What Are Iron-Rich Foods?
Iron-rich foods are those that contain high levels of iron, a mineral your body needs to grow and have healthy blood. While steak with a side of spinach is a great meal to get your iron, there are plenty of foods that might be even better. Fish, eggs, nuts, legumes, and vegetables are rich in iron, too.
How Much Iron Do You Need a Day?
How much iron you need daily varies based on things like your age, your sex, and your diet. Women (and those assigned female at birth) need more iron at certain stages of life, like when they're menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding.
The National Institutes of Health recommends these daily iron amounts:
Birth to 6 months: 0.27 milligrams
Infants 7-12 months: 11 milligrams
Children 1-3 years: 7 milligrams
Children 4-8: 10 milligrams
Children 9-13: 8 milligrams
Teen boys 14-18: 11 milligrams
Teen girls 14-18: 15 milligrams
Adult men 19-50: 8 milligrams
Adult women 19-50: 18 milligrams
Adults 51+: 8 milligrams
Pregnant teens: 27 milligrams
Pregnant adults: 27 milligrams
Breastfeeding teens: 10 milligrams
Breastfeeding adults: 9 milligrams
When you don't get enough iron in your diet, you could get iron-deficiency anemia. This is a common form of anemia, which is a condition in which your blood doesn't have enough healthy red blood cells.
Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin, a substance in your red blood cells that allows them to carry oxygen to your body's tissues. So when you don't get enough iron, you don't have enough working red blood cells. This can make you feel weak and fatigued.
How the Body Uses Iron
When you eat food with iron, iron is absorbed into your body mainly through the upper part of your small intestine.
There are two types of iron from food: heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from hemoglobin. It's found only in animal foods that originally contained hemoglobin, like red meats, fish, and poultry. This type is easiest for your body to absorb. Most nonheme iron is from plant sources or fortified foods like spinach, beans, and enriched grains and cereals. But meat, poultry, and seafood also contain some non-heme iron, since these animals eat plant foods.
About 70% of the iron in your body goes to produce hemoglobin. Your body stores about 25% of its iron in a blood protein called ferritin so it can be used later. It's usually stored in your liver and the cells of your immune system.
You can get iron from a variety of types of foods, including plant-based foods as well as animal sources. Foods that are good sources of iron include:
Meats high in iron
Seafood high in iron
Vegetables high in iron
- Collard greens
- Beet greens
- Sweet potatoes
- String beans
Fruits high in iron
- Dried apricots
Other foods high in iron
- Iron-fortified cereals, bread, and pasta
- Maple syrup
How to Get More Iron
The way your body absorbs iron is complicated. It's affected by what you eat and drink. Some foods help your body absorb iron from foods better, but others, like coffee and tea, may hinder iron absorption. Calcium can also interfere with iron absorption. To maximize iron absorption, avoid combining coffee, tea, and calcium-rich foods or drinks with meals containing iron-rich foods.
You can also boost absorption by eating foods with heme iron, such as meats, together with those that contain non-heme iron, like fruits and veggies. Pairing iron-rich foods with those high in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, tomatoes, and peppers, can help, too.
If you have trouble getting enough iron from food, you may need an iron supplement. Ferrous sulfate is a common iron supplement used for treating iron-deficiency anemia.
But talk to your doctor or health care provider about the best iron supplement for you. They can figure out the right dosage and advise you on the best way to take it.
Too much iron can cause unpleasant side effects, like upset stomach and constipation. It could also lead to more serious issues. Because very little iron passes out of your body, it can build up in your tissues and organs when the normal storage sites -- the liver, spleen, and bone marrow -- are full. Although iron toxicity from food sources is rare, deadly overdoses are possible with supplements.