Iron-deficiency anemia affects 30-50% of anemia in children and other groups, according to the World Health Organization (1). Afflicting around two billion people worldwide, there’s an answer to tackling iron-deficiency. Although, anemia isn’t the same all over the world.
Table of Contents
Foods High in Iron
If you stick to a healthy, varied diet, it can be as easy to incorporate more healthy iron-rich foods into your daily diet. Also, your diet may need to change based on your age and lifestyle. There are ways to boost your iron absorption levels to make sure you’re getting enough. You can make sure you’re producing enough stomach acid to absorb essential vitamins and minerals (2), eat iron-rich food with vitamin C-rich vegetables, and chew slowly for optimal digestion.
When your body doesn’t absorb enough iron, it’s common to experience energy loss, weakness or fatigue, hair loss, unusually pale skin, chest pain, dizziness, headache, memory or concentration issues, or cold hands and feet (3, 4). You may even experience swelling of the tongue, shortness of breath, or strange cravings (5).
If you experience any of these often, consult with your doctor. Try to figure out how much iron you’re getting in a day, too. Women between 19 and 50 should consume 18mg a day, men of the same age should consume 8 mg and adults over 51, 8mg. Pregnant women should have 27 mg (6).
Summary: If you eat a varied, healthy diet, it is easy to incorporate more iron-rich foods. Eat high vitamin C foods with iron-rich foods to enhance absorption of iron, chew slowly for optimal digestion, and make sure you’re not having issues producing stomach acid, which could inhibit proper absorption of nutrients.
Spinach is an easy food to throw into many dishes for breakfast, lunch and even dinner. It’s packed full of beneficial nutrients including iron (7). Eating enough dark leafy greens is important for your overall health and well-being, but if you’re especially low in iron or need an extra energy boost, this is a great, cost-effective choice. Spinach is also the top choice among a popular eating plan called DASH, beneficial to help lower blood pressure (8).
Just one serving of spinach packs in 2.71 mg of iron. Here are some ideas of how to start incorporating more iron-rich spinach into your diet.
- Throw together an easy spinach salad topped with fresh strawberries, goat cheese, and walnuts. Add in your favorite dressing.
- Add a cup of spinach to your favorite smoothie along with your favorite vitamin C-rich fruit or vegetable.
- Sauté spinach with garlic, onion, and olive oil for a tasty and easy side dish.
Those with reoccurring kidney stones should steer clear of eating too much spinach (9). Speak with your doctor if you have issues or concerns with your kidneys.
Summary: Spinach is both a tasty and nutritious food. It’s packed with nutrients, including iron. Eating leafy greens like spinach is helpful for boosting iron intake, energy, and even lowering blood pressure. Just one serving is packed with 2.71 milligrams of iron. You can add it to salads, smoothies, or sauté it with garlic, onions, and olive oil for a quick side.
2. Nuts and Dried Fruits
Brazil nuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios are chock full of nutritious iron (10, 11). Pine nuts contain a whopping 7.5 mg per serving as one example. Other nuts that contain iron but aren’t as high in it include cashews and walnuts (12). You can throw these into many of your favorite dishes like salads, smoothies, and even fish and homemade desserts.
There are also some delicious dried fruits high in iron. Try some raisins, banana chips, and apricots. Apricots contain the most with 3.5 mg of iron in just one cup (13). These make a great snack to have around the house and lasts between 6 months and a year when stored properly. However, there is one caveat with dried fruit. It can be extremely easy to overconsume compared to fruit in its natural state. A good rule of thumb is to only take one or two servings to eat at a time or mix it into your meal and put it away after.
Summary: All nuts are very nutritious and packed with iron. Pine nuts, for example, contain 7.5 milligrams per serving. Dried fruit is also high in iron. Dried apricots contain the most iron with 3.5 milligrams per 1 cup. These are also great to consume, but can be high in sugar, so make sure to eat the proper serving size. Combine nuts and dried fruit for an iron-rich trail mix snack.
3. Lean Meat, Poultry, and Seafood
One of the easiest ways to make sure you’re getting not only enough iron, but essential amino acids that aren’t included in most foods is through meat, poultry, and seafood (14, 15). The 10 essential amino acids that the body needs along with iron to grow strong and stay healthy are arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine (16, 17). It’s important to make sure you get all of these and iron to feel strong and healthy.
An easy way to make sure you’re getting enough iron is to have jerky on hand at home or in the office. Jerky, especially liver and beef jerky are extremely high in iron (18) and a tasty snack to have around. They’re especially helpful to have around for those who can’t leave the house for any reason, as they last much longer than fresh meat and poultry. Keep in mind, jerky can even come in the form of salmon bites as well. Make sure to add in the right portion size for your body. The easiest way to tell is to measure the protein choice against the palm of your hand. You want the measurements to be as close as possible, no bigger or smaller.
