Top 10 Iron-Rich Foods, Recommended Intake and Key Benefits

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Top 10 iron-rich foods - Dr. Axe

Are you getting enough iron-rich foods in your diet right now? Iron is a trace mineral found in every living cell in our bodies. It’s a primary component of two proteins: hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen to the body’s tissues. Myoglobin is the part of the muscle cells that hold oxygen.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, iron deficiency is the most common known form of nutritional deficiency. (1) The best way to make sure you’re not lacking in this key nutrient is to eat adequate amounts of iron-rich foods each and every day.

Recommended Intake

The amount of iron you need changes based on your age. According to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), the recommended daily amounts of iron are as follows: (7)

  • Children ages 1 to 3: 7 milligrams
  • Children ages 4 to 8: 10 milligrams
  • Children ages 9 to 13: 8 milligrams
  • Women ages 14 to 18: 15 milligrams
  • Men ages 14 to 18: 11 milligrams
  • Women ages 19 to 50: 18 milligrams
  • Pregnant and lactating women: 27 milligrams
  • Men ages 19+: 8 milligrams
  • Women ages 51+: 8 milligrams

Iron-Rich Foods List

What foods are high in iron? Here’s the top healthy iron-rich foods, including meat, fish, beans, nuts, vegetables and even some fruit.

1. Spirulina

1 ounce: 8 milligrams of iron (44 percent DV)

Spirulina is a blue-green algae renowned for its intense flavor and even more powerful nutrition profile. Just one ounce almost provides half of typical iron requirements. When it comes to vegetarian, non-heme sources of iron, spirulina is a superstar without a doubt. It’s also rich in essential amino acids, iron, protein, B vitamins, and vitamins C, D and E.

2. Liver

3 ounces of organic beef liver: 4.05 milligrams of iron (22.5 percent DV)

When it comes to foods with iron, specifically heme iron (the more easily absorbable form), liver definitely tops the list. If you struggle with any type of anemia — a clear sign of an iron deficiency — this is probably the best food to consume in the world because it contains iron as well as folate and vitamin B12. These are the three vitamins and minerals you need in order to overcome anemia naturally.

3. Grass-Fed Beef

One lean grass-fed strip steak (214 grams): 4 milligrams of iron (22 percent DV)

Grass-fed beef is another awesome meat source of heme iron as well as many other key nutrients. It’s definitely one of my personal favorites when it comes to iron-rich foods. In addition to iron, grass-fed beef is also higher in precursors for vitamin A and E, along with cancer-fighting antioxidants, compared to grain-fed beef. (2)

4. Lentils

½ cup: 3.3 milligrams of iron (20.4 percent DV)

Lentils are legumes that have a really impressive amount of non-heme iron per serving. Aside from their high supply of nutrients, what’s another benefit of including protein-packed lentils in your diet regularly? They’re really cheap and very versatile.

5. Dark Chocolate

1 ounce: 3.3 milligrams iron (19 percent DV)

When you buy high-quality dark chocolate, you not only satisfy your sweet tooth — you also give your body a significant dose of iron. All you need is one ounce to fulfill almost 20 percent of your daily iron requirements. Now that’s one healthy dessert option!

6. Spinach

½ cup cooked: 3.2 milligrams (17.8 percent DV)

There is good reason why Popeye got stronger when he ate spinach. This leafy green is loaded with iron as well as many other essential nutritions. As one of the top vegetable sources of iron, spinach is delicious raw or cooked. When you cook it, you tend to end up eating more since it cooks down so much, which means even more iron per spoonful.

7. Sardines

1/4 cup: 1.8 milligrams (10 percent DV)

When it comes to sardines nutrition, these little fish are probably best known for their high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. They’re also a significant source of heme iron. It’s easy to find canned sardines for a very affordable price in most grocery stores. Try adding them to sauces, salads and pasta dishes.

8. Black beans

½ cup: 1.8 milligrams (10 percent DV)

Black beans are high in iron as well as protein and fiber. Black beans provide “time-released” energy in the form of starches, making them an excellent carbohydrate source for anyone who has a form of resistance to insulin (the blood sugar-lowering hormone) like those who are prediabetic or who have diabetes.

9. Pistachios

1 ounce: 1.1 milligrams (6.1 percent DV)

Nutrient-dense pistachios reign supreme when it comes to those looking for healthy snack ideas for weight loss and weight control. Just one ounce, or 49 pistachios kernels (a typical serving size), provides iron as well as high levels of vitamin B6 (25 percent DV), thiamine (20 percent DV) and copper (20 percent DV). Pistachios are one of the best nut sources of iron.

10. Raisins

1/4 cup: 1.1 milligrams (6.1 percent DV)

One of the highlights of raisins nutrition is their significantly high content of iron per serving, especially for a fruit. Other great fruit sources of iron include prunes and figs.

