Many people, especially women of childbearing age, infants, and pregnant women, may not take in as much iron as they need. However, there are many good food sources of iron to choose from. If your doctor advises you to increase your iron intake, consult the chart below to determine how much you need, and read on for some suggestions to meet those needs.
Your blood depends on iron to help it carry oxygen through the body. In some cases, anemia is caused by a lack of iron in the diet. Iron also helps your body to fight infection and to make collagen, the major protein that makes up connective tissue, cartilage, and bone. Other medical conditions may be worsened if you do not have enough iron.
|Age Group||RDA (mg/day)|
AI = 0.27
AI = 0.27
|Lactation, < 18 years||n/a||10|
|Lactation, 19-50 years||n/a||9|
Note: RDA=Recommended Daily Allowance in milligrams per day; AI=Adequate Intake
Iron exists in 2 forms—heme and nonheme. Heme iron is part of the hemoglobin and myoglobin molecules in animal tissues. It is found in meat and other animal sources. About 40% of the iron in meat is in the heme form. Nonheme iron comes from animal tissues other than hemoglobin and myoglobin and from plant tissues. It is found in meats, eggs, milk, vegetables, grains, and other plant foods. The body absorbs heme iron much more efficiently than nonheme iron.
Food Sources of Mostly Heme Iron (Contain Some Nonheme As Well)
|Liver, giblets, cooked||3 ounces||10.2|
|Beef liver||3 ounces||5.0|
|Beef, lean only, braised||3 ounces||2.0|
|Turkey, dark meat, roasted||3 ounces||2.0|
|Beef, ground, 85% lean||3 ounces||2.2|
|Turkey, light meat, roasted||3 ounces||1.0|
|Chicken, dark meat only, roasted||3 ounces||1.1|
|Tuna, fresh yellowfin, cooked, dry heat||3 ounces||1.0|
|Chicken, breast, roasted||3 ounces||1.0|
|Halibut, cooked, dry heat||3 ounces||0.2|
|Pork, loin, broiled||3 ounces||0.7|
|Tuna, white, canned in water||3 ounces||1.3|
|Shrimp, cooked||8 large||1.4|
Food Sources of Nonheme Iron
|Breakfast cereal, 100% iron fortified||¾ cup||18|
|Black-strap molasses||1 tablespoon||3.5|
|Spinach, canned||½ cup||3.2|
|Spinach, fresh, boiled||½ cup||3.0|
|Red kidney beans, canned||½ cup||2.0|
|Lima beans, cooked||1 cup||4.5|
|Chickpeas, boiled||½ cup||2.0|
|Green peas, boiled||½ cup||1.0|
|Raisins, seedless||¼ cup||1.0|
|Pinto beans, boiled||1 cup||3.6|
|Whole-wheat bread||1 slice||1.0|
|Tofu, raw, firm||1/3 cup||2.1|
|White bread, made with enriched flour||1 slice||1.0|
|Lentils, boiled||1 cup||6.6|
Tips For Increasing Your Iron Intake
The amount of iron your body absorbs varies depending on several factors. For example, your body will absorb more iron from foods when your iron stores are low and will absorb less when stores are sufficient. In addition, certain dietary factors affect absorption:
- Heme iron is absorbed more efficiently than nonheme iron.
- Heme iron enhances the absorption of nonheme iron.
- Vitamin C enhances the absorption of nonheme iron when eaten at the same meal.
Some substances decrease the absorption of nonheme iron. (Consuming heme iron and/or
with nonheme can help compensate for these decreases.)
- Oxalic acid, found in spinach and chocolate—However, oxalic acid is broken down with cooking.
- Phytic acid, found in wheat bran and beans (legumes)
- Tannins, found in tea
- Polyphenols, found in coffee
- Calcium carbonate supplements
To increase your intake and absorption of dietary iron, try the following:
- Combine heme and nonheme sources of iron.
Eat foods rich in vitamin C with nonheme iron sources. Good sources of vitamin C include:
- Bell peppers
- Oranges and orange juice
- Tomatoes and tomato juice
- Spinach and collard greens
- If you drink coffee or tea, do so between meals rather than with a meal.
- Cook acidic foods in cast iron pots. This can increase iron content up to 30 times.
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
The Vegetarian Resource Group
Iron. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional. Updated February 11, 2016. Accessed April 5, 2016.
Iron. Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute website. Available at: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iron. Updated August 2009. Accessed April 5, 2016.
Iron deficiency anemia in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 4, 2016. Accessed April 5, 2016.
Zijp IM, Korver O, Tijburg LB. Effect of tea and other dietary factors on iron absorption. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2000;40(5):371-398.
Last reviewed April 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 4/5/2016