Whether you’re sweating through spin class or scrolling through your phone, you’re using up oxygen. And your bod needs plenty of iron to keep that sweet O2 coming.
Iron’s an essential part of hemoglobin (the part of red blood cells that helps carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your bod). It’s also involved in energy production, hormone synthesis, neurological functioning, and more. Looking for the best munchies to get the most of this mineral? We’ve got you covered with a rundown of the best high iron foods.
How much iron do you need every day?
Your bod can’t make iron. While it can “recycle” most of what it needs from old blood cells, you also need to supply your body with a steady stream of iron by eating iron-rich foods on the reg.
Most adults need 8 to 18 milligrams (mg) of iron per day, while pregnant peeps need 27 mg every day.
There are two types of iron: heme iron and nonheme. It’s easier for your body to use heme iron, but both types are important parts of a healthy diet.
Heme iron’s concentrated in animal foods like meats and fish. Here’s some of the best sources you can find.
1. Red meat and organ meat
- Beef liver: 31% of the Daily Value (DV) per 3-ounce serving
- Chicken liver: 28% of the DV per 44-gram liver
- Beef steak: 71% of the DV per 360-gram steak
- Venison tenderloin: 20% of the DV per 3-ounce serving
- Oysters (cooked): 44% of the DV per 3-ounce serving
- Clams (cooked): 13% of the DV per 3-ounce serving
- Mussels (cooked): 32% of the DV per 3-ounce serving
- Sardines: 15% of the DV per 3.75-ounce can
- Tuna: 6% of the DV per 3-ounce serving
- Salmon: 6% of the DV per 178-gram fillet
4. Poultry and eggs
Unlike animal foods, plant foods only contain nonheme iron.
Some plant-based foods like green leafy veggies naturally contain nonheme iron, but many foods are fortified with iron. That means iron was added to the food during manufacturing.
Here are some of the best sources of nonheme iron.
1. Leafy greens
- Spinach: 36% of the DV per cooked cup
- Swiss chard: 22% of the DV per cooked cup
- Beet greens: 22% of the DV per cooked cup
2. Beans and lentils
- Lentils: 37% of the DV per cooked cup
- Tofu (made from soybeans): 34% of the DV per cooked cup
- Black beans: 28% per cooked cup
3. Fruits and fruit juice
- Prune juice: 16% of the DV per cup
- Dried apricots: 12% of the DV per half cup
- Dried mulberries: 28% of the DV per 40-gram serving (about one-third cup)
4. Grains and fortified foods
- Fortified Cheerios: 45% of the DV per cup
- Quinoa: 15% of the DV per cooked cup
- Oats: 12% of the DV per cooked cup
5. Nuts and seeds
- Pumpkin seeds: 13% of the DV per 1-ounce serving
- Hemp seeds: 13% of the DV per 1-ounce serving
- Cashews: 11% of the DV per 1-ounce serving
6. More iron-rich plant foods
- Canned coconut milk: 21% of the DV per half cup
- Dark chocolate (70–85% cacao solids): 19% of the DV per 1-ounce serving
- Stewed tomatoes (canned): 18% of the DV per cooked cup
In order to boost how much nonheme iron you can absorb from plant sources, try adding sources of vitamin C, like lemon juice or orange juice. This can help boost iron absorption while adding a citrusy kick to your recipes.
For example, try squeezing a bit of lemon juice on sautéed spinach or Swiss chard or throwing some orange slices into a grain bowl made with amaranth and chickpeas.
It’s pretty common to have low iron stores. In fact, chronic iron deficiency — a condition when your bod doesn’t have enough iron — is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world.
Low iron stores progress to iron deficiency anemia when the body’s iron stores become exhausted and concentrations of hemoglobin in red blood cells start to decline.
You can’t tell if you have iron deficiency based on symptoms alone. Iron deficiency is diagnosed through blood testing.
If you’re low or deficient in iron, you may experience common symptoms, including:
- generalized weakness
- pale skin
- feeling cold
- decreased exercise capacity
- poor concentration
- shortness of breath
- dry mouth
- hair loss
- pagophagia (craving ice)
- pica (craving non-food items like clay)
- brittle nails
- restless legs
Just keep in mind that you should never self-diagnose iron deficiency. Always visit a medical professional to get the right testing and treatment if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.
Certain people are at higher risk for developing iron deficiency anemia including:
- menstruating peeps
- pregnant folks
- people with certain medical conditions (like kidney disease, cancer, heart failure, and inflammatory bowel disease)
- peeps who’ve undergone certain surgeries like bariatric surgery
- people with overweight
- elderly folks
- endurance athletes
- children in developing countries
- people who frequently donate blood
- those who follow restrictive diets (like a vegan diet)
- people who experience food insecurity
If your doctor determines that you have an iron deficiency, they’ll likely recommend that you take oral iron supplements. They’ll usually recommended that you take iron supplements on an empty stomach at least 30 minutes before a meal and 2 hours before taking other medications. But you could take your iron supplement with a bit of food if you’re experiencing stomach upset.
Some types of iron, including ferrous sulfate, are more likely to cause side effects like constipation and nausea than other forms like iron bisglycinate.
To make sure that you’re properly absorbing your iron supplement, avoid taking it with milk, calcium supplements, antacid medications, high fiber foods, or caffeine.
The iron found in iron supplements is much more bioavailable to your bod compared to the iron naturally found in food. That’s great if you need extra iron, but it also means it’s easier to get too much iron through supplements than through food alone.
When to skip the supps
For most people, it’s possible to get all the iron your bod needs through your diet.
If you already have normal iron levels, it’s not healthy to take extra iron. Excessive iron intake can damage cells and lead to iron toxicity. This can cause symptoms like nausea, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Over time it can damage your heart, kidneys, and central nervous system. Iron toxicity’s more common in kids than adults.
If you have questions about how to take iron supplements and whether you need to take them in the first place, talk with your doctor. They can help you determine the best treatment plan and can recommend supplements from trusted brands.
There are lots of iron-rich foods to help you get enough of this super important mineral.
Animal foods like beef, chicken liver, shellfish, and eggs pack plenty of heme iron. Plant foods like spinach, lentils, oats, and pumpkin seeds have you covered when it comes to nonheme iron.
Some peeps who are low or deficient in iron may need to take an iron supplement or get iron transfusions, but low iron needs to be diagnosed and managed by a medical professional.