11 Foods High in Iron

Your body depends on the mineral iron for physical growth, oxygen transport, energy production, hormone synthesis, and many other essential biological processes.

Iron is naturally present in a variety of animal and plant-based foods. You can also find it in many fortified foods, including breakfast cereals. However, many people consume less than the recommended daily amount of iron. Not getting enough iron can contribute to other nutrient deficiencies and medical conditions.

Understanding which foods provide iron can help you make informed choices about your diet.

Why Do We Need Iron?

Iron’s main role in the body is oxygen transportation. Iron assists with the production of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your tissues and organs. Around 65% of the iron in your body is found in your blood, and it's iron that gives your blood its bright red color. 

In addition to oxygen transportation, iron is essential to growth and development, cellular function, and the production of certain hormones.

Your body recycles and reuses iron from old blood cells, which covers up to 90% of your iron needs. However, your body also loses small amounts of iron daily.

Most people lose about one milligram (mg) of iron through their poop every day.

How Much Iron Do We Need?

Iron needs depend on factors like age, as well as menstruation and pregnancy status. 

Those who menstruate need more iron due to blood loss during their monthly period. Pregnancy and certain medical conditions also increase the body’s need for dietary iron.

Here are the daily recommended iron intakes for non-vegetarians:

  • Men aged 19-50: 8 mg
  • Women aged 19-50: 18 mg
  • Men aged 51 and older: 8 mg
  • Women aged 51 and older: 8 mg
  • Pregnant women: 27 mg
  • Breastfeeding women: 9 mg

Heme Iron vs. Non-Heme Iron

Daily iron recommendations are about 1.8 times higher for vegetarians and vegans. This is because your body can absorb and use heme iron, the type of iron found in animal foods like meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs, better than non-heme iron, the iron in plant foods. Your body absorbs about 25% of dietary heme iron and about 17% of dietary non-heme iron.

Heme iron also enhances the absorption of non-heme iron. Therefore, people who don’t eat animal sources of iron often need to eat more sources of plant-based iron or take an iron supplement to meet their daily needs.

Eating non-heme iron with vitamin C can help your body better absorb the iron. Citrus fruits, strawberries, melons, bell peppers, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts are all rich in vitamin C.

What Foods Are Good Sources of Iron?

Meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs contain heme iron. Many plant-based foods, including whole grains, nuts and seeds, and leafy greens, contain non-heme iron.

Whether you’re an omnivore or follow a mostly plant-based diet, there are many iron-rich foods to choose from. 

Organ Meats

Organ meats are among the most nutritious foods you can eat. In addition to iron, these protein-rich foods contain minerals like selenium and zinc, vitamin B12, and fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K.

Here’s the iron content of some more popular organ meats:

  • Chicken liver: 5.1 mg per 1.5 ounces (oz), or 28% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Beef liver: 5.56 mg per 3 oz, or 31% of the DV 
  • Beef heart: 5.42 mg per 3 oz, or 30% of the DV 

Red Meat 

Red meats like beef, bison, and venison are high in iron. Like organ meats, red meat is also an excellent source of vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, and protein.

The following red meat products can help you meet your daily iron needs:

  • Bison: 4.13 mg per 3 oz, or 23% of the DV 
  • Venison tenderloin: 3.61 mg per 3 oz, or 20% of the DV 
  • Beef steak: 2 mg per 3 oz, or 12% of the DV 

Fish and Shellfish 

Fish and shellfish provide a variety of important nutrients, including iron, selenium, zinc, iodine, and vitamin B12. Seafood also provides omega-3 fats, which play important roles in immune function and the regulation of inflammation in the body.

Here’s the iron content of some popular seafood products:

  • Mussels (cooked): 5.71 mg per 3 oz, or 32% of the DV
  • Sardines: 2.69 mg per 3.75-oz can, or 15% of the DV 
  • Salmon: 1.3 mg per 6 oz, or 7% of the DV 

Poultry and Eggs

Poultry contains less iron than red meat, but it’s still a good source. Dark cuts of meat contain more iron than white meat. Chicken, turkey, and duck also offer iron, B vitamins, and minerals like selenium.

Eggs are another source of heme iron.

Here’s the iron content of dark meat poultry products and eggs:

  • Dark turkey meat: 1.23 mg per 3 oz, or 7% of the DV 
  • Dark chicken meat: 1.16 mg per 3 oz, or 7% of the DV 
  • Hard-boiled eggs: 1.19 mg per two large eggs, or 7% of the DV 

Beans and Lentils

Beans and lentils are packed with non-heme iron. They’re also rich sources of plant-based protein, fiber, magnesium, folate, and many other important nutrients.

However, like other plant foods, beans and lentils have natural substances known as antinutrients. Antinutrients may reduce your body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients, like iron. Soaking dried beans and lentils or choosing sprouted legume products may help reduce the presence of antinutrients. However, research indicates that many of these antinutrients may actually be beneficial for the body. Any negative effects of these nutrients may be caused by consuming unbalanced amounts of them. 

Try adding the following legumes to your diet to boost your intake of plant-based iron:

  • Lentils: 6.59 mg per cooked cup, or 37% of the DV 
  • Red kidney beans: 5.2 mg per cooked cup, or 29% of the DV 
  • Chickpeas: 4.74 mg per cooked cup, or 26% of the DV 

Green Vegetables 

Green vegetables provide an array of important nutrients and protective plant compounds like folate, vitamin C, and carotenoid antioxidants. Many greens, including cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, contain non-heme iron. Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and swiss chard, are particularly rich in this mineral.

