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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.

Here's Why:

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, which is the major protein that makes up connective tissue, cartilage, and bone. Other medical conditions may be worsened if you do not have enough iron.

Recommended Intake:
Age GroupRDA (mg/day)
MaleFemale
0-6 months No RDA;
AI = 0.27
No RDA;
AI = 0.27
7-12 months1111
1-3 years77
4-8 years1010
9-13 years88
14-18 years1115
19-50 years818
51+ years88
Pregnancyn/a27
Lactation, < 18 yearsn/a10
Lactation, 19-50 yearsn/a9
Here's How:

Iron exists in two 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)

FoodServing size Iron content
(mg)
Chicken liver, cooked3-½ ounces11
Oysters, breaded and fried3 ounces5.7
Beef, chuck, lean only, braised3 ounces3.1
Beef, top sirloin, lean only, broiled3 ounces1.6
Beef liver3 ounces5.2
Turkey, dark meat, roasted3 ounces2.0
Beef, ground, 85% lean3 ounces2.2
Turkey, light meat, roasted3 ounces1.1
Chicken, dark meat only, roasted3 ounces1.1
Tuna, fresh yellowfin, cooked, dry heat3 ounces1.1
Chicken, breast, roasted3 ounces0.8
Halibut, cooked, dry heat3 ounces0.2
Crab, Alaskan king, cooked, moist heat3 ounces0.8
Pork, loin, broiled3 ounces0.7
Tuna, white, canned in water3 ounces1.3
Shrimp, mixed species, cooked, moist heat4 large0.3

Food Sources of Nonheme Iron

FoodServing size Iron content
(mg)
Breakfast cereal, 100% iron fortified¾ cup18
Breakfast cereal, 25% iron fortified¾ cup4.5
Soybean nuts, boiled1 cup8.8
Molasses1 tablespoon0.9
Spinach, canned½ cup3.2
Spinach, fresh, boiled1/2 cup3.2
Red kidney beans, boiled1 cup5.2
Lima beans, cooked1 cup4.5
Blackeye peas, boiled1 cup4.3
Navy beans, boiled1 cup4.3
Black beans, boiled1 cup3.6
Raisins, seedless½ cup1.6
Pinto beans, boiled1 cup3.6
Whole-wheat bread1 slice0.7
Tofu, raw, firm½ cup3.4
White bread, made with enriched flour1 slice0.7
Spinach, frozen, boiled½ cup1.9
Grits, white, enriched1 cup1.5
Lentils, boiled1 cup