Your body needs a wide range of vitamins and minerals to run optimally every day, and that means eating a varied, balanced diet that’s rich in whole foods and 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 the cells to the lungs, where it can be exhaled out of the body.
— Supporting a healthy metabolism by aiding in the conversion of food to energy, cellular growth and promoting a healthy immune system.
— Producing hemoglobin and myoglobin, two proteins in the body. Hemoglobin helps carry oxygen molecules throughout the body while myoglobin binds with oxygen to store it in the muscle tissue. Hemoglobin is found throughout the entire body, while myoglobin is just in muscle tissue.
“Iron is also used to make hormones and support brain development and growth in children,” notes Emilie Vandenberg, a staff dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
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:
— Feelings of apathy.
— 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.”
Anemia is 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: heme and non-heme iron. They are synthesized by the body the same way, the only difference lies in where they come from.
— 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 age 14 to 18 years old are recommended to consume 11 milligrams per day.
— Young women age 14 to 18 should consume 15 milligrams per day.
— Men age 19 years old and older should consume 8 milligrams per day.
— Women age 19 through 50 should have 18 milligrams per day.
— Women age 51 and older should take in 8 milligrams per day.
— Pregnant women should consume 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,” Wong adds.
Best Foods for Iron
The following foods are good food sources of iron.
1. Enriched cereals
The good news is, you can start your day with one of the best iron-rich foods.
“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 sea also offers up several foods high in iron.
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. Good seafood sources of iron include:
— Clams. A serving of clams (100 grams or about 3.5 ounces) contains more than 29 milligrams of iron.
— Sardines. A 3-ounce serving of sardines contains nearly 2.5 milligrams of iron.
— Tuna. A 100-gram serving of tuna contains 1.6 milligrams of iron.
— Mackerel. A 100-gram serving of mackerel contains 1.4 milligrams of iron.
— Scallops. A 100-gram serving of steamed scallops contains 0.6 milligrams of iron.
— Shrimp. A 100-gram serving contains 0.5 milligrams of iron.
Because iron from animal-derived foods is more easily absorbed than the iron found in plant-derived foods, shellfish is a leaner way to get the iron you need if you’re trying to avoid red meat.
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 contains 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 contain 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 contain 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 are antioxidants that help defend cells from aging and stress while also helping 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.
“There are substances in foods that can decrease absorption of non-heme iron,” says, Natalie Jacildo, a registered dietitian specializing in nutrition counseling for diabetes with L.A. Care Health Plan. “For example, tannins found in black teas, polyphenols found in coffee and calcium carbonate supplements can decrease the absorption of non-heme iron when taken together.” Calcium-rich foods can also decrease the amount of iron that’s absorbed.
Therefore, it’s best to eat these items separately from a meal or in between meals to ensure that they’re not blocking the absorption of non-heme iron in the meal. You can still consume them, but try not to consume them in the same meal as high-iron foods.
To Supplement With Iron or Not?
“It’s possible to achieve adequate intakes of iron through a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of foods,” Jacildo says. However, 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.”
Jacildo agrees that it’s best to ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian for nutrition counseling and meal planning. “If you’re concerned about your blood iron levels, speak with your doctor. They can order specific tests that will determine if you have iron deficiency and need supplementation.”
She adds that “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.”
It’s also important to note that “iron supplements can interact with certain medications, reducing their effectiveness,” Vandenberg says, which is yet another reason to talk with your doctor before adding a supplement of any kind.
Lastly, Kanda notes 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.
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Update 06/21/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.