10 Healthy Foods That Are Great Sources of Iron
Iron deficiency is more common than you may think, and this mineral is one you don’t want to skimp on. Reaching for these eats can help you get enough iron in your diet.
By opting for whole, nutritious foods in their diet, vegetarians can get enough iron.
If you’ve been told you’re not getting enough iron, you’re not alone. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency globally — especially among children and pregnant women — and the only nutrient deficiency that is widely prevalent in developed countries, according to the World Health Organization. That’s a problem because the mineral plays a number of critical roles in the body, says Sarah Gold Anzlovar, RDN, the Boston-based owner of Sarah Gold Nutrition. “Most well known is that it's a key component of red blood cells and helps transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body,” says Anzlovar.
Iron deficiency, a condition called anemia, makes it difficult for your red blood cells to deliver oxygen, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms of anemia may include fatigue, chest pain or shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, dizziness and headache, poor appetite, and unusual cravings for substances like ice, dirt, or starch.
How Much Iron Do You Need Per Day?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), here’s how much iron different groups of people need per day:
Nonpregnant Women ages 19 to 50 18 milligrams (mg)
Pregnant Women 27 mg
Women Age 51 and Older 8 mg
Men Age 19 and Older 8 mg
Infants and Children 7 to 16 mg, depending on age
Avoid Consuming Too Much Iron
The NIH cautions against taking in more than 45 mg of iron per day if you are a teenager or adult and more than 40 mg per day among those age 13 and younger.
Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron: What’s the Difference?
“There are two types of iron: heme iron from animal sources and non-heme iron from plant sources,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, author of Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family and a nutrition counselor in private practice in New York City. The NIH also notes that meat, poultry, and seafood contain both heme and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body than plant-based non-heme iron according to the Cleveland Clinic, so it can be beneficial to get both types of the nutrient in your diet, Largeman-Roth adds. You’ll need to aim for nearly twice as much iron per day (about 1.8 times as much, per the NIH) if you don’t eat meat.
Common Foods Can Help You Get Enough Iron
The good news is that a lot of common foods contain iron — from oysters and pumpkin seeds to fortified cereals and red meat.
Here are 10 foods high in iron that can help you get all of the mineral you need.
Eggs, Red Meat, Liver, and Giblets Are Top Sources of Heme Iron
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in addition to some non-heme iron, lots of animal proteins have heme iron, including ground beef (4 ounces of 93 percent lean ground meat provides 2.63 mg, meaning it’s a good source), eggs (1.68 mg in two large eggs), turkey (1.23 mg per 3 ounces of dark-meat turkey), and pork loin (just over 0.5 mg per 3 ounces).
Organ meats like liver and giblets are especially rich in iron. For example, 113 grams of chicken giblets has 6.1 mg of iron, making it an excellent source. Meanwhile, liver serves up an impressive amount of iron. One ounce of pork liver comes packed with 6.61 mg of iron, another excellent source. If your cholesterol is high, or if you are pregnant, avoid liver. MedlinePlus notes that liver is high in cholesterol (1 ounce contains 85.3 mg of cholesterol), and research links eating liver to possible birth defects.
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Oysters, Mussels, and Clams Are Rich Sources of Iron
Go ahead and splurge on the seafood appetizer — it comes with a generous side of iron! Bivalve mollusks like clams, mussels, and oysters are loaded with the important nutrient, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Per the USDA, five raw oysters deliver 3.23 mg of iron, making it a good source. They are also an excellent source of zinc, with 27.5 mg, as well as vitamin B12, with 6.1 micrograms.
If oysters, mussels, and clams aren't on your regular menu, common seafood choices
have some iron as well, according to the Mayo Clinic. For example, 3 ounces of chinook salmon has 0.2 mg of iron, per the USDA.
Chickpeas Are a Vegetarian-Friendly Iron Powerhouse
Animal products are known for being sources of iron, but that doesn’t mean plant-based staples can’t help you meet your goal, too. Chickpeas, a type of legume, provide 3.7 mg of iron per cup, per the USDA, making them an excellent source. They also deliver lean, plant-based protein — 14.6 g per cup, to be exact.
Chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, are a tasty addition to salads and pasta dishes, and they can be an unexpected way to mix up salsa. If you're not a fan of the texture, puree chickpeas to create homemade iron-rich hummus. Adding lemon juice to your hummus will increase the vitamin C in the snack and help your body more easily absorb the non-heme iron in the legumes, because according to the Mayo Clinic, when you eat an iron-rich food at the same time as a vitamin C–rich food, you enhance your body’s ability to absorb the iron.