Summary: Lean meat, poultry, and seafood are very rich in iron, as well as the ten essential amino acids the body needs for strength and overall health. Eating the right portion, which is the size of your palm, will give you enough protein and amino acids for your body size. Beef, turkey, and even salmon come in jerky form, which is high in iron and easy to pack around.
4. Breakfast Cereals and Bread Fortified in Iron
Breakfast cereals and bread can be a part of a healthy diet when you know what to look for. Many kinds of cereal and bread are fortified in iron (19) but getting the natural forms of iron is important as well. Make sure to opt for the cereals that aren’t full of sugar and refined carbohydrates. Choose healthier options with little to no sugar.
When looking for bread, make sure you don’t have a gluten allergy or sensitivity first. Most bread fortified with iron also contains gluten so for people with celiac disease, this isn’t an option (20). Gluten sensitivity means that you may experience similar symptoms to celiac but much less severe (21). That might include bloating, for example.
Summary: Breakfast cereals and breads can be a great addition if you are in need of an iron boost. Many kinds of these foods are fortified with iron. Purchase the cereals and breads that aren’t full of added sugar and have healthy whole grains. If you are celiac or have gluten sensitivity, you can avoid eating fortified wheat bread and instead get fortified iron from gluten-free cereals.
5. Certain Beans and Legumes
White beans, kidney beans, lentils, and peas are rich in iron (22) and the most cost-effective staple food to keep in your pantry. These foods are important to have on hand for vegans and vegetarians to keep full longer and to keep their iron levels up. It can be hard for some to digest beans and legumes, but one way around that is to make sure you’re properly washing and boiling your bean or legume of choice.
Peas are one of the easiest iron-rich legumes to consume because they don’t have as many lectins as beans (23). Lectins can be hard for some to process and digest (24), and if they’re not washed off properly, it can cause severe nausea (25). However, simply try some of these quick tips and you’ll be good to go. You can buy beans and legumes canned or in bags at any grocery store. You can store these for up to one year depending on the type you choose. Aim for organic if you can and make sure you rinse all well before cooking.
Summary: White and kidney beans, lentils, and peas are rich sources of iron. They are also cost-effective protein and fiber-rich foods to keep on hand in your pantry. Properly washing and boiling beans or legumes can help you digest them better and prevent against gastrointestinal upset.
6. Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are filled with beneficial non-heme iron (26). Non-heme and heme iron are two very different types of iron. Heme iron comes from animal products, and non-heme iron comes from plants (27). Pumpkin seeds are one of the highest non-heme iron sources. They’re a great choice for vegetarians and vegans so they can get the iron they need. Women require much more iron than men (28, 29), so it can be challenging for vegans or vegetarian women to get the required 18 milligrams of day in iron.
Enter pumpkin seeds. Pumpkin seeds have 2.1 milligrams of iron in just one cup. It’s an easy solution to add to many meals throughout the day. Whether you add it to your smoothie or oatmeal for breakfast or your muffins for a mid-day snack, there’s nowhere they can’t go. Pumpkin seeds are practically tasteless so they’re perfect to add a nutritious boost to a tasty smoothie or dessert. It’s also important to note that not everyone absorbs non-heme iron the same way (30, 31). Everyone’s bodies are different, so find out what works for you.
Summary: Pumpkin seeds are some of the highest sources of non-heme iron. The difference between heme and non-heme iron is heme comes from animal products, and non-heme comes from plants. Pumpkin seeds contain 2.1 milligrams in a 1 cup serving. For vegans and vegetarians, pumpkin seeds are a great addition to daily diet to boost iron consumption.
Broccoli is another powerful food filled with phytonutrients and iron (32). One serving of broccoli contains 1.1 milligrams of iron. Broccoli is packed with tons of essential nutrients that are beneficial for the overall health of the body (33). Broccoli is usually thought of as the dreaded vegetable not a lot of people want to eat. But, there’s plenty of ways to incorporate broccoli into your diet without feeling like you’re eating a vegetable that’s plain and bland.
Think about when you don’t mind eating broccoli. Is it maybe when it’s soaked in the sauce from your Chinese stir fry? Recreate that at home. You can make it a little healthier and add in some coconut aminos with some brown sugar to make your broccoli crunchy and flavorful. If you’re not a fan of eating broccoli plain, pair it up with a food you love. Some ideas are broccoli cheese soup, vegetable lasagna with broccoli, and even pasta with broccoli and garlic for a simple and tasty meal.
