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Top 15 Iron-Rich Foods, Recommended Intake and Key Benefits

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Iron-rich foods - Dr. Axe

Are you getting enough iron-rich foods in your diet right now? Iron is a trace mineral found in every living cell in our bodies. It’s a primary component of two proteins: hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen to the body’s tissues while myoglobin is the part of the muscle cells that hold oxygen.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, iron deficiency is the most common known form of nutritional deficiency. The best way to make sure you’re not lacking in this key nutrient is to eat adequate amounts of iron-rich foods each and every day.

Recommended Intake

The amount of iron you need varies based on your age. According to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), the recommended daily amounts of iron are as follows:

  • Infants under 12 months: 11 mg
  • Children ages 1–4 years: 7 mg
  • Adults and children over 4 years: 18 mg
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women: 27 mg

Iron-Rich Foods

What foods are high in iron? Here are the top healthy iron-rich foods, including meat, fish, beans, nuts, vegetables and even some fruit.

1. Spirulina

1 ounce: 8 milligrams (44 percent DV)

Spirulina is a blue-green algae renowned for its intense flavor and even more powerful nutrition profile. Just one ounce provides nearly half of typical iron requirements.

When it comes to vegetarian, non-heme sources of iron, spirulina is a superstar without a doubt. It’s also rich in essential amino acids, iron, protein, B vitamins and vitamins C, D and E.

2. Liver

3 ounces of organic beef liver: 4.05 milligrams (22.5 percent DV)

When it comes to foods with iron, specifically heme iron (the more easily absorbable form), liver definitely tops the list.

If you struggle with any type of anemia — a clear sign of an iron deficiency — this is probably the best food to consume because it contains iron as well as folate and vitamin B12. These are the three vitamins and minerals you need in order to overcome anemia naturally.

3. Grass-Fed Beef

One lean, grass-fed strip steak: 4 milligrams (22 percent DV)

Grass-fed beef is another awesome red meat source of heme iron as well as many other key nutrients and it’s a favorite for many when it comes to iron-rich foods. In addition to iron, grass-fed beef is also higher in precursors for vitamin A and E, along with cancer-fighting antioxidants, compared to grain-fed beef.

4. Lentils

½ cup: 3.3 milligrams (20.4 percent DV)

Lentils are legumes that have a really impressive amount of non-heme iron per serving. Aside from their high supply of nutrients, they’re also really cheap and incredibly versatile.

5. Dark Chocolate

1 ounce: 3.3 milligrams (19 percent DV)

When you buy high-quality dark chocolate, you not only satisfy your sweet tooth — you also give your body a significant dose of iron. All you need is one ounce to fulfill almost 20 percent of your daily iron requirements. Now that’s one healthy dessert option!

6. Spinach

½ cup cooked: 3.2 milligrams (17.8 percent DV)

There is good reason why Popeye got stronger when he ate spinach. This leafy green is loaded with iron as well as many other essential nutrients. As one of the top vegetable sources of iron, spinach is delicious raw or cooked. When you cook it, you tend to end up eating more since it cooks down so much, which means even more iron per spoonful.

7. Sardines

1/4 cup: 1.8 milligrams (10 percent DV)

When it comes to sardines nutrition, these little fish are probably best known for their high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, but they’re also a significant source of heme iron. It’s easy to find canned sardines for a very affordable price in most grocery stores. Try adding them to sauces, salads and pasta dishes.

8. Black beans

½ cup: 1.8 milligrams (10 percent DV)

Black beans are high in iron as well as protein and fiber. Black beans provide “time-released” energy in the form of starches, making them an excellent carbohydrate source for anyone who has prediabetes, diabetes or insulin resistance.

9. Pistachios

1 ounce: 1.1 milligrams (6.1 percent DV)

Nutrient-dense pistachios reign supreme when it comes to those looking for healthy snack ideas for weight loss and weight control. Just one ounce, or 49 pistachio kernels (a typical serving size), provides iron as well as high levels of vitamin B6 (25 percent DV), thiamine (20 percent DV) and copper (20 percent DV). Pistachios are also one of the best nut sources of iron.

10. Raisins

1/4 cup: 1.1 milligrams (6.1 percent DV)

One of the highlights of raisins nutrition is their significantly high content of iron per serving, especially for a fruit. Other great fruit sources of iron include prunes and figs.

11. Pumpkin Seeds

1 ounce: 0.9 milligrams (5 percent DV)

Versatile, delicious, and chock-full of nutrition, pumpkin seeds are one of the best sources of iron available. Plus, adding these flavorful seeds to your diet can also bump up your intake of several other important nutrients, including fiber, magnesium and zinc.

Simply roast them and season with your choice of herbs for a delicious snack, or add them to salads, sauces and baked goods.

12. Eggs

1 large: 0.9 milligrams (5 percent DV)

Eggs are one of the top sources of heme iron, packing a whopping 5 percent of the daily value into a single egg. In addition to being one of the best iron-rich foods for kids and adults alike, eggs are also loaded with protein, selenium, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and phosphorus.

13. Chickpeas

1/2 cup: 2.4 milligrams (13 percent DV)

Not only have chickpeas secured a slot on the healthiest legumes and vegetables list, but they are also one of the best high-iron foods that you can add to your diet. These power-packed legumes boast a wide range of other nutrients as well, offering a good amount of manganese, folate and copper in each serving.

Chickpeas make a great addition to curries, salads, pasta dishes and sandwiches and can help bring just about any recipe to the next level in terms of nutrition.

14. Kale

1 cup raw: 1.1 milligrams (6 percent DV)

Often hailed as a true superfood, it should come as no surprise that kale is also a stellar source of iron. And besides being among the top foods rich in iron, kale is also high in fiber, vitamin K and vitamin A.

