Good Food Sources of Iron
Many people, especially women of childbearing age, infants, and the elderly, do not take in enough iron. However, there are many good food sources of iron to choose from. If your doctor advises you to increase your iron intake, consult the chart below to determine how much you need, and read on for some suggestions on meeting those needs.
Your blood depends on iron to help it carry oxygen through the body. In some cases, anemia is caused by a lack of iron in the diet. Iron also helps your body to fight infection and to make collagen, which is the major protein that makes up connective tissue, cartilage, and bone. Other medical conditions may be worsened if you do not have enough iron.
|Age Group||RDA (mg/day)|
AI = 0.27
AI = 0.27
|Lactation, < 18 years||n/a||10|
|Lactation, 19-50 years||n/a||9|
Iron exists in two forms—heme and nonheme. Heme iron is part of the hemoglobin and myoglobin molecules in animal tissues. It is found in meat and other animal sources. About 40% of the iron in meat is in the heme form. Nonheme iron comes from animal tissues other than hemoglobin and myoglobin and from plant tissues. It is found in meats, eggs, milk, vegetables, grains, and other plant foods. The body absorbs heme iron much more efficiently than nonheme iron.
Food Sources of Mostly Heme Iron (Contain Some Nonheme As Well)
|Oysters, pacific, cooked by moist heat||3 ounces||7.8|
|Beef liver, braised||3 ounces||5.8|
|Oysters, eastern, canned||3 ounces||5.7|
|Lean sirloin, broiled||3 ounces||2.9|
|Extra-lean ground beef, broiled||3 ounces||1.8|
|Tuna, canned in water, light, drained||3 ounces||1.3|
|Skinless chicken, roasted dark meat||3 ounces||1.1|
|Pork, lean, roasted||3 ounces||1.0|
|Skinless chicken, roasted white meat||3 ounces||1.0|
|Salmon, canned with bone||3 ounces||0.7|
Food Sources of Nonheme Iron
|Fortified breakfast cereal||1 cup||4.5-18 (check Nutrition Facts label)|
|Pumpkin seeds||1 ounce||4.3|
|Soybean nuts||1/2 cup||4.0|
|Blackstrap molasses||1 tablespoon||3.5|
|Spinach, boiled||1/2 cup||3.2|
|Red kidney beans, cooked||1/2 cup||2.6|
|Lima beans, cooked||1/2 cup||2.5|
|Cashews, dry roasted||1 ounce||1.7|
|Enriched rice, cooked||1/2 cup||1.2|
|Prunes, dried||5 prunes||1.1|
|Raisins, seedless||1/3 cup||1.1|
|Acorn squash, baked||1/2 cup cubes||1.0|
|Whole-wheat bread||1 slice||0.9|
|Egg yolk||1 large yolk||0.7|
|White bread, made with enriched flour||1 slice||0.7|
|Apricots, dried||3 apricots||0.6|
|Peanut butter, chunky||2 tablespoons||0.6|
|Cod, broiled||3 ounces||0.4|
Tips For Increasing Your Iron Intake
The amount of iron your body absorbs varies depending on several factors. For example, your body will absorb more iron from foods when your iron stores are low and will absorb less when stores are sufficient. In addition, certain dietary factors affect absorption:
- Heme iron is absorbed more efficiently than nonheme iron.
- Heme iron enhances the absorption of nonheme iron.
- Vitamin C enhances the absorption of nonheme iron.
Some substances decrease the absorption of nonheme iron. (Consuming heme iron and/or
with nonheme can help compensate for these decreases.)
- Oxalic acid, found in spinach and chocolate. However, oxalic acid is broken down with cooking.
- Phytic acid, found in wheat bran and beans (legumes)
- Tannins, found in tea
- Polyphenols, found in coffee
- Calcium carbonate supplements
To increase your intake and absorption of dietary iron, try the following:
- Combine heme and nonheme sources of iron.
Eat foods rich in vitamin C with nonheme iron sources. Good sources of vitamin C include:
- Bell peppers
- Oranges and orange juice
- Tomatoes and tomato juice
- Spinach and collard greens
- If you drink coffee or tea, do so between meals rather than with a meal.
- Cook acidic foods in cast iron pots. This can increase iron content up to 30 times.
American Dietetic Association
The Vegetarian Resource Group
Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
Dietitians of Canada
The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food & Nutrition Guide . Chronimed Publishing; 1998.
Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used . 17th ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1998.
Perspectives in Nutrition . 2nd ed. Mosby-Year Book, Inc.; 1993
Last reviewed June 2008 by Dianne Scheinberg MS, RD, LDN
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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