Are you getting enough iron? According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, more than 3 million Americans suffer from anemia and may need to follow a high-iron diet. But for some, particularly for vegetarians and vegans, a high-iron diet can be seemingly impossible to follow. Don't worry -- we've got you covered. This guide will point you in the right direction when it comes to eating foods high in iron.
Who Needs to Worry About Iron?
Iron is an essential nutrient that makes up a critical part of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen to red blood cells. The FDA recommends that most people consume around 18 mg of iron per day, and for many, getting enough iron is a no-brainer.
But for those who aren’t getting enough iron, this mineral deficiency can lead to a type of anemia, bringing about some pretty uncomfortable symptoms, including increased fatigue, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, and insomnia.
“Low iron levels make it more difficult for the body’s cells to get enough oxygen,” explains Kristen Trukova, MS, RD, LDN, CNSC, CSO, clinical oncology dietician at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center.
Trukova also notes that different populations have different iron needs.
“In general, children and women of child-bearing age need the most and are at risk for deficiency if they have low-iron diets,” she says. “Men and older women need less iron.”
Do remember, however, that just because you're experiencing some or all of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have an iron deficiency. Trukova notes that some people are at risk for getting too much iron, including those with hemochromatosis. And certain forms of anemia stem not from an iron deficiency but from low vitamin B and folate.
Be sure to check with your dietician before beginning a high-iron diet, but be aware that most people would benefit from eating iron-rich foods, according to Trukova.
What Are Some Foods High in Iron?
Iron is found in many different foods, both plant- and non-plant-based. For this reason, it seems as though it should be easy for vegans to get enough iron, but this isn’t always the case.
This is because there are actually two main types of iron – heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron, which is easier to absorb, is found mainly in animal foods, whereas non-heme iron, which is more difficult to absorb, is found in plant-based foods.
But don’t despair! There is a trick for ensuring that your iron absorption is optimized: naturopathic doctor Serena Goldstein suggests taking vitamin C, such as lemon or apple cider vinegar, with non-heme iron-rich foods to improve absorption.
Our Top 11 High-Iron Food List
If you’re looking to up your iron intake, here are just a few of the best iron-rich foods out there.
All meats contain iron, though some contain more than others. A 3-ounce serving of beef contains 2.2 mg of iron, whereas the same quantity of pork contains 0.7 mg, chicken 0.9 mg, and salmon just 0.3 mg. Scallops, meanwhile, contain 0.5 mg.
If you’re choosing meat for its iron content, consider opting for high-iron cuts such as liver, which contains a whopping 15.2 mg of iron per 3-ounce serving.
Bran is a great vegan source of iron, with 5.1 mg in each 1 cup serving of oat bran and 6.1 mg in each serving of wheat bran. You can also choose bran cereals to take advantage of the iron content of this food.
3. Baked Potatoes
Baked potatoes are a good source of iron, provided you eat the skin. One large potato contains about 2.9 mg of iron, and if you top it with other iron-rich foods, such as baked beans, spinach, or a poached egg, you up your intake easily.
Speaking of which, spinach is a great source of iron, with 0.8 mg per one-cup (raw) serving. And it’s not the only leafy green with a lot of iron: Swiss chard contains 0.6 mg and mustard greens 0.9 mg for the same serving size. Cooked greens make a great choice for those seeking to up their iron, as you can cram a lot more into a serving size, making this a nutrient-dense choice.
Beans and legumes of all kinds are a great choice for both iron and protein. One cup of cooked lentils contains 6.6 mg of iron, while a cup of cooked kidney beans contains 5.2 mg of iron. Soybeans, however, are at the top of the list, with a whopping 8.8 mg of iron per one-cup serving.
6. Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds contain quite a bit of iron too, at 0.9 mg per ounce. Pumpkin seeds make a great snack that you can carry with you for an extra boost of iron, especially when mixed into trail mix with other iron-rich goodies like nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate (yes, chocolate!)
7. Dark Chocolate
What can’t dark chocolate do? Aside from its antioxidant powers, dark chocolate boasts 2.3 mg of iron per ounce, making it a great choice for a pick-me-up (as long as it's at least 70 percent cacao and low in sugars0.
8. Dried Fruit
Dried fruit contains quite a bit of iron as well, with 0.5 mg per ounce of raisins, 0.8 mg per ounce of dried apricots, 0.3 mg per ounce of prunes, and 0.2 mg per ounce of dates.
Nuts are a fairly good source of iron, with 1.1 mg per ounce of almonds, 0.7 mg per ounce of brazil nuts, 1.9 mg per ounce of cashews, and 1.3 mg per ounce of hazelnuts.
Eggs are an excellent source of iron, with 0.9 mg of iron per egg. And if you can get your hands on duck eggs, they contain even more, at 2.7 mg per egg.
11. Blackstrap Molasses
Molasses is a great source of iron, with 0.9 mg per tablespoon. Stir molasses into your oatmeal or mix it into a smoothie to take advantage of these benefits; molasses has a fairly overwhelming flavor when eaten alone.
Iron-Rich Foods for Breakfast
Getting your iron in first thing in the morning has a few benefits. Not only do you get the energy boost that iron lends, but you have one less thing to think about for the rest of your day.