Plus, it’s brimming with vitamin C, which can help boost the absorption of iron even more to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.

15. Chicken

3 ounces cooked: 0.9 milligrams (5 percent DV)

Like other types of meat and poultry, chicken is undoubtedly one of the best foods high in iron. It’s also one of the easiest to incorporate into your meals and makes a great addition to soups, stews, salads, sandwiches and more.

Additionally, chicken is considered one of the best iron-rich foods for babies transitioning from breast milk to food. However, be sure to mince or shred thoroughly and mix with mashed veggies or liquid to make sure that it’s soft enough for your baby.

Related: Malic Acid Benefits Energy Levels, Skin Health and More

Benefits

1. Prevents Anemia

Anemia is caused by decreased production of red blood cells and hemoglobin, leading to a depletion of oxygen-rich blood. Anemia usually results in low energy levels but can also affect many parts of the body − from poor brain function to impaired immunity and beyond.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately half of the 1.62 billion cases of anemia worldwide are due to iron deficiency, while the other half are due to genetic factors.

According to the Department of Human Health at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, iron-deficiency anemia develops when:

… individuals have inadequate iron intake, impaired absorption or transport, physiologic losses associated with chronological or reproductive age, or chronic blood loss secondary to disease. In adults, IDA can result in a wide variety of adverse outcomes including diminished work or exercise capacity, impaired thermoregulation, immune dysfunction, GI disturbances, and neurocognitive impairment.

2. Supports Energy Levels

Iron supports ongoing energy by helping oxygen-rich blood reach the cells. Iron also helps with the metabolic enzyme processes that the body carries out to digest proteins and absorb nutrients from food. This is why an iron deficiency causes exhaustion, fatigue and many other symptoms of feeling sluggish.

Iron deficiency commonly shows up in symptoms like low concentration, mood changes and trouble with muscle coordination. Iron is needed for muscle movement because it helps store the oxygen in muscles that allows them to move and strengthen.

3. Helps Maintain Cognitive Function

Iron is a top brain food, as it’s needed to carry oxygen to the brain; in fact, about 20 percent of all of the oxygen in the body is used by the brain.

Therefore, an iron deficiency can impair memory or other mental functions. In infants and children, a deficiency can cause psychomotor and cognitive abnormalities that have the potential to lead to learning difficulties as well.

4. Supports Development and Growth

Iron deficiency can delay normal motor function — meaning the ability to connect thoughts with activities and movement — as well as mental functions like learning and processing new information.

5. Needed for a Healthy Pregnancy

Iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk for a premature birth and also for a low birth weight. Sadly, premature born babies are known to have more health-related problems during their first years of life and may experience delayed growth and cognitive development.

Women are advised to consume a variety of iron-rich foods in a pregnancy diet and to take supplements, because as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns:

Insufficient iron intakes during pregnancy increase a woman’s risk of iron deficiency-caused anemia. Low intakes also increase her infant’s risk of low birth weight, premature birth, low iron stores, and impaired cognitive and behavioral development.

A study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that taking iron supplements during pregnancy is associated with an 8.4 percent risk of having a low-birth weight newborn, compared to 10.2 percent risk when the mother does not supplement with iron.

The average birth weight in the WHO study was 31 grams higher in infants whose mothers took daily iron supplements during pregnancy, compared to the weight of infants of mothers who did not take iron.

6. Supports Immune System

Iron is needed to properly digest and absorb other nutrients from food, due to its role in metabolic enzyme processes. In addition, iron helps to bring enough oxygen to damaged areas of the body, including damaged tissues, organs and cells that are prone to infection or disease development.

7. Helps Maintain Positive Mood

Neurotransmitter functions that support a positive mood rely on adequate levels of iron within the blood. Your mood relies on a balance of neurotransmitters — including serotonin, dopamine and other vital compounds — that cannot properly be synthesized in the brain when oxygen levels are low.

This is one reason why iron deficiency results in a poor mood, impaired sleep, low energy levels and a lack of motivation. If you notice changes in your mood and feelings of mild depression or anxiety, an iron deficiency could possibly be a contributor.

8. Prevents Restless Leg Syndrome

Iron deficiency is one of the causes of the restless leg syndrome, which can lead to major sleep disturbances. Iron helps to transport enough oxygen to muscles, which can decrease muscle spasms and pain.

Iron benefits

Risks and Side Effects

It’s best to obtain iron from your diet by regularly consuming iron-rich foods. Ideally, you should only supplement with iron if you’re deficient, and you should do so under the supervision of a health professional. If you suspect that you’re deficient in iron, a blood test can reveal your current iron levels.

When consumed in moderation, including a good amount of iron-rich foods in your diet is safe and associated with minimal risk of adverse side effects. However, iron supplements should be used only as directed, as they can cause toxicity in high amounts.

The most common side effect of iron supplements include upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, constipation and heartburn. Taking your supplement with food can help reduce the risk of side effects, but it may also impair your body’s ability to absorb iron effectively. If you experience any negative side effects, talk to your doctor to find a treatment plan that works for you.

Final Thoughts

  • Iron is an incredibly important mineral that plays a role in red blood cell production, energy levels, healthy fetal development and more.
  • Including some of the top 10 iron-rich foods in your diet on a regular basis is absolutely essential to maintaining healthy iron levels in your body.
  • Some of the ingredients on the iron-rich foods list include grass-fed beef, chicken, eggs and liver.
  • There are also a variety of iron-rich foods for vegetarians as well, including leafy greens, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.
  • Ideally, you should try to include 2–3 servings of these foods rich in iron daily to ensure that you’re getting enough iron in your diet.
  • However, if you suspect that you may have a deficiency, you should consult with your doctor to find a treatment plan that works for you.
Josh Axe

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