Are you getting enough iron in your diet? You need iron to help transport oxygen around your body. When you do not consume enough iron, you may end up feeling weak and tired.
Iron deficiency is thought to be the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. In developed countries, iron deficiency is often the result of inadequate intake of this essential mineral.
If you suspect that you may have iron deficiency anemia, the first thing to do is consult with your physician. It is important to rule out any underlying causes for the anemia that may not be diet-related. If you have a diagnosis of iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor will likely put you on an iron supplement.
In addition, there are other micronutrient deficiencies (including vitamins B6, B9, and B12) that can result in different types of anemia. This article will focus on preventing iron deficiency anemia. However, consuming a varied diet of healthful foods from all food groups can help you to avoid other deficiencies as well.
The amount of iron you need per day varies by age, sex, and other factors. Certain people have much higher needs than others. The iron RDAs for omnivores are:
- Women 19-50 years old: 18 mg (27 mg if pregnant, 9 mg if breastfeeding)
- Men 19-50 years old: 8 mg
- Individuals age 51 or older: 8 mg
The RDA for iron for vegans and other individuals consuming vegetarian diet patterns is 1.8 times higher than for omnivores. We’ll cover some of the reasons for this below.
Are you ready to learn about some of the best foods to help prevent iron deficiency anemia? How many of these foods make it into your dietary pattern regularly?
1. Oysters provide an iron-packed punch
The current recommendation is to try to fit at least two servings of seafood into your week. Why not aim for iron-rich options such as oysters?
A 3-ounce serving of eastern oysters cooked with moist heat has 8 mg of iron. In other words, a single serving of oysters meets the RDA for iron for adult men. Canned oysters are a budget-friendly way to get more of this healthy seafood into your diet.
Oysters, like other meats and seafood, contain heme iron. This type of iron has a higher bioavailability than the kind of iron present in plant foods. If you want to increase your iron intake without supplements or fortified foods, aim for more foods rich in heme iron.
2. Beef liver is a nutrient powerhouse, and not just for iron
The beef liver tends to be an acquired taste, but it is one of the most nutrient-dense foods around. Aside from being a rich source of protein, vitamin A, and vitamin B12, the liver is also a super source of iron. A 3-ounce serving of pan-fried beef liver provides 5 mg of iron.
Like oysters, beef liver contains highly bioavailable heme iron. Another advantage of eating meat and seafood is that these foods enhance the absorption of non-heme (i.e., plant-based) iron. If you are an omnivore, enjoying meat and non-heme food sources of iron together give your body a one-two punch of this nutrient.
If you would like to add more beef liver to your diet, but your taste buds are not so enthusiastic, go slowly. Try adding 1-2 T of pureed beef liver to recipes such as meatballs, Bolognese sauce, or meatloaf. Pates can be another way to get this nutrient powerhouse into your meal plan.
3. Soak and sprout your white beans to boost iron
If you are vegetarian or vegan, it can be more challenging to get sufficient iron into your diet for several reasons. Eggs contain a protein called phosvitin that limits the bioavailability of iron. Dairy products contain little to no iron, and calcium may limit the bioavailability of both heme and non-heme iron.
Both vegan and vegetarian diets rely on plant-based non-heme iron which is less bioavailable. They also restrict the meat and seafood that increase the absorption of the non-heme iron. Also, some of the plant foods that appear rich in iron, such as spinach, are packed with iron-absorption inhibitors.
So, what can a vegan or vegetarian do to meet their elevated iron needs? One trick is to soak and sprout your beans and grains. Soaking and sprouting reduce the phytates in these foods that can lower your body’s ability to absorb iron and zinc.
White beans are one of the best natural sources of plant-based iron, with 8 mg per cup of canned beans. Purchasing dried white beans and then soaking, sprouting, and cooking them can increase the amount of iron you absorb. For other tips to get more iron from your plant-based diet, check out #7, 8, and 9 on this list.
Note: This page incorrectly claims that “there is not a separate iron daily requirement for vegetarians.” The NIH’s page on iron states that “The [iron] RDAs for vegetarians are 1.8 times higher than for people who eat meat.”
The %DV on most food labels is based on 18 mg of iron, the RDA for omnivore women ages 19-50. If you are a female vegetarian in this age range, your iron needs may be higher than what is listed.
4. Sardines are an iron-packed super seafood
Sardines are not the most common choice for seafood in the United States, but they are a good source of iron. A 3-ounce serving of Atlantic sardines that have been canned in oil (with the bones) provides 2 mg of this mineral. Sardines also contain the omega-3 fat DHA, and choosing the variety with the bones gives you a boost of calcium.
Seafood can be quite expensive. To derive the nutrient benefits of these healthful foods for a lower cost, choose canned fish options.