Granola image via Shutterstock
1. Homemade Granola
Granola is a delicious choice for upping your iron intake, provided you choose the right ingredients. This recipe fits the bill, with iron-rich wheat bran, nuts, dried fruit, and just the right amount of dark chocolate.
Wheat bran bread image via Shutterstock
2. Wheat Bran Bread
This wheat bran bread features both molasses and raisins for an iron-rich choice in the morning. Top it with fresh or dried fruit and cream cheese (which contains 0.1 mg of iron per tablespoon) for a delicious morning treat.
Bran muffins image via Shutterstock
3. Bran Muffins
Bran muffins don't have the greatest of reps, but this super tasty version from chef Greg Atkinson includes a little more fat and sugar than the traditional recipe as well as a sweet raisin purée that adds moisture, sweetness, and iron. Add some blackstrap molasses, and these little muffins are a great way to get your iron on the go.
Easy Lunches Featuring Foods High in Iron
For lunch, you often need something fast. These dishes are all either super easy to prepare or great to make ahead and eat cold or reheated as leftovers -- and they all feature iron-rich foods.
Photo by Oliver Parini, reprinted with permission from “The Connecticut Farm Table Cookbook”, The Countryman Press 2015
4. Millet and Lacinato Kale Salad
This salad starts with a kale base (1 mg of iron per cup), which is mixed with iron-rich dried cherries and pistachios as well as goat cheese and hearty millet. The result is a vegetarian dish filled with iron-rich foods and bursting with vitamin C from the cherries and the cider vinegar in the dressing.
Image: Kimberley Stakal
5. Brown Rice Teriyaki Bowl
This quick brown rice teriyaki bowl is ideal for an iron-rich lunch, featuring edamame, almonds, and pea shoots, which contain more than 2 mg of iron per 100 grams. It's easy to make and just as delicious cold as warm, meaning that you can whip it up the night before and take it with you to work.
Recipe and photo courtesy of the National Peanut Board
6. Garlicky Spinach with Raisins
This tasty spinach recipe unites several vegan sources of iron including spinach, raisins, and peanuts, and a vitamin C powerhouse in the form of red bell pepper. The resulting dish is great for a quick and easy lunch.
Image: Emily Monaco
7. Puy Lentils with Minted Yogurt
This lentil dish is very easy to prepare in advance, making it an ideal option for lunch. Bring the lentils and yogurt in separate containers if you can, and combine them at the last minute.
Foods High in Iron for Dinner
Dinner is a great time to serve up iron-rich meat, if you are an omnivore, or some more elaborate vegan and vegetarian creations featuring foods high in iron, if that's what you prefer.
Beef liver kebab image via Shutterstock
8. Grilled Beef Liver Kebabs
Beef liver is one of the best sources of iron, but many are put off by its minerally taste. In this liver kebab recipe, the liver itself is seasoned with a host of spices and grilled over a hot flame, which is an excellent way to enjoy it if you're not yet accustomed to offal.
Chicken roll image via Shutterstock
9. Chicken Roll with Prunes and Dried Apricots
This chicken roll is a super impressive way to serve up foods high in iron. The chicken is stuffed with a mixture of prunes and dried apricots before being rolled and cooked. The chicken is beautiful when sliced and offers a delicious sweet-and-savory flavor combination.
Image by Emily Monaco
10. Mediterranean Chicken with Gigante Beans
Pair chicken and beans in this tasty Mediterranean chicken recipe. Gigante beans and chicken breasts simmer in a tomato, basil, and garlic sauce for a simple dinner loaded with iron-rich foods.
Image: Andrew Scivani
11. Vegetarian Stuffed Chard
Iron-rich chard is stuffed with a healthy and flavorful combination of squash, quinoa, nuts, goat cheese, and dried fruit. Lemon juice adds a touch of seasoning and the vitamin C you need to soak up the iron in this dish.
Foods with Iron for Snacks
If you need a little boost of iron on the go, these foods are the ideal thing to have in your car or fridge for an easy snack.
Photo by Ally-Jane Grossan
12. White Bean Hummus
This delicious white bean hummus is great when paired with your favorite crudités. Try broccoli (0.7 mg per cup), cauliflower (0.4 mg per cup), or green beans (1 mg per cup) to up the iron ante.
Trail mix image via Shutterstock
13. Trail Mix
Trail mix is the ideal on-the-go iron-rich snack. This trail mix in particular was developed specifically for iron deficiency anemia and includes sunflower seeds, cashews, raisins, almonds, dark chocolate chips, and walnuts. The resulting mix is perfect for getting in your daily iron.
Healthy Homemade Granola Bars via Shutterstock
14. Healthy Homemade Granola Bars
These homemade granola bars boast several foods high in iron, including dried apricots, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds. Not to mention, they're all-natural and super delicious.
Reprinted with permission from “Chia, Quinoa, Kale, Oh My!” by Cassie Johnston, The Countryman Press 2015
15. Chocolate Energy Bites
These energy bites contain delicious dark chocolate, almonds, and dried dates for the perfect iron-rich treat. They do, however, also contain coffee, which can sometimes deter iron absorption. If you're eating these bites specifically for their iron content, consider leaving out the coffee and adding a touch of vanilla instead.
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Iron-rich foods image via Shutterstock