If you are worried about iron deficiency, you may be wondering what foods are high in iron. I’m here to help!
I had a friend in middle school who had iron deficiency. I remember one night, her family was kind enough to invite me to dinner, which was a juicy steak with a side salad. A few minutes through that long silence that accompanies a good meal, she turns to me.
“You know I went to the doctor the other day and he told me I had anemia. That means you don’t eat enough iron or something. He asked if I was a vegetarian and I said, no way! I love steak too much. Isn’t that funny?”
It was funny. Well, it was funny that she had a nutrient deficiency. She was the picture of health. Tall, athletic, long, thick hair and boy did she eat. How could someone like that have an iron deficiency?
Iron is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies despite being widely available in food. Why is this?
This is no coincidence. Iron is an essential component in blood, which is, as you may know, lost during menstruation, or having a period. Therefore, once a woman begins her period, her iron intake needs to be increased to compensate for lost blood.
Along with this, young women often have inconsistent or restrictive diets, which may make it more difficult to reach their daily iron needs. Also, pregnant women need more iron to help their baby grow.
So, we know iron is important, especially for women, but how much do we need and how do you reach that amount through food?
The following are daily iron intake recommendations based on age and sex:
- 14-18 years old, male: 11 mg
- 14-18 years old, female: 15 mg
- 19-50 years old, male: 8 mg
- 19-50 years old, female: 18 mg
- 50+ years old, male: 8 mg
- 50+ years old, female: 8 mg
Children, both male and female, at ages 9-13 need 8 mg of iron. Though this increases for both men and women at the age of 14, women’s needs increase by 7 mg while men’s only increase by 3 mg. At 19 years old, female’s needs increase by another 3 mg while men’s decrease by 3 mg. By age 50, females begin to stop menstruating and needs decrease to 8 mg, same as the men.
What does iron deficiency look like
Symptoms of iron deficiency include weakness, dizziness, fatigue, headache, inflamed tongue, and pale skin and fingernails.
Though these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you have iron deficiency anemia, they may be a good reason to ask your doctor for a blood test. This is especially true if you are a menstruating woman!
Is one type iron better than the other?
Before we discuss what foods contain iron, let’s differentiate heme vs non-heme iron.
Eating both forms will increase the iron stores in your body. But, heme iron is better absorbed than non-heme. This means if you consumed 3 mg of iron from red meat and 3 mg of iron from beans, more iron from the red meat would be absorbed into your body.
This doesn’t mean you can’t get enough iron from plant based sources alone. Vegans and vegetarians are 100% able to reach their iron needs. But, they do need to pay close attention to their diet to ensure they are getting the nutrients they need in the proper amounts.
Ok, now we can discuss what plant and animal based foods are high in iron.
Foods high in iron
At number one comes tofu! Who would have thought? Soybeans are actually very high in iron, with about 4.4 mg in ½ cup. But soybeans are rarely eaten by themselves. Edamame (immature soybeans), on the other hand, are eaten fairly commonly by themselves. They contain about 1.8 mg of iron per ½ cup.
So, for all the vegans and vegetarians out there, tofu may be a great source of iron in your diet. But of course, it’s important to remember that non-heme iron is less absorbable. Soy also contains phytic acid, which may inhibit iron absorption, but this is likely only a small effect.
Lentils are not only a great addition to a soup on the warm winter day, they are also a great source of iron! ½ cup of cooked lentils is going to provide 18% of a 19-50 year old woman’s daily iron needs.
Wondering how to eat lentils? Check out some of these recipes for ideas.
3. Spinach, cooked
I will say it now and I will say it again. Leafy green vegetables are the king of the nutrition world. They are jam packed with a ton of nutrients, including vitamins A, C, K, antioxidants, fiber, folate, magnesium, calcium and potassium. Oh, and iron!
Spinach is a wonderful leafy green, but other high iron alternatives would include kale (1.3 mg iron per ½ cup cooked), collard greens (1.0 mg iron per ½ cup cooked), beet greens (1.4 mg iron per ½ cup cooked), and cabbage (0.9 mg iron per ½ cup cooked).
4. White rice, enriched
White rice in its original form is not an iron rich food. But, due to fortification, white rice serves as a great source of iron. If you are unfamiliar with fortification, it is simply the process of adding vitamins and/or minerals into certain foods to increase their nutrient density.
Though fortification may seem scary, think of it as getting your daily multivitamin in food form! Fortification has helped reverse many nutrient deficiencies that were once common, such as goiter (iodine deficiency), and pellagra (niacin deficiency).
If you choose to have rice in its whole form, brown rice, you will still get some iron. 1 cup of cooked brown rice contains 1.1 mg of iron.
When you think of iron, you probably think of a hefty slab of steak. I know I do! This reputation has been rightly earned. Beef and other red meats are great sources of iron. Plus, the iron in beef is heme iron, which is better absorbed.
Though the typical recommendation is to limit red meat intake due to its high saturated fat content, it’s important to remember that red meat has many beneficial nutrients, including iron.
6. Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds are another surprising source of iron. In just 2 tbsp, they contain only 0.2 mg less than the amount of iron in 4 oz of steak! Plus, they are a great add on to asian-style dishes.
Another great way to include sesame seeds in your diet is by eating tahini, which is a paste made from soaked and crushed sesame seeds. Though tahini is more known for being a key ingredient in hummus, tahini can be used in a variety of ways.
7. White Beans
White beans are another great source of iron, as are many other beans. What you may not know is that white beans can be used in a variety of dishes. I especially love white beans in salads, soups, and veggie burgers.
8. Cocoa powder
Here’s another excuse to eat chocolate! Cocoa powder is made from the cocoa bean, which is the seed of the Theobroma cacao or cocoa tree. These beans are fermented, roasted, and ground to make cocoa liquor. When the cocoa butter (the fat part of cocoa liquor) is removed, cocoa powder remains!
Cocoa powder is typically used to make hot chocolate and baked goods such as chocolate cake and brownies. So next time you eat something chocolate, remind yourself that you are also getting a dose of iron.
9. Pumpkin seeds, roasted
Pumpkin seeds are another great plant based source of iron. Similar to sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds can be made into a paste. My favorite way to eat pumpkin seeds is to roast them. I will either buy raw pumpkin seeds at the store, or will buy a whole pumpkin. This is a great recipe to try.
I would encourage you to look in your pantry and see what high iron foods you already have. You can also brainstorm some recipes you love that are iron rich. Try to incorporate these foods and recipes into your diet more frequently.
If you don’t eat many iron rich foods now, experiment! Try out some new recipes or foods and see what you like or what works best with your lifestyle. The goal is to add more iron rich foods into your diet gradually.
If you have a hard time remembering what foods are high in iron, think of these categories:
- Red meat
- Leafy Greens
- Enriched Foods
If you are eating one of these foods, you are likely getting a good source of iron!
Comment below or contact me directly if you have any questions or comments on this article. Also let me know if you want to see more articles similar to this. Thank you for reading and have a wonderful iron-rich day!