Food With High Sources Of Iron

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When it comes to foods with high sources of iron, the options aren’t always clear. It’s easy to understand chicken, beef, and cereal — but where do you find iron in green beans or a slice of bread? This post aims to answer these questions and more. You have problems with your health or have serious iron deficiency. If so then it is a good idea to take a look at some iron rich foods.

Foods high in iron

Iron is a nutrient needed for many functions of the body, such as making haemoglobin in red blood cells, which transports oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. While it can store iron, your body can’t make it. The only way to get iron is from food.

Iron-rich foods

There are 2 types of iron in food: haem and non-haem. Haem iron, found in meat, poultry and seafood, is absorbed more effectively than non-haem iron, which is found in eggs and plant foods.

Animal-based sources of iron

Top animal-based sources of iron include:

  • red meats (beef, lamb, veal, pork, kangaroo). The redder the meat, the higher it is in iron
  • offal (liver, kidney, pate)
  • poultry
  • fish or shellfish (salmon, sardines, tuna)
  • eggs

Plant-based sources of iron

Plant foods containing non-haem iron can still provide an adequate amount of iron for the body. Good sources include:

  • nuts
  • dried fruit
  • wholemeal pasta and bread
  • iron-fortified bread and breakfast cereal
  • legumes (mixed beans, baked beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • dark leafy green vegetables (spinach, silver beet, broccoli)
  • oats
  • tofu

How much iron do I need?

Your recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron depends on your age and sex:

  • Children aged 1-3 years — 9 milligrams (mg)
  • Children 4-8 — 10mg
  • Boys 9-13 — 8mg
  • Boys 14-18 — 11mg
  • Girls 9-13 — 8mg
  • Girls 14-18 — 15mg
  • Men aged over 19 — 8mg
  • Women aged 19-50 — 18mg
  • Women 51+ — 8mg
  • Pregnant women — 27mg
  • Women breastfeeding exclusively — 9-10mg

Women need more iron to replace the amount lost in blood during menstruation. Until menopause, women need about twice as much iron as men.

Iron deficiency occurs when the iron levels are too low, which can lead to anaemia. If you are worried you have an iron deficiency, your doctor may order some blood tests and may suggest iron supplements. You should always speak to your doctor before you take iron supplements as you could poison yourself if you take too much.

Need help getting enough iron?

Click on this infographic to ensure you get an adequate iron intake from a balanced diet.

Learn how much iron you need each day, which foods are the best sources of iron and how to incorporate them in your diet.

Infographic with tips for meeting your iron daily needs with your diet

How to improve iron absorption from food

How you prepare food, and which foods you eat together, can affect how much iron your body absorbs.

For example, foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, kiwi fruit, melons, green leafy vegetables and capsicum can help you absorb more iron if you eat them at the same time as iron-rich foods. Add them raw to your plate, drink unsweetened orange juice with your meal, or take a vitamin C supplement.

Coffee, tea and red wine (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), on the other hand, can reduce iron absorption. Calcium-rich foods, calcium supplements and some soybean-based foods can also inhibit iron absorption.

It’s better to have coffee, tea, red wine and dairy foods in between meals.

Can you have too much iron?

In healthy people, the body regulates how much iron it absorbs from food and supplements — so it’s difficult to have ‘too much’ iron in your diet.

However, some people have a genetic condition called haemochromatosis, which causes the body to absorb excess iron. The normal level of iron in the body is 3 to 4 grams, but in people with haemochromatosis it can be more than 20g.

About 1 person in every 300 has haemochromatosis, and it’s usually picked up through screening people who have a close relative with the condition.

Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your iron levels.

Iron Rich Foods

Food has two types of iron — heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in meat, fish and poultry. It is the form of iron that is most readily absorbed by your body. You absorb up to 30 percent of the heme iron that you consume. Eating meat generally boosts your iron levels far more than eating non-heme iron.

Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables and nuts. Foods with non-heme iron are still an important part of a nutritious, well-balanced diet, but the iron contained in these foods won’t be absorbed as completely. You absorb between two and 10 percent of the non-heme iron that you consume.

