A Guide to Healthy Foods That Are Rich in Iron

Iron is an essential mineral responsible for the production of hemoglobin, a protein that allows red blood cells to carry oxygen to every part of your body. It's also a component of myoglobin, which is similar to hemoglobin but found in muscle cells. If you don't have enough iron your body won't be able to produce enough red blood cells, which can impact your health.

Getting enough iron in your diet is key to maintaining optimal red blood cell production. Dietary iron is categorized as either heme or nonheme iron. Heme iron is found in animal sources of food that contained hemoglobin, whereas nonheme iron is derived from plant-based food sources. Your body absorbs the most iron from heme food sources like beef, poultry, and fish, all of which contain both heme and nonheme iron.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that most people in the United States get enough iron in their diets, but many people are still deficient based on factors such as race and sociodemographic variables. According to the NIH, infants, young children, adolescent girls, and women who are pregnant or premenopausal are most at risk for iron deficiency.

Depending on your diet, if you're not getting enough iron you may experience fatigue, brain fog, and other symptoms, which can lead to iron-deficiency anemia. Some people who follow low-carb diets can develop an iron deficiency because they've reduced their intake of nonheme sources of dietary iron such as grains.

By contrast, if you get too much iron in your diet you could experience symptoms such as chronic fatigue, joint pain, and abdominal pain. Excessive iron intake can lead to serious health complications such as liver disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain heart conditions. People at risk for iron overload include those with a condition known as hereditary hemochromatosis, which causes excessive absorption of dietary iron.

To assess your iron intake, the following Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for iron are provided by the NIH. Note that these values do not include the RDAs for vegetarians, which are about 1.8 times higher than carnivores, according to the NIH. That's because nonheme iron from plant-based foods is less bioavailable than heme iron from animal sources.

  • Birth to 6 months: 0.27 mg (male and female)
  • 7–12 months: 11 mg (male and female)
  • 1–3 years: 7 mg (male and female)
  • 9–13 years: 8 mg (male and female)
  • 14–18 years: 11 mg (male); 15 mg (female)
  • 19–50 years: 8 mg (male); 18 mg (female)
  • 51 and up: 8 mg (male and female)

The NIH recommends that pregnant women who eat meat should get 27 mg of iron a day and lactating women require about 9 mg a day. Vegetarian women who are pregnant need much more—about 49 mg of nonheme (plant-based) iron per day. Lactating women who are vegetarian should aim for 16 mg.

Nutrition experts recommend getting your iron from food sources rather than dietary supplements. Iron supplements can be beneficial to those with certain health conditions such as anemia. Be sure to talk to your doctor or a registered dietician before adding iron supplements to your diet.

Getting more nutrient-dense whole foods in your meals each day can boost your iron intake and help you meet your RDA. Choose from plant-based or animal sources (or a combination of both) from this list of whole foods high in iron, which also contain other important vitamins and minerals.

Organ Meats

Beef liver

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Organ meats are well-known as sources of heme iron—and for good reason. One 4-ounce serving of beef liver has 5.5 mg iron. It also provides 23 grams of protein and is an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin B12, riboflavin, folate, and other nutrients.

The iron in chicken liver is nearly double at 10.2 mg of iron per 4-ounce serving. You can also try chicken hearts, which weigh in at around 6 mg of iron per 4-ounce serving.

Shellfish

Oysters

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Shellfish is an excellent source of iron, especially oysters. Depending on where they are from, a serving of six raw oysters may contain around 4.3 mg of iron. It also has about 8 grams of protein.

If you're not a fan of oysters, clams and shrimp are great options as well. A 3-ounce serving of raw clams has 1.4 mg of iron and a 4-ounce serving of shrimp has 1.8 mg of iron.

Legumes

Lentils

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Lentils are a plant-based (nonheme) source of iron. A 100-gram serving of cooked lentils provides more than 3 mg iron. Lentils are also high in fiber, providing about 8 mg per serving. In addition, lentils are high in protein, B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc.

Chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, are another source of iron. One-half cup of cooked chickpeas has about 2 mg of iron along with several other minerals. It also has 141 micrograms (mcg) of folate, which is one of the B-complex vitamins, and 6 grams of fiber. 

White beans are also a great option. One half-cup serving has more than 3 mg of iron. That half-cup serving has 6 mg fiber and almost 600 mg potassium, plus plenty of protein, calcium, B vitamins, and antioxidants.

Dark Chocolate

Chocolate

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Dark chocolate is an excellent source of iron as well as antioxidants. A one-ounce serving of dark chocolate (70% to 85% cacao solids) has almost 3.4 mg iron. It also has 170 calories per serving, so be mindful of your portion size. 

Fish

Sardines

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

All types of fish are great sources of iron, especially sardines, tuna, and mackerel. Look for canned fish like whole sardines, which contain nearly 3 mg of iron and boast other nutrients like 350 mg of calcium, 450 mg of phosphorus, and 49 mg of selenium.

Canned tuna is also rich in iron. A 6-ounce can of tuna has 2.7 mg iron, along with plenty of potassium and B vitamins and a little vitamin D. It also has 400 mg sodium, which is a little on the higher side. But canned tuna has less than 150 calories per serving, as long as you choose the kind packed in water, not oil.