Summary: Broccoli is a powerful food rich in phytonutrients and iron. One serving of broccoli has 1.1 milligrams of iron. It is highly nutritious and helpful for overall health. There are plenty of ways to make it taste good if you aren’t a fan. Add to broccoli cheese soup, vegetable lasagna, or toss it into pasta dishes.
Tofu is an underrated food when it comes to nutrients. Tofu has 6.6 milligrams of iron in just a half a cup. Tofu is widely used in Asian cultures as a great source of protein, iron, magnesium, and even selenium (34, 35). It’s often added to popular dishes like miso soup or even baked or fried into many dishes. Tofu is different than many other plant-based iron and protein sources because unlike many others, it’s filled with all nine essential amino acids that the body needs to thrive (36). It’s even a great source of calcium for those who are lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy (37).
Since tofu is a soy-based food, it’s not recommended for everyone. Soy in moderation can be ok for most people, but there are some contraindications (39). If your doctor recommends you stay away from soy or even fermented soy products like tempeh, it’s best to choose a lean meat or vegetable source of iron instead. Soy may not have any effect on thyroid health, but it can if other levels are low, such as iodine (40). Make sure to speak with your doctor if you have an existing condition that may interact with excess soy.
Summary: Tofu has 6.6 milligrams of iron in a half-cup serving. It is a highly nutritious food full of protein, iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium, and essential amino acids. Some medical conditions interact with soy, so talk to your doctor if you are concerned you should avoid soy. If needed, you can get iron-rich foods from other sources instead.
Quinoa has 1.49 milligrams of iron in the typical serving size of 100 grams. Quinoa is loaded with health benefits, and most people can add it to their diets. That’s because it’s gluten-free, packed with protein, iron, essential B vitamins, fiber, and it also has all nine essential amino acids like tofu (41, 42). Tofu is also high in magnesium, phosphorus, and even vitamin E. It’s very rare for someone to have an allergy to quinoa because it’s a part of the whole grain family (43). It also doesn’t usually come with harmful additives.
Although quinoa usually comes rinsed, it’s best to rinse it before you cook it. Quinoa comes with a natural coating called saponin that can taste soapy and bitter. A quick rinse will take the saponin layer off and try to buy quinoa that’s pre-rinsed as well. Saponins are very hard to digest and can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (44). Be sure to rinse your quinoa, and you’ll be good to go.
Summary: Quinoa is loaded with healthy nutrients, including iron, protein, essential B vitamins, fiber, and all the essential amino acids. In one serving, quinoa has 1.49 milligrams of iron. It is best to rinse then cook the quinoa to avoid a soapy, bitter flavor. Saponins are the culprit for this taste change, and may even cause gastrointestinal symptoms if not rinsed prior to consuming.
10. Dark Chocolate
Chocolate has long been known as the natural relaxing superfood. Its high magnesium content makes it famous for that reason (45). But dark chocolate is the ultimate superfood for many reasons. One is dark chocolate is loaded with iron (46, 47). One serving of dark chocolate, 100 grams, has a whopping 11.9 milligrams of iron. That amount makes up more than half the amount of women are required to get each day. Now, that doesn’t mean you should eat dark chocolate in large quantities all day long.
It’s best to eat dark chocolate a small square or two a day due to its fat and possible sugar content. Try to watch the amount of sugar in the dark chocolate you purchase. It usually ranges based on flavor content. Dark chocolate also usually has high amounts of caffeine depending on the type (48). The healthiest dark chocolates start at 55% or higher and the higher the number, the healthier they get. But the higher numbers also add more bitterness. Treat yourself once in a while to some quality dark chocolate to curb your sweet tooth and boost your iron intake.
Summary: Chocolate is a superfood full of iron, magnesium, and antioxidants, especially dark chocolate. One serving contains 11.9 milligrams of iron, making it an excellent source. The healthiest choice of chocolate with the highest nutrition is 55% or darker chocolate. One serving is great to curb your sweet tooth and boost iron consumption.
There are tons of ways to make sure you’re consuming enough iron in your diet. Most people in the U.S. can get enough iron in their diets, but there are some more vulnerable populations to consider. People who need to be the most cautious about their iron consumption are women with heavy periods, pregnant women, frequent blood donors, those with heart failure, cancer, or those with gastrointestinal issues (49).
Too much iron can also be harmful, although it’s usually difficult to have too much with food alone. Only supplement if you know your levels are low and supplementation shouldn’t last forever. Iron stores in the body take several months to replenish (50), so speak with your doctor or health professional about what works best for you. If you experience any iron deficiency symptoms listed above, make sure to take actionable steps with these foods to increase your iron intake right away.