Iron is an essential nutrient required for the development of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to cells throughout the body. Getting enough iron helps ensure that your cells receive the oxygen needed to produce energy, which is essential for survival and overall health.
The daily iron requirement varies from person to person depending on age, sex, and a few other factors. For adults, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is between 8 and 18 mg of iron per day; pregnant women require more.
There are many different sources of iron. While doctors may prescribe iron supplements to treat an iron deficiency, natural foods can provide the proper amount of iron most people require each day.
Unfortunately, the average American gets significantly less than the RDA of iron. The good news is that it is easy to get your daily allotment of iron, as long as your diet includes iron-rich foods.
In this article we list both common and uncommon iron-rich foods.
Heme vs. Nonheme Iron
There are two types of dietary iron: heme and nonheme.
Heme iron is found primarily in meat, fish, and poultry. Nonheme iron is present in plants and dairy products as well as grain foods that are fortified with iron.
The main difference between the two is that heme iron is much better absorbed than nonheme iron.
Absorption of nonheme iron is affected by other dietary factors. For example, beans and whole grains are decent sources of nonheme iron, but their high content of phytic acid—a natural component of these foods—inhibits its absorption by 50% or more. Foods rich in vitamin C, on the other hand, enhance nonheme iron absorption.
Keep this in mind as we discuss common and uncommon sources of iron.
Liver is a valuable source of iron and other nutrients due to its function of storing vitamins and minerals. The amount of iron in liver varies depending on the animal, but all liver contains a reasonable amount of iron.
For instance, a 3-ounce serving of beef liver provides nearly 4 mg of iron while a similar serving of chicken liver has about 6 mg.
Red meat (beef, pork, veal, lamb, and venison) has 2 mg of iron per 3-ounce serving, while poultry (chicken and turkey) have 1 ounce.
Remember, the iron in meat is primarily heme iron, so it is very well absorbed.
It may surprise you to learn that seafood is an excellent source of iron. Three ounces of clams, mussels, or Eastern oysters contain 2.4–3.9 mg of iron. Pacific oysters have twice as much as their Eastern “cousins,” about 8 mg.
Fish, especially sardines and tuna, are also a reasonably good source of iron.
Beans & Tofu
Most beans—black, white, red, pinto, chickpeas, etc.—are viable options as a source of nonheme iron. One-half cup of cooked beans provides 2-3 mg of iron.
Tofu is a popular meat alternative made from soybeans. Half a cup of tofu contains 3 mg of iron.
Nuts are a healthy snack that provides iron along with high-quality protein and fats. Each type of nut has a different amount of iron, so it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how much iron they contain, but an ounce of nuts averages 1–2 mg of iron.
Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
Dark leafy green vegetables have higher amounts of vitamins and minerals—including iron—compared to other vegetables. One-half cup of cooked spinach, kale, and Swiss chard contain 2–3 mg of iron.
Fruits are healthy for many reasons and should not be neglected, but they should be considered secondary sources of iron.
In comparison, dried fruit such as apricots, raisins, and prunes are a more valuable source of iron. This is because dehydration or drying concentrates the nutrients, so the iron content is higher.
Cereals & Other Fortified Grain Products
Most cereals, flour, and other grain products are fortified with iron. In fact, approximately half of dietary iron in the United States comes from cereal, bread, and other fortified grain products. A cup of breakfast cereal has 12–18 mg of iron.
Iron is essential for good health, but you can get enough of it by eating a good diet. Meat, seafood, poultry, and liver are the richest natural sources of well-absorbed heme iron.
If you don’t eat meat or other animal products, experts suggest making sure you get plenty of legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), tofu, whole grains, and leafy greens as well as iron-fortified cereals and grain products.
To enhance absorption of nonheme iron, eating vitamin C-rich foods like strawberries, citrus fruits, red peppers, and tomatoes at the same time is also helpful.
It’s always a good idea to ask your doctor to check your iron status to make sure your level in the “sweet spot”—not too high and not too low. Do not take iron supplements unless recommended by your doctor.
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