of oxygen to every cell.
— Aiding in the removal of carbon dioxide from cells to the lungs where it can be exhaled out of the body.
— Supporting metabolic function, growth and the immune system.
— Producing hemoglobin.
To help illustrate how iron works, Wong says to think of a tiny little car cruising around inside your body. “You can think of iron as the seats in a car and hemoglobin as the car, allowing oxygen and carbon dioxide — the passengers — to travel throughout your bloodstream and to their final destination, the cells of lungs.”
Iron depletion can become anemia.
The body can store iron for when it’s needed, but if your reservoir starts to run low, that can lead to an iron deficiency, Wong says. “Iron deficiency develops in stages. The last stage is iron-deficiency anemia. At this point, iron stores in your body are severely depleted, resulting in low levels of hemoglobin, and thus lesser amount of oxygen is delivered to cells for energy production.”
Signs of an iron deficiency or anemia can include:
— Pale skin.
— Poor resistance to cold temperatures.
She adds that “iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies and the leading cause of anemia in the United States.”
It’s more common among women of childbearing age, as iron is lost during menstruation and pregnancy, but anyone can develop an iron deficiency if their diet doesn’t supply enough to meet their daily needs.
Animal- vs. plant-based sources of iron
Bishop-Simo explains that there are two types of iron that the body can use from the foods you eat: heme and non-heme iron.
— Heme iron. This group consists of animal-based sources such as red meat, veal, liver, raw fish, shellfish, pork and chicken.
— Non-heme iron. The second type of iron is called non-heme iron and is derived from plant-based, non-meat sources such as fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and broccoli.
“Both heme and non-heme sources are essential for healthy iron levels,” Bishop-Simo says.
How much iron do you need?
Wong notes that the amount of iron you need each day depends on your age and sex:
— Young men aged 14 to 18 years old are recommended to have 11 milligrams per day.
— Men aged 19 years old and older should consume 8 milligrams per day.
— Young women aged 14 to 18 should consume 15 milligrams per day.
— Women aged 19 through 50 should have 18 milligrams per day.
— Women aged 51 and older should take in 8 milligrams per day.
— Pregnant women may require 27 milligrams of iron per day.
“Because non-heme iron in plant-derived foods is not as well-absorbed as heme iron found in animal-derived foods, people following a vegetarian or vegan diet would need 1.8 times as much iron to compensate for the low bioavailability in their diet,” Wong adds.
If you’re looking to up your iron intake, the following eight foods are good sources.
1. Enriched cereals
“Some cereals can contain up to 18 milligrams of iron per serving, so ensure you have ¾ cup of 100% bran flake cereal,” explains Reema Kanda, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California. At that level, you’re taking care of 100% or more of your daily needs of iron depending on your age and gender.
Wong adds that you should “choose grain products that have been enriched or fortified with iron, such as enriched breads and iron-fortified cereals” to be sure you’re getting the iron benefit these foods can provide.
2. Oysters and other seafood
The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements reports that 3 ounces of cooked oysters contain 8 milligrams of iron, or 44% of the daily value.
Shrimp, clams, scallops, tuna, sardines, haddock and mackerel are all good sources of iron.
“Iron from animal-derived foods is better absorbed than from plant-derived foods,” Wong says. If you’re trying to avoid red meat, shellfish is a leaner way to get the iron you need.
3. Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes such as lentils are good sources of plant-based iron. The ODS reports that:
— 1 cup of canned white beans contains 8 milligrams of iron or about 44% of your daily value.
— A half cup of boiled lentils contains 3 milligrams or 17% of your daily value of iron.
— A half cup of canned kidney beans contain 2 milligrams or 11% of the daily value.
— A half cup of chickpeas contains 2 milligrams of iron or 11% of your daily needs.
“Some of the best plant sources of iron are bran flakes, instant grits, potato with skin and cooked dried beans,” Wong says.
4. Red meat and beef liver
The ODS reports that 3 ounces of pan-fried beef liver contains 5 milligrams of iron, or about 28% of the recommended daily value. Steak and other cuts of red meat, including organ meats, are also good animal-based sources of iron; 3 ounces of braised bottom round beef contains 2 milligrams or 11% of your daily iron needs.
5. Poultry and eggs
Chicken, turkey and eggs also contain good amounts of iron. The ODS reports that 3 ounces of roasted chicken or turkey contains 1 milligram of iron, or 6% of the daily value. A whole egg also contains 1 milligram of iron.
“Iron from meat, fish and poultry is better absorbed than iron from plant-based foods,” Kanda says.
6. Cooked spinach and kale
Spinach was Popeye’s favorite snack when he needed a boost, and whether that’s because it’s high in vitamin A or because it’s a good source of iron has long been debated on the internet.
In any event, a half cup of boiled spinach contains 3 milligrams or 17% of the daily value of iron. A cup of chopped kale contains 1 milligram of iron, or about 6% of the daily value. Both are good plant-based ways of boosting iron intake while also taking in a wide range of other vitamins and minerals that can keep you healthy.
7. Dried fruits
A cup of dried apricots has 7.5 milligrams of iron, good for 42% of your daily needs. Dried peaches have 36% of the daily value, and a cup of dried prunes has 26% of the daily value of iron.
8. Nuts and seeds
Dry roasted pistachios aren’t just tasty and fun to eat, they also provide iron. A half cup contains 1 milligram or 6% of the daily value. Peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pine nuts and pumpkin seeds also offer good plant-based ways of adding a little more iron to your diet.
Other foods can help you absorb more iron.
In addition to eating foods that are high in iron, you can help your body better utilize those sources by adding certain foods that are high in beta-carotene and/or ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C. Both help the body absorb more iron.
Foods high in beta-carotene include:
— Kiwi fruits.
— Red bell pepper.
— Sweet potato.
— Yellow squash.
Foods high in vitamin C include:
— Red bell pepper.
Kanda recommends including foods high in vitamin C when you’re eating non-heme sources of iron. “When you do consume the non-heme food sources, include foods high in vitamin C such as citrus juice, fruits like melons, dark green leafy vegetables and potatoes with your meals. They may help your body absorb more iron.”
On the flip side, there are some foods that can make it more difficult for your body to extract the iron it needs from the foods you eat. Bishop-Simo says you should avoid combining food items that can inhibit iron absorption with high-iron foods in the same meal.
For example, try not to consume calcium-rich foods, calcium supplements or coffee and teas with high-iron foods, as these items can decrease the amount of iron that’s absorbed. You can still consume them, but try not to consume them in the same meal as high-iron foods.
To supplement or not?
If you’re concerned about your iron levels or have been diagnosed with anemia, you may be considering adding an iron supplement.
“Your doctor is going to be the best person to discuss whether supplementing with iron is appropriate or not,” Bishop-Simo says. “They will be able to test your blood for iron deficiency and make the recommendation of whether to supplement or not.”
Generally speaking it’s best to get all the nutrients you need from the foods you eat rather than reaching for a pill to try to meet your daily nutritional needs.
Kanda adds it’s important to “always discuss with your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms such as pale skin and fingernails, dizziness, headache and inflamed tongue, known as glossitis. These can all be symptoms of low iron levels.” Depending on the cause and how low your iron level is, your health care provider may recommend an iron supplement.
8 top iron-rich foods
— Enriched cereals.
— Oysters and other seafood.
— Beans and legumes.
— Red meat and beef liver.
— Poultry and eggs.
— Cooked spinach and kale.
— Dried fruits.
— Nuts and seeds.
More from U.S. News