Top Foods High in Iron

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on November 16, 2022
3 min read

Iron is an important nutrient that you can only get from food, and it comes in two forms: heme iron and nonheme iron. Heme iron comes from animal sources like red meat, fish, and poultry, and your body can absorb about 30 % of it at any time. Non-heme iron comes from plant-based sources like vegetables, fruits, and nuts. This type of iron isn't absorbed as readily, with about 2 to 10 % absorbed at any time. 

When you combine food sources rich in heme and nonheme iron, you can better absorb each type. Eating foods rich in vitamins C, A, and beta-carotene can also help you to absorb more iron and gain additional health benefits.

Iron is an essential mineral that your body uses to make hemoglobin and myoglobin which are proteins that deliver oxygen to your muscles and body. Your body also needs iron to make some hormones.

The daily recommended intake of iron is 8 mg for men and 18mg for women, with pregnancy increasing that need to 27 mg. After age 51 or when menstruation ceases, women's daily iron recommendation drops to 8 mg.

Iron has a crucial role in several body systems, including:

Blood Health

One of the most important functions for iron is to bind with hemoglobin (proteins in the red blood cells) to help carry oxygen throughout the body. Oxygenated, bright-red blood is healthy blood, and it ensures that your body has access to the oxygen it needs.

Immune Health

Iron is also important for your immune system because it supports the development of lymphocytes (white blood cells) and other immune cells, and it helps them mobilize the best response. When your body doesn't have enough iron stores, your cells can't respond properly to bacterial and viral infections.

Metabolic Health

For your metabolic systems, iron combines with enzymes like cytochromes (proteins containing a heme) to support functioning of neurotransmitters, hormones, and bile acids, as well as detoxification of the liver.

Hair and Skin Health

For your skin and hair, iron found in proteins helps to support collagen and follicle cells in the dermis layer.

Reproductive Health and Early Childhood

Iron is also vital for brain development in fetuses and young children. Women who are pregnant need much more iron intake to ensure that their developing child has the nutrients they need. Young children also need more iron to avoid iron-deficiency anemia.

You can enjoy a variety of foods to get your daily recommended intake of iron. If your doctor says you're quite low on iron, though, avoid meals that combine iron-rich foods with calcium or phytate-containing foods like beans and legumes.

Here are five examples of foods high in iron, measured per 100 grams.

1. Red Meat

Red meat is rich in heme iron, along with protein, selenium, and zinc. The amount of iron depends on the type of red meat. For every 100 grams of meat, beef has about 2.47 mg of iron, lamb has 1.78 mg, and venison has 4.98mg.

2. Seafood

Seafood is also a good source of iron, depending on the species. Three species high in iron include clams with 2.91 mg of iron, mussels with 7.08 mg, and oysters with 8.26 mg.

3. Spinach

Spinach is an example of non-heme iron, containing about 2.71 mg for each 100 grams of leafy greens. This dark green vegetable also contains 28.1 mg of vitamin C and 558 mg of potassium, among other nutrients, further supporting your health and improving iron absorption.

4. Dried Apricots

When considering foods rich in iron, sometimes dried fruit is better. For example, dried apricots contain almost seven times more iron than fresh fruit. Dried apricots have 2.66 mg of iron, but they're also a good source of fiber, potassium, and beta-carotene.

5. Pumpkin Seeds

These seeds are an excellent source of iron, with 8.52 mg for every 100 grams of dry seed. Eating pumpkin seeds also gives you plenty of copper, manganese, and zinc.