If you’re deficient in iron, it’s a good idea to consume two to three servings daily of these iron-rich foods.

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Health Benefits

1. Prevents Anemia

Anemia is caused by a low production of red blood cells and hemoglobin, therefore low oxygen reaches cells throughout the body. Anemia usually results in low energy levels but can also affect many parts of the body − from poor brain function to low immunity (or the inability to fight off illnesses).

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately half of the 1.62 billion cases of anemia worldwide are due to iron deficiency, while the other half are due to genetic factors. (22)

According to the Department of Human Health at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, anemia develops when:

… individuals have inadequate iron intake, impaired absorption or transport, physiologic losses associated with chronological or reproductive age, or chronic blood loss secondary to disease. In adults, IDA can result in a wide variety of adverse outcomes including diminished work or exercise capacity, impaired thermoregulation, immune dysfunction, GI disturbances, and neurocognitive impairment. (23)

2. Supports Energy Levels

Iron supports ongoing energy by helping enough oxygen to reach cells. Iron also helps with the metabolic enzyme processes that the body carries out to digest proteins and absorb nutrients from food. This is why an iron deficiency causes exhaustion, trouble being active and many other symptoms of feeling sluggish.

Iron deficiency commonly shows up in symptoms like low concentration, mood changes and trouble with muscle coordination. Iron is needed for muscle movement because it helps store the oxygen in muscles that allows them to move and strengthen.

3. Helps Maintain Cognitive Function

Iron is a top brain food, as it’s needed for supporting brain function because it carries oxygen to the brain; in fact, about 20 percent of all of the oxygen in the body is used by the brain. Therefore, an iron deficiency can impair memory or other mental functions. In infants and children, a deficiency can cause psychomotor and cognitive abnormalities that have the potential to lead to learning difficulties.

4. Supports Development and Growth

Iron deficiency can delay normal motor function — meaning the ability to connect thoughts with activities and movement — as well as mental functions like learning and processing new information.

5. Needed for a Healthy Pregnancy

Iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk for a premature birth and also for the newborn being underweight. Sadly, premature born babies are known to have more health-related problems during their first years of life and may experience delayed growth and cognitive development.

All pregnant women are advised to eat plenty of iron-rich foods and to take supplements, because as the NIH warns,

Insufficient iron intakes during pregnancy increase a woman’s risk of iron deficiency-caused anemia. Low intakes also increase her infant’s risk of low birth weight, premature birth, low iron stores, and impaired cognitive and behavioral development. (24)

A study done by the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, WHO found that taking iron supplements during pregnancy is associated with an 8.4 percent risk of having a low-birth weight newborn, compared to 10.2 percent risk when the mother does not supplement with iron. The average birth weight in the WHO study was 31 g. higher in infants whose mothers took daily iron supplements during pregnancy, compared to the weight of infants of mothers who did not take iron. (25)

6. Supports Immune System

Iron is needed to properly digest and absorb other nutrients from food, due to its role in metabolic enzyme processed. In addition, iron helps to bring enough oxygen to damaged areas of the body, including damaged tissues, organs and cells that are prone to infection or disease development.

7. Helps Maintain Positive Mood

Neurotransmitter functions that support a positive mood rely on adequate levels of iron within the blood. Your mood relies on a balance of hormones — including serotonin, dopamine and other vital hormones — that cannot properly be synthesized in the brain when oxygen levels are low.

This is one reason why iron deficiency results in a poor mood, bad sleep, low energy levels and a lack of motivation. If you notice changes in your mood and feelings of mild depression or anxiety, an iron deficiency could possibly be a contributor.

8. Prevents Restless Leg Syndrome

Iron deficiency is one of the causes of the restless leg syndrome, which can lead to major sleep disturbances. Iron helps to transport enough oxygen to muscles, which decrease muscle spasms and pain.

Iron benefits

Risks and Side Effects

It’s best to obtain iron from your diet by regularly consuming iron-rich foods. You should only supplement with iron if you’re deficient, and you should do so under the supervision of a health professional.  The most common side effect of iron supplements include upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, constipation and heartburn.

If you suspect that you’re deficient in iron, a blood test can reveal your current iron levels.

Final Thoughts

Although iron deficiency is extremely common, it’s thankfully also quite curable. The best way to avoid iron deficiency or recover from it is to make sure that you eat iron-rich foods on a daily basis. Sometimes iron supplements may be necessary, but upping your dietary intake of foods high in iron is a natural and safe way to improve your iron levels.

The best iron-rich foods include spirulina, liver, grass-fed beef, lentils, dark chocolate, spinach, sardines, black beans, pistachios and raisins. In addition to help prevent anemia and iron deficiency, benefits iron-rich foods include increased energy, muscle function and brain function. Iron is also vital for a healthy pregnancy and can help treat restless leg syndrome.