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Fortified Breakfast Cereals Can Be Packed With Iron
Is a bowl of cereal your breakfast of choice? Opt for a fortified version to start off your day with a dose of iron — Mayo Clinic recommends it as a way to up your iron total. Check the nutrition label for the amount of iron per serving. (And be sure to opt for the box with the least amount of added sugar.)
Per the USDA, raisin bran has 9.39 mg of iron per cup, and that makes it an excellent source. It is also an excellent source of fiber, a common characteristic of fortified cereals. The Mayo Clinic notes that dietary fiber can help relieve constipation and lower your odds of developing diabetes and heart disease.
Pumpkin Seeds May Be Small, But They Have Lots of Iron
Don’t underestimate these crunchy seeds that you start seeing around Halloween. A 1-ounce serving of raw pumpkin seeds without shells has 2.7 mg of iron, per the USDA, providing a good iron source in a variety of dishes. Add the seeds to homemade trail mix or bread or muffin recipes, or use them as a crunchy topping for yogurt, cereal, or salad. You may also try them alone for a quick and healthy snack — 1 ounce packs 7 grams of protein. Win-win!
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Edamame Is Filled With Iron and Other Essential Nutrients, Too
A common sushi sidekick, a cup of these raw green soybeans contains about 9 mg of iron, per the USDA, making them an excellent source of the nutrient. Not to mention, they’re a good source of minerals such as copper, which helps keep blood vessels and the immune system healthy, according to the NIH. A cup of soybeans is also a good source of copper and an excellent source of manganese and fiber, as well as provides plant-based protein.
Largeman-Roth recommends including soybeans in stir-fries or making an edamame dip. Soy beans make a tasty addition to pasta dishes, too, or you can simply enjoy them on their own, steamed and sprinkled with a little sea salt.
Prepare Black Beans With Vitamin C–Rich Veggies for an Iron Win
Boiled black beans serve up 3.61 mg of iron per cup, per the USDA, for an excellent source. To rev iron absorption, pair them with healthy fare such as kale, bell peppers, broccoli, or cauliflower. As MedlinePlus notes, those foods are high in vitamin C, which is a nutrient that aids the absorption of non-heme iron. Add beans to a salad, puree them into a dip to eat with raw veggies, or toss them into a stir-fry. The recipe possibilities for a can of black beans are endless! And if you’re looking for more variety, kidney, pinto, and fava beans all have iron, too, according to the USDA.
Lentils Are Another Legume With Lots of Iron
Another legume worth an honorable mention in the iron department is lentils. Cooked lentils offer an excellent source of the mineral with about 6.59 mg per cup, per the USDA. And they offer 15.6 g of fiber per cup, too, making them a rich source. Fiber may help lower cholesterol and stabilize your blood sugar, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Lentils are also an extremely versatile ingredient in the kitchen — they're a great addition to everything from soups and salads to burgers and chili.
Spinach, Eaten Either Cooked or Raw, Offers Iron
No matter how you prepare it, spinach is an excellent source of iron. Per the USDA, 1 cup of this healthy green (frozen and then boiled) delivers 3.72 mg of iron, as well as some protein, fiber, calcium, and vitamins A and E.
Calcium is necessary to keep your bones strong, according to the Mayo Clinic; vitamin A is beneficial for your vision and immunity, the Mayo Clinic notes; and vitamin E helps your vision, as well as your blood, brain and skin, per the Mayo Clinic.
The same serving size of raw spinach, which is more loosely packed than when prepared cooked, gives you almost 1 mg of iron, offering some of the mineral, according to the USDA.
While the leafy green often gets a bad rap in the taste department, especially among kids, it's an easy ingredient to sneak into recipes undetected for a secret iron-boost (and as a non-heme iron source, it's especially beneficial when paired with foods high in vitamin C, like some veggies, suggests Anzlovar, and as research shows). “I love using sautéed spinach in vegetable lasagna,” says Largeman-Roth. “It also works well in mini frittatas, which my kids love.” If eating spinach in a dish doesn’t sound appealing, try this green mixed into a naturally sweet fruit smoothie.
Sesame Seeds Taste Nutty — and Have a Kick of Iron
“Sesame seeds have a wonderful nutty taste and are a rich source of iron,” says Largeman-Roth. The seeds contain some iron — 1.31 mg per tablespoon, per the USDA — and offer a slew of other essential nutrients, like copper. Not to mention, they contain phosphorus, vitamin E, and zinc.
An easy way to incorporate the seeds into your diet is to sprinkle them on a salad: Each tablespoon will add over a milligram of iron to your daily count — and when you’re aiming for 18 mg a day, every bit counts!