Whole tuna steaks are another valuable source of iron, with 1 mg of iron in a 3.5-ounce serving. A 3-ounce serving of whole, raw mackerel contains more than three times that amount with about 3.4 mg of iron.

Whole Grains

Quinoa
Elise Bauer

Whole grains like quinoa are nutrition powerhouses, loaded with dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Quinoa is an ancient grain that appeals to many people following a gluten-free diet. 1 cup of cooked quinoa has nearly 3 mg of iron. It also contains 5 grams of dietary fiber, 8 grams of protein, 118 mg of magnesium, 281 mg of phosphorous, and 318 mg of potassium.

Amaranth is another member of the ancient grain family that's loaded with nutrients. 1 cup of cooked amaranth contains more than 5 mg of iron. It also has more than 5 grams of dietary fiber, 9.4 grams of protein, 364 mg of phosphorous, 332 mg of potassium, and 116 mg of calcium.

Seeds

Silver saute pan on a marble background with raw pumpkin seeds inside.
Sally Vargas

Seeds may be tiny but they are a big source of iron and other vital nutrients. Just 1 ounce (28 g) of pumpkin seeds contains 2.3 mg of iron, 8.4 grams of protein, nearly 2 grams of dietary fiber, 154 mg of magnesium, 329 mg of phosphorous, and 223 mg of potassium.

Chia seeds are also a well-known superfood, with 2.7 mg of iron, 10 grams of dietary fiber, 5 grams of protein, and 200 mg of calcium, which is about 20% of your recommended daily value.

Nuts

Cashew

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Nuts are another plant-based nonheme source of iron. Cashews are perfect as a snack or added to smoothies. One ounce has close to 2 mg of iron, along with vitamins, minerals, and beneficial monounsaturated fats.

But a quarter-cup serving of almonds contains even more, with 3.6 mg of iron per serving. Similarly, just one ounce (28 grams) of pine nuts has nearly 2 mg of iron.

Red Meat

Steak

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Red meat is an excellent source of animal-sourced heme iron. For instance, one 4-ounce tenderloin steak with the fat trimmed has just under 3 mg of iron. It's also a good source of zinc, potassium, and other minerals, plus vitamin B-12. It does contain about 8 grams of fat, so it's a good idea to keep portion control in mind.

Leaner red meats are also a good source of iron. For instance, a 4-ounce serving of ground bison has about 2.3 mg of iron and is also packed with over 17 grams of protein.

Spinach

Spinach

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Iron must have been the reason Popeye wolfed down all those cans of spinach. Depending on the source, three cups of raw spinach have about 2 mg of iron. It also has almost 80 mg calcium and more than 470 mg potassium, plus 24 mg of vitamin C, which is 25% of your recommended daily value. Vitamin C also helps the body to absorb iron.

Baked Potatoes

Baked potato

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

 

Potatoes don't always get the credit they deserve, nutritionally speaking. Not only are they a good source of vitamin C and B vitamins, but they're also an excellent source of potassium and are high in iron. In fact, one medium-sized baked potato with the skin has more than 3 mg iron.

Tofu

Prepare the tofu

The Spruce Eats

Tofu is a nutritious, low-calorie plant-based protein made from soybeans. It's also a great source of dietary fiber with around 2.5 grams per serving. A 3-ounce serving of tofu contains about 1.4 mg of iron. It also has 150 mg of calcium and 125 mg of potassium.

Dried Fruits

Raisins

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Raisins, along with most dehydrated fruits, are high in iron, fiber, and other nutrients. One little box (about 1/3 cup) has almost 1 mg iron—not bad for a mid-afternoon snack. Raisins are also high in potassium and an excellent source of B vitamins.

Similarly, a small serving size of about 5 dried apricots or 5 pitted, Medjool dates contain about 1 mg of iron each.

Broccoli

Cheddar Quesadillas with Broccoli blanch and chop the broccoli
Nick Evans

Broccoli is a heart-healthy cruciferous vegetable loaded with nutrients. It's also a great plant-based source of nonheme iron. 1 cup of chopped raw broccoli contains just around 1 milligram of iron, but it also has about 3 grams of protein, 60 mg of phosphorus, and 288 mg of potassium.

Poultry

roasted turkey on a platter
Diana Rattray

Poultry like chicken and turkey or game such as duck and quail are also sources of animal-based iron. 3-ounce servings of roasted turkey or chicken breast contain about 1 milligram of iron each.

A Word From Verywell

If you think you may not be getting enough dietary iron, put some (or all) of these iron-rich foods on regular rotation as part of a well-balanced, healthy diet. Remember, not everyone should increase their iron intake, including those with health conditions affecting their iron absorption, certain age groups, and those who already meet their requirements. Whether you eat meat or are vegetarian or vegan, it's important to monitor your intake to ensure you're getting the right amount of iron for your age group. If you're low on energy and showing signs of anemia, talk to your healthcare provider about testing your hemoglobin levels so you can stay healthy.

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