The following greens are packed with plant-based iron:

  • Spinach: 6.43 mg per cooked cup, or 36% of the DV 
  • Beet greens: 4.02 mg per cooked cup, or 22% of the DV
  • Swiss chard: 3.96 mg per cooked cup, or 22% of the DV  

Soy Products

Many people who eat a plant-based diet consume soy products, like tofu and edamame, to help them meet their protein needs. Tofu and edamame are excellent sources of protein. They also provide non-heme iron.

Here’s the iron content of some common soy products:

  • Edamame: 3.52 mg per cooked cup, or 20% of the DV
  • Tofu: 3.35 mg per one-half cup, or 19% of the DV
  • Fortified soy milk: 2 mg per cup, or 10% of the DV 

Cocoa Products 

High-quality cocoa products are good sources of important minerals like iron and magnesium. Cocoa products also offer flavonoid antioxidants, which help protect against cellular damage and reduce inflammation in the body.

When buying cocoa products, look for high-quality items low in added sugar. Pure cocoa powder, cacao nibs, and dark chocolate are among the healthier options.

The following cocoa products can help you meet your iron needs:

  • Dark chocolate (70-85% cacao solids): 3.37 mg per 1 oz, or 19% of the DV
  • Cocoa powder: 1.5 mg per 2 tablespoons, or 8% of the DV
  • Cacao nibs: 1.44 mg per 2 tablespoons, or 8% of the DV

Nuts and Seeds 

Adding nuts and seeds to your diet can significantly increase your iron intake. Nuts and seeds also provide fiber, healthy fats, protein, magnesium, and many other essential nutrients.

The following nuts and seeds are high in iron:

  • Sesame seeds: 2.26 mg per 2 tablespoons, 13% of the DV
  • Pumpkin seeds: 2.29 mg per 1 oz, or 13% of the DV 
  • Cashews: 1.89 mg per 1 oz, or 11% of the DV

Sprouted Grains  

Unrefined grains contain antinutrients called phytates, which can negatively affect iron absorption. Antinutrients are plant-based compounds that decrease the body's ability to absorb nutrients from food.

Sprouting grains means soaking them in water until they begin to germinate, or sprout. As with beans and legumes, this process breaks down antinutrients, which may help improve your body’s ability to absorb iron.

Here are a few iron-rich grains and grain products:

  • Amaranth: 5.17 mg per cooked cup, or 29% of the DV 
  • Quinoa: 2.76 mg per cooked cup, or 15% of the DV 
  • Oats: 2.11 mg per cooked cup, or 12% of the DV

Fortified Foods   

Fortified foods are products that have nutrients added during processing. Iron is commonly added to plant-based foods like cereals to boost their nutritional value. Keep in mind that fortified foods contain non-heme iron, which is less bioavailable than heme iron. 

The following fortified foods are rich in iron:

  • Breakfast cereal: Up to 8 mg per cup, or 44% of the DV
  • Rice: 1.4 mg per one-half cooked cup, or 8% of the DV (look for "enriched rice" and iron amounts on the product label of quick rices to ensure it is fortified)
  • Bread: About 0.5 mg to 1 mg per slice, or 3% of the DV

What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough Iron?

If your body can’t replace the iron it loses daily, you’ll develop low iron levels. Eventually, you’ll become deficient in iron. This is known as iron deficiency anemia (IDA). IDA occurs when your body has used up all of your stored iron.

People with IDA have low hemoglobin in their blood, which decreases the size of their red blood cells. Low levels of hemoglobin or healthy red blood cells, can contribute to a long list of possible symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Stomach pain
  • Pale skin
  • Cold intolerance
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty concentrating

Iron deficiency affects 1.6 billion people worldwide. It's especially common in menstruating women, pregnant women, children, vegetarians, people who donate blood frequently, and people with certain medical conditions.

Medical conditions like ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and cancer can make it more challenging to maintain adequate iron levels. People who have difficulty absorbing iron from food or can't maintain their iron stores due to a medical condition may need to take an iron supplement or receive iron infusions. Iron infusions are given by inserting a needle through a vein with an intravenous (IV) drip.

Reach out to a healthcare provider if you think you may be deficient in iron. Blood testing, such as mean corpuscular hemoglobin concentration (MCHC), is the only way to confirm an iron deficiency.

Always check with a healthcare provider before trying an iron supplement. Consuming too much supplemental iron can harm your health and cause dangerous side effects like kidney damage.

Dietary supplements are minimally regulated by the FDA and may or may not be suitable for you. The effects of supplements vary from person to person and depend on many variables, including type, dosage, frequency of use, and interactions with current medications. Please speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before starting any supplements.

A Quick Review

Iron is an essential mineral found in many animal and plant-based foods. Eating a nutritious diet that provides sources of heme and non-heme iron helps to ensure you get enough of this essential mineral.

If you think you may not be taking in enough iron or think you may be iron deficient, make an appointment with your healthcare provider to assess your iron status and get advice on how to reach and maintain healthy iron levels.

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8 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. Elliott H, Woods P, Green BD, Nugent AP. Can sprouting reduce phytate and improve the nutritional composition and nutrient bioaccessibility in cereals and legumesNutr Bull. 2022;47(2):138-156. doi:10.1111/nbu.12549

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