5. Your body will have no beef with the iron content of beef
Beef may be the food we most commonly think of for iron. Thus, it is probably no surprise that it made the list. If the media headlines have scared you away from consuming iron-packed beef, you may want to reconsider.
Many major health organizations give the green light to enjoying a diet that includes some beef. For example, the American Heart Association recommends choosing lean or extra lean beef, not necessarily eliminating it. The AICR says that you do not have to eliminate red meat and can enjoy up to 18 ounces per week.
For ground beef, the 90/10 and 96/4 are the leanest options. If you are purchasing cuts of beef, those marked “loin” or “round” tend to be the lowest in saturated fat.
The amount of iron in beef will vary depending on the cut you choose. A 3-ounce portion of braised bottom round beef (trimmed to 1/8” fat) provides 2 mg of iron. This is a good source of highly bioavailable heme iron.
6. Don’t be chicken about adding chicken into your meal plan
Many people consume more chicken than beef, and chicken does give you a little iron as well. A 3-ounce serving of roasted chicken (including the meat and skin) provides 1 mg of iron. It’s not a large amount, but it does add up if you have a lot of chicken in your diet.
As mentioned above, consuming meat (including poultry) can help your body to absorb the non-heme iron in plant foods. Having your chicken with non-heme iron sources (like soaked and sprouted grains and legumes) means more iron for you.
Take a more holistic approach to think about your diet instead of considering isolated foods or nutrients only. Though chicken alone is not the best source of iron, it increases the bioavailability of this mineral in a varied diet. It’s also a great source of lean protein and specific micronutrients such as niacin.
7. Iron-fortified breakfast cereals with citrus fruit provide plant-based iron
Check your box of breakfast cereal if you are looking for an easy way to help meet your iron needs. Some cereals have been fortified with 100% DV of the iron you need in a single serving. Keep in mind that this is non-heme iron, the type that is less readily absorbed.
Consuming meat and seafood with your non-heme iron sources can help increase your absorption of non-heme iron. Another way to help improve the absorption of non-heme iron is to include vitamin C-rich foods in your meals. This is an excellent option for vegans and vegetarians who are looking to increase iron intake.
Enjoying your iron-fortified breakfast cereal with citrus fruit is a great way to get the non-heme iron and vitamin C combo. If you don’t like citrus, kiwis, strawberries, and cantaloupe are also excellent sources of vitamin C.
8. Sneak some iron into your dessert with dark chocolate and strawberries
Here’s some great news if you need an excuse to eat chocolate. Dark chocolate is an excellent source of iron. A 3-ounce serving of dark chocolate (45-69% cacao solids) provides 7 mg of this mineral.
The amount of iron in dark chocolate varies by brand. Check the nutrition label of the product that you are purchasing for the most accurate information.
Keep in mind that the iron in chocolate is non-heme, the type with lower bioavailability. Consider adding some strawberries to your dark chocolate. The addition of berries makes a fabulous dessert and provides vitamin C that helps you to absorb more iron.
Even though dark chocolate has a nutrient profile that is associated with health benefits, it should still be enjoyed in moderation. It is high in calories and often high in added sugars. Many people find chocolate (in all forms) extremely easy to overindulge in.
If you have a weight loss goal, remain mindful of your intake of chocolate. Some of the higher protein options on this list may be more satiating ways to get your iron.
9. You may not need to give up coffee and tea to boost your iron intake
So, here’s the scoop. Coffee and tea contain compounds that can reduce your absorption of iron. Are you wondering why these beverages made it into a list of foods to prevent iron deficiency anemia?
You can help prevent iron deficiency not only with things you do but also with things you do not do. If you are a coffee or tea drinker, stop consuming these beverages with your meals. Enjoying coffee and tea only between meals may help your body to absorb more iron from the foods you eat.
10. Even if you dislike seafood, don’t clam up on giving clams a go
Clams are the third (and final) seafood item to make this list, and they are also a good source of iron. A 3-ounce serving of clams provides over 2 mg of iron.
If you are not a big fan of the fishy taste of seafood, clams can be a great option. Instead of making a piece of fish your entrée, try canned clams in a chowder. The other flavors in this mixed dish may please your palate more than eating seafood solo.
Beef is not the only way to get some iron into your day. If you don’t like a particular food, there are generally many other options to help you meet your nutrient needs.
If you are not currently consuming enough iron-rich foods, start making simple shifts to add more of this mineral in. When you make your grocery list this week, consider adding some of the above foods. Eating sufficient iron for good health does not have to be complicated.
Consider broadening your dietary variety if you are on a self-imposed diet that limits your intake of foods with iron. This is especially important if you are struggling with an iron deficiency that was caused by dietary factors. Foods that are rich in heme iron, such as beef, can be a part of a healthy and varied diet.
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.