Iron is a vital nutrient, crucial for forming hemoglobin, the molecule that transports oxygen throughout the body. It is an essential nutrient, which means it must be consumed because the body cannot manufacture iron internally. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, a condition marked by fatigue, weakness, pallor, and breathlessness.
Women are at a greater risk of iron deficiency due to menstruation and general trends in dietary intake, and as such, the recommended daily intake of iron is 18 mg for women prior to menopause and 8 mg for men and post-menopausal women. People with low vitamin A intake are also at increased risk of iron deficiency anemia, as vitamin A facilitates the storage versus utilization of iron. Other risk factors for iron deficiency anemia include gastrointestinal disorders, kidney disease, pregnancy, and certain chronic health conditions.
Vegetarians and vegans are also at an increased risk of iron deficiency because the richest and most readily absorbed sources of iron are from animal protein. Iron from animal sources is called heme iron, while iron from plant sources is called non-heme iron. According to the National Institutes of Health, the bioavailability of heme iron is about 14-18% compared to 5-12% for non-heme iron. This significant difference is partially attributable to the fact that other dietary components have less effect on the bioavailability of heme iron and other dietary components in an omnivorous diet—meat, seafood, vitamin C—improve the absorption. In contrast, a vegetarian diet is often high in phytates, fiber, and certain polyphenols, which can interfere with iron absorption. Lastly, calcium, and tannins in coffee and tea, also reduce iron absorption.
Get your grocery shop[ping list ready; below, we share 13 foods high in iron to keep you feeling energized and strong.
Red meat, such as steak and other forms of beef, is an excellent source of iron. For example, a six-ounce skirt steak contains 9.3mg of iron, which is more than the recommended daily intake for most men and 52% of the RDI for women. A three-ounce burger made from lean ground beef contains 2.5 mg of iron or 31% of the RDI for men. As iron from red meat is heme iron, the absorption rate is also fairly high.
Shellfish are rich in a variety of nutrients, from protein to vitamins and minerals. Iron is among this list, with a 3-ounce serving of oysters providing nearly 8 mg of iron (100% RDI for men and 43% RDI for women). Cuttlefish, octopus, mussels, scallops, and abalone are also quite high in iron. Consider pairing shellfish with bell peppers, citrus, or other good sources of vitamin C to enhance iron absorption.
Most of the wheat flour in the United States is fortified with iron, as are many healthy breakfast cereals. For example, Total and Raisin Bran offer as much as 19.6 mg of iron per 3/4-cup serving. Pairing your breakfast cereal with fruits high in vitamin C—such as kiwi and blackberries—will boost your iron absorption as well.
Popeye was doing something right in his love of spinach. This healthy vegetable provides a bounty of nutrients, including folate and other B vitamins, vitamin A, fiber, protein, and iron. One cup of cooked spinach contains about 6.5 mg of iron. Swiss chard, beet greens, turnip greens, and kale aren’t too far behind. Dark leafy greens are incredibly versatile and can be used for everything from salads and hearty soups to smoothies and sandwiches.
Quinoa is considered a grain but is actually a seed. In addition to providing all nine essential amino acids, it’s high in iron. Each cup of cooked quinoa provides nearly 3 mg of iron. Other grains such as whole oats, barley, rice, and Bulgar wheat also contain some iron.
Legumes, such as beans, lentils, and peas, contain a decent amount of iron, though it is non-heme iron. One cup of white beans or lentils, for example, contains an impressive 6.6 mg of iron, or 82.5% of the RDI for men. Soybeans contain even more—nearly 9 mg—which is why tofu is also an excellent source of iron. Kidney beans, navy beans, garbanzo beans, black beans, lima beans, and pinto beans are also packed with iron. That said, legumes are high in phytates, which may interfere with the absorption of iron, so pair your bean dish with foods high in vitamin C to enhance the bioavailability of the iron.
Pumpkin seeds and squash seeds contain a bounty of essential nutrients, including zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and B vitamins. A 1-ounce serving also provides 2.5 mg of iron. Seeds, in general, are decent sources of iron. Other good options include sesame seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. The iron content in hemp seeds is one of the reasons hemp protein powder is particularly nutritious.
Organ meat, such as beef liver and chicken liver, can be a bit of an acquired taste, but some people love its richness and notable metallic taste. This metallic taste is actually a result of the high iron content. Chicken liver contains 12.9 mg of iron per 100 grams and a 3-ounce portion of beef liver has just over 5 mg of iron. Organ meat is also rich in vitamin D, an important steroid hormone necessary for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus.
White button mushrooms are great in soups, salads, sandwiches, and most savory dishes. This familiar fungus is also packed with nutrients like zinc and vitamin D, as well as iron. Each cup of cooked white button mushrooms provides 2.7 mg of iron.
If you love trail mix, add in some dried fruit. Dried apricots, for example, have 7.5 mg of iron per cup, or nearly the daily value for most men and about 42% for women. Dried peaches, prunes, dried figs, and raisins are also rich in iron. If you don’t like trail mix, you can add dried fruit to yogurt, cereal, or even incorporate chopped dried fruit in homemade protein balls.
Dark chocolate is surprisingly nutritious, packed with enough antioxidants and nutrients like zinc to earn it “superfood” status by some. It’s also a good source of iron. One ounce of dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa) contains 3.42 mg of iron or 19% of the RDI for women and 42% for men. Unsweetened baking chocolate is an even better source of iron, with 5 mg per ounce.
Though certainly odd-looking to the uninitiated, seitan, which is a vegan meat substitute made from vital wheat gluten, is loaded with iron and protein. There are 5.2 mg of non-heme iron in each 100-gram portion of gluten. Other good vegan sources of iron are tempeh (which is also rich in probiotics) and tofu.
You may not think of dried herbs as providing much nutritional value, but they are actually very potent sources of antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamin C, and iron. When considering the concentration of iron per gram of food, dried herbs are actually the best source of iron, with each gram containing about 1.25 mg of iron. Thyme, marjoram, parsley, black pepper, and spearmint are the best sources.
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