You need oxygen to live. And iron is a component of hemoglobin in red blood cells that helps to transport oxygen throughout your body.
So absorbing enough iron from foods high in iron is essential to life and overall good health.
Iron plays a major role in helping your blood and muscles carry oxygen to your cells. That’s why feeling tired is generally the first sign of iron deficiency.
Getting enough iron rich foods helps you to have the energy you need.
And although iron-rich spinach may not give you Popeye’s super muscle-strength to fight off villains, green leafy veggies and other foods high in iron help you to fight off the following enemies of your health and happiness:
- feeling weak,
- being grouchy,
- poor concentration,
- and eventually anemia.
According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency that leads to anemia is “the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world.”
Foods High in Iron
There are two types of iron rich foods – heme and nonheme. Heme iron comes from animal foods that contain hemoglobin like red meats, poultry, and fish.
Iron from most animal sources (heme iron) is more easily absorbed by your body than iron from plant sources (non-heme iron). The charts below show how much iron is available to you from healthy heme and non-heme foods.
These two lists of heme and non-heme iron rich foods are ranked by the amount of iron, in milligrams (mg) per serving size, along with approximate calories:
|HEME IRON FOOD SOURCES||SERVING||IRON (mg)||CALORIES|
|*Clams, canned & drained||3 oz||23.8||128|
|Chicken liver, cooked||3 oz||11.0||142|
|*Oysters, eastern, cooked||3 oz||8.2||116|
|Beef liver, cooked||3 oz||5.8||162|
|Lean beef chuck roast, cooked||3 oz||3.2||208|
|Lean sirloin, broiled||3 oz||2.9||156|
|Sardines, canned in water||3 oz||2.4||185|
|Skinless turkey, dark meat, roasted||3 oz||2.3||158|
|Lean ground beef, broiled||3 oz||1.9||153|
|Skinless turkey, light meat, roasted||3 oz||1.6||98|
|Skinless chicken, dark meat, roasted||3 oz||1.3||184|
|Skinless chicken breast, white meat, roasted||3 oz||1.1||139|
|Lean pork, roasted or broiled||3 oz||0.9||124|
|Tuna, white, canned in water||3 oz||0.9||110|
|Salmon, canned with bone||3 oz||0.7||>127|
|*Most fresh fish, cooked with dry heat||3 oz||0.7-1.1||82-191|
*To assure your protection from dangerous bacteria and parasites, it’s a good idea to avoid eating oysters and clams raw, plus all other raw fish.
|NON-HEME IRON FOOD SOURCES||SERVING||IRON (mg)||CALORIES|
|Soybeans, mature, cooked||½ cup||4.4||149|
|Pumpkin seeds||1 oz||4.2||148p|
|Black strap molasses||1 Tbsp||3.5||47|
|Tofu, firm||½ cup||3.4||88|
|Spinach, steamed||½ cup||3.2||21|
|Bran, wheat||½ cup||3.0||63|
|Kidney beans, cooked||½ cup||2.6||112|
|Chickpeas, cooked,||½ cup||2.4||134|
|Lima beans, mature, cooked||½ cup||2.3||108|
|Navy beans, cooked||½ cup||2.2||127|
|Soybeans, green, cooked,||½ cup||2.2||127|
|Green leafy vegetables, steamed||½ cup||2.0||10|
|Black beans, cooked||½ cup||1.8||114|
|Pinto beans, cooked||½ cup||1.8||122|
|Beets, cooked||1 cup||1.8||102|
|Oatmeal, cooked||1 cup||1.6||146|
|Soy milk||1 cup||1.4||130|
|Sunflower seeds, hulled||1 oz||1.4||162|
|Peas, cooked||½ cup||1.3||59|
|Wheat germ||2 Tbsp||1.1||130|
|Whole-wheat bread||1 slice||0.9||80 to 128|
|Brown rice, cooked||1 cup||0.8||215|
|Green beans, cooked||½ cup||0.8||38|
|Broccoli, cooked||½ cup||0.7||17|
|Egg yolk||1 large||0.6||54|
|Peanut butter||2 Tbsp||0.6||180|
|Apricots, dried||3 pieces||0.3||25|
|Zucchini, cooked||½ cup||0.3||22|
*Milligrams of iron and calorie amounts can vary a lot, so be sure to check the Nutrition Facts on all food labels.
Iron absorption is improved by including vitamin C rich foods with non-heme foods. C is found in most raw fruits and vegetables, especially oranges, lemons, strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli and green leafy veggies.
You can also greatly increase your absorption of iron by combining non-heme foods that are high in iron with heme iron-rich foods at the same meal.
Signs of Iron Deficiency Anemia
The most common symptom for any type of anemia is tiredness; this is because there are not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body.
|WHO NEEDS IRON?||minimum||maximum|
|Babies from birth to 6 months||0.27 mg||35 mg|
|Children up to around 13 years||11 mg||35 mg|
|Childbearing age females||18 mg||45 mg|
|Pregnant women||27 mg||45 mg|
|Lactating women||10 mg||45 mg|
|Males 14 years and older||11 mg||45 mg|
|Anyone with iron deficiency anemia||Follow doctor recommendations|
Iron deficiency is most often found in young children, childbearing-age females and particularly in pregnant women. Iron deficiency anemia increases a woman’s risk of pre-term delivery and delivering a low birth-weight baby.
Here are some of the more common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia:
- heart troubles,
- problems breathing,
- difficulty staying warm,
- and increased infections.
In infants and young children the most noticeable signs of iron anemia are:
- poor appetite,
- behavioral problems,
- slow growth and development.
But it’s important to keep in mind that a higher than maximum intake of iron is especially dangerous for babies and young children and is their main cause of poisoning deaths; doses as low as 60 milligrams can be fatal to a child.
So be sure to keep all supplements containing iron out of children’s reach.
Iron Rich Foods and Supplements
If you take iron in supplement form, ferrous iron is known to be more bio available than ferric iron. Plus, it’s important to make sure you stay within the safe levels unless advised otherwise by a qualified health professional.
The above list of foods high in iron, combined if necessary with supplements, can give you the iron you need to live a happy, healthy, energy-filled life!
More Commonsense Health for You:
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Washington, DC; 2014.
Hurrell R, Egli I. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91(5):1461S-1467S
Ronnenberg AG, Wood RJ, Wang X, Xing H, Chen C, Chen D, et al. The Journal of Nutrition. Preconception hemoglobin and ferritin concentrations are associated with pregnancy outcome in a prospective cohort of Chinese women. J Nutr. 2004;134(10):2586–91.
Lozoff B, De Andraca I, Castillo M, Smith JB, Walter T, Pino P. Pediatrics. Behavioral and developmental effects of preventing iron-deficiency anemia in healthy full-term infants. Pediatrics. 2003;112(4):846–54.
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Brownlie T 4th1, Utermohlen V, Hinton PS, Giordano C, Haas JD. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Marginal iron deficiency without anemia impairs aerobic adaptation among previously untrained women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;75(4):734-42.
Haas JD, Brownlie T 4th. The Journal of Nutrition. Iron deficiency and reduced work capacity: a critical review of the research to determine a causal relationship. J Nutr. 2001;131(2S–2):676S–688S; discussion 688S–690S.