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. 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. (1) 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. What foods have iron? I’m about to reveal my top healthy iron-rich foods, including meat, fish, beans, nuts, vegetables and even some fruit.
Top 10 Iron-Rich Foods List
What foods are high in iron? There are many good sources of iron to choose from, but here are some of my favorite healthy foods rich in iron that definitely top the charts:
1 ounce: 8 milligrams of iron (44 percent DV)
Spirulina is a blue-green algae renowned for its intense flavor and even more powerful nutrition profile. Just one ounce almost provides 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.
3 ounces of organic beef liver: 4.05 milligrams of iron (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 in the world 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 (214 grams): 4 milligrams of iron (22 percent DV)
Grass-fed beef is another awesome meat source of heme iron as well as many other key nutrients. It’s definitely one of my personal favorites 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. (2)
½ cup: 3.3 milligrams of iron (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, what’s another benefit of including protein-packed lentils in your diet regularly? They’re really cheap and very versatile.
5. Dark Chocolate
1 ounce: 3.3 milligrams iron (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!
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 nutritions. 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.
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. 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 a form of resistance to insulin (the blood sugar-lowering hormone) like those who are prediabetic or who have diabetes.
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 pistachios 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 one of the best nut sources of iron.
1/4 cup: 1.1 milligrams (6.1 percent DV)
If you’re deficient in iron, it’s a good idea to consume two to three servings daily of these iron-rich foods.
Iron Deficiency Epidemic
It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the world’s population may be deficient in iron, and 30 percent may have iron deficiency anemia. (3) It’s clear that many, if not most, people do not enough iron-rich foods on a regular basis.
Moderate-to-severe iron deficiency (or anemia) include:
- General fatigue
- Pale skin
- Shortness of breath
- Strange cravings to eat items that aren’t food, such as dirt, ice or clay
- A tingling or crawling feeling in the legs
- Tongue swelling or soreness
- Cold hands and feet
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Brittle nails
- Poor concentration
- Weakened immune system
- Leaky gut or IBS
People at a greater risk for iron deficiency anemia include: (4)
- Women of childbearing age, especially women with heavy menstrual bleeding
- Pregnant women
- People with poor diets
- People who donate blood frequently
- Infants and children, especially those born prematurely or experiencing a growth spurt
- Cancer patients
- People with heart failure
- People who have gastrointestinal disorders or have had gastrointestinal surgery
- Vegetarians who don’t replace meat with another iron-rich food
Consuming iron-rich foods is especially important for premenopausal women who have higher iron needs than men due to monthly blood losses.
If you’re low in iron, it’s also critical to get plenty of vitamin C in your diet since it increases iron absorption. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for iron is eight milligrams per day for men and older women, while premenopausal women need 18 milligrams per day. The RDAs for vegetarians are 1.8 times higher than meat eaters due to the fact that meat’s heme iron is more bioavailable than non-heme iron from plant-based foods. Also, meat, poultry and seafood increase the absorption of non-heme iron.
Top 5 Health Benefits of Iron
An iron deficiency can mean that you aren’t able to produce enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells — therefore your body struggles to transport oxygen to your brain, tissues, muscles and cells, leaving you feeling exhausted and weak. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include lack of energy and fatigue. Anemia also can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, headache, coldness in your hands and feet, pale skin, chest pain, and weakness. (5)
Iron supports ongoing energy by helping enough oxygen reach cells. It 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, trouble being active and many other symptoms of feeling sluggish.
2. Muscle Function
Iron is needed for muscle movement because it helps store the oxygen in muscles that allows them to move and strengthen. About 70 percent of your body’s iron can found in the red blood cells of your blood called hemoglobin along with muscle cells called myoglobin. Hemoglobin is essential for transferring oxygen in your blood from the lungs to the tissues. Myoglobin, in muscle cells, accepts, stores, transports and releases oxygen.
Without iron, the primary cells in the muscles, called myoglobin, cannot hold oxygen. Without oxygen, these cells are not be able to function properly, resulting in muscle weakness. (6)
3. Brain Function
The brain is very dependent on oxygen for proper function. If iron is not present, the brain does not receive the oxygen it needs, resulting in poor memory, decreased productivity and apathy. Children with iron deficiency tend to become irritable, restless and are unable to pay attention in class. These symptoms typically disappear once iron levels are restored.
Numerous human studies haves shown the negative effects of iron deficiency on learning and memory as well as social behavior. Iron deficiency during the first years of life is particularly concerning. Researchers believe it can lead to learning and memory deficits. (7) A report published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discusses that even healthy young adults can have variations in brain structure integrity in correlation with variations in iron levels. (8)
4. Healthy Pregnancy
Pregnant women should consume more iron-rich foods than anyone else in their pregnancy diet since not only do they require iron, but they also need to meet the needs of the fetus and placenta. Pregnant women’s iron needs are around 27 milligrams daily, and this is often covered in a prenatal multivitamin. Pregnant women should also consider consuming more healthy fat and folate-rich foods during pregnancy.
According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency during a pregnancy can increase the risk of maternal and infant mortality, premature birth, and low birthweight. (9)
5. Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless leg syndrome is a condition characterized by uncomfortable feelings in your legs, giving you a strong urge to move them in order to find relief. It’s estimated that restless leg syndrome affects more than one in 10 American adults every year (around 12 million people). (10)
Low iron levels are known to play a role in the occurrence of restless leg syndrome. (11) If an underlying iron deficiency is at the root cause of your restless leg, consuming plenty of iron-rich foods along with those high in B vitamins, including folate, should offer you relief.
Iron-Rich Foods Precautions
It’s best to obtain iron from your diet by regularly consuming iron-rich foods. You should only supplement with iron if you’re deficient, and you should do so under the supervision of a health professional. The most common side effect of iron supplements include upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, constipation and heartburn.
If you suspect that you’re deficient in iron, a blood test can reveal your current iron levels.
Final Thoughts on Iron-Rich Foods
Although iron deficiency is extremely common, it’s thankfully also quite curable. The best way to avoid iron deficiency or recover from it is to make sure that you eat iron-rich foods on a daily basis. Sometimes iron supplements may be necessary, but upping your dietary intake of foods high in iron is a natural and safe way to improve your iron levels.
The best iron-rich foods include spirulina, liver, grass-fed beef, lentils, dark chocolate, spinach, sardines, black beans, pistachios and raisins. In addition to help prevent anemia and iron deficiency, benefits iron-rich foods include increased energy, muscle function and brain function. Iron is also vital for a healthy pregnancy and can help treat restless leg syndrome.
So if you aren’t eating many iron-rich foods, I encourage you to start today.
Read Next: 5 Steps to Treating Anemic Symptoms
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