When you eat heme iron with foods higher in non-heme iron, the iron will be more completely absorbed by your body. Foods high in vitamin C – like tomatoes, citrus fruits and red, yellow and orange peppers – can also help with the absorption of non-heme iron.

The amount and type of iron in your diet is important. Some iron-rich foods are:

Meat and Eggs

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Ham
  • Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Veal
  • Pork
  • Dried beef
  • Liver
  • Liverwurst
  • Eggs (any style)

Seafood

  • Shrimp
  • Clams
  • Scallops
  • Oysters
  • Tuna
  • Sardines
  • Haddock
  • Mackerel

Vegetables

  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Peas
  • Broccoli
  • String beans
  • Beet greens
  • Dandelion greens
  • Collards
  • Kale
  • Chard

Bread and Cereals

  • White bread (enriched)
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Enriched pasta
  • Wheat products
  • Bran cereals
  • Corn meal
  • Oat cereal
  • Cream of Wheat
  • Rye bread
  • Enriched rice

Fruit

  • Strawberries
  • Watermelon
  • Raisins
  • Dates
  • Figs
  • Prunes
  • Prune juice
  • Dried apricots
  • Dried peaches

Beans and Other Foods

  • Tofu
  • Beans (kidney, garbanzo, or white, canned)
  • Tomato products (e.g., paste)
  • Dried peas
  • Dried beans
  • Lentils
  • Instant breakfast
  • Corn syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses

How to Add Foods That Are High in Iron to Your Diet

woman snacking on raisins and nuts

Are you getting enough iron daily? The chances are that most of us probably aren’t. Our bodies need iron to grow and develop. Iron can also help prevent anemia and protect your body from infection. If you haven’t been chowing down on iron-rich foods, we’re going to give you some easy ways to incorporate this nutritional powerhouse into your diet. 

Foods that are high in iron by type

To get a better idea of how you can work more iron into your diet, here is a handy list of iron-rich foods.

Iron-rich legumes
  • Dried or canned peas and beans (kidney, garbanzo, cannellini, soybeans, etc.).
  • Lentils.
  • Peas.
  • Tofu.
  • Tempeh (fermented soybeans).
Iron-rich bread and cereal
  • Enriched white bread.
  • Enriched pasta.
  • Wheat products.
  • Bran cereals.
  • Cornmeal.
  • Oat cereals.
  • Cream of Wheat.
  • Rye bread.
  • Enriched rice.
  • Whole wheat bread.
Iron-rich fruit
  • Figs.
  • Dates.
  • Raisins.
  • Prunes and prune juice.
Iron-rich protein sources
  • Beef.
  • Chicken.
  • Clams.
  • Eggs.
  • Lamb.
  • Ham.
  • Turkey.
  • Veal.
  • Pork.
  • Liver.
  • Shrimp.
  • Tuna.
  • Sardines.
  • Haddock.
  • Mackerel.
  • Oysters.
  • Scallops.
Iron-rich vegetables
  • Broccoli.
  • String beans.
  • Dark leafy greens – Dandelion, collard, kale, spinach.
  • Potatoes.
  • Cabbage, Brussels sprouts.
  • Tomato paste and other products.
Other foods that are high in iron
  • Blackstrap molasses.
  • Pistachios.
  • Pumpkin seeds.
  • Sesame seeds.
  • Flax seeds.
  • Almonds.
  • Cashews.
  • Pine nuts.
  • Macadamia nuts.
  • Hemp seeds.

Why you need iron in your diet

“Iron is a vital component of hemoglobin, which makes it an important mineral that our bodies need in order to carry oxygen so that our cells can produce energy,” says registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. “If we don’t have enough iron, we will not have enough red blood cells to transport oxygen. This leads to extreme fatigue and lightheadedness,” Zumpano adds.

Iron is also essential for brain development and growth, and the production of many other cells and hormones in the body.

“Without adequate iron stores, individuals can develop a condition called iron-deficiency anemia — the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide. It’s associated with symptoms like fatigue, weakness, trouble maintaining body heat, pale skin, dizziness, headache, and an inflamed tongue,” says Zumpano.

How much iron do adults need daily?

According to Zumpano, the daily recommended amount of iron for adults ages 19-50 is:

  • 18 milligrams a day for women.
  • 27 milligrams a day for pregnant women.
  • 9 milligrams a day for lactating women.
  • 8 milligrams a day for men.

In general, women tend to need more iron to make up for what is lost during menstrual cycles. Women who are 51 and older should aim for 8 milligrams of iron daily.

How much iron do kids need?

For children, the recommended amount of iron can vary based on age.

Birth to 6
months
0.27 milligrams
7-12 months11 milligrams
1-3 years7 milligrams
4-8 years10 milligrams
9-13 years8 milligrams
14-18 years11 milligrams for males
15 milligrams for females

While these are general guidelines, Zumpano recommends that you get a proper diagnosis and a personalized recommendation from your doctor.

Types of iron

There are two main types of iron — heme and non-heme iron.

Zumpano explains.

Heme iron

“Heme is better absorbed by the body and is commonly found in liver, meat, poultry and seafood.”

Non-heme iron

“Non-heme iron is commonly found in legumes (beans), nuts, seeds, and certain vegetables like spinach and potatoes.”

You can also get iron through fortified sources such as tofu, grains, bread and cereal.

Is it better to get iron from food or a supplement?

The good news is that most people can get a sufficient amount of iron in their diets. Zumpano says this is mainly due to the consumption of animal products.

“Most people can get the iron they need from the food they eat. This is in part due to the fact that the main source of iron in the typical American diet is from animal products. The average American eats significantly more than the daily allowance.”

If you don’t eat meat or animal products, Zumpano suggests that you eat more leafy greens, legumes (beans), whole grains, mushrooms and tofu, along with vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes and red peppers. Eating a source of iron with a source of vitamin C will help your body absorb iron even better.

“The key is that we should always get our iron from food unless our physician recommends otherwise. For some, a supplement may be necessary, but you shouldn’t start taking one without discussing it with your physician first,” says Zumpano.

How to make sure you’re absorbing enough iron

Wondering what helps with iron absorption? Here are some helpful tips to remember from Zumpano:

  • Consume foods that are rich in iron, specifically non-heme iron, with a source of vitamin C. Foods with vitamin A and beta-carotene help absorption as well. These foods include carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, squash, red peppers, cantaloupe, apricots, oranges and peaches.
  • Limit the amount of calcium that you consume with foods that are rich in iron as calcium can block iron absorption.
  • Eat a quality diet that’s filled with healthy sources of nutrients.
  • If you’ve been trying to get iron in pill form, check to see if you’re taking a calcium supplement or a multivitamin that’s high in calcium. Talk to your doctor to make sure that a supplement won’t be harder for your body to absorb.

Iron recommendations for plant-based diets

If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s important to consume vitamin-c rich foods with iron sources and consume them in greater quantities. Zumpano also suggests being cautious with calcium-rich foods in the process because they can decrease absorption.

Iron-packed meal ideas

You can incorporate foods that are rich in iron into breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Here are some simple meal ideas to get you started.

Breakfast

Breakfast Fried Rice with Scrambled Eggs

This recipe calls for quite a few sources of iron — cashews, eggs, sesame seeds and peas. You can even get creative and toss in more iron-rich veggies and a protein source for even more flavor.

Lunch

Zesty Bean Salad

Kidney beans are at the center of this hearty salad, but you can use a combo of your favorite beans if you want. Enjoy this dish as-is or serve it over spinach or mixed greens.

Dinner

Charcuterie Dinner Board

Dinner doesn’t always have to be complicated. Throw some meats, dried fruits, veggies, cheese, nuts and more on a charcuterie board and dig in!

Snack

Toasted Quinoa and Almond Date Balls

This treat is delicious and naturally delicious. It’s also made with fruits, seeds, nuts and grains that are wonderful sources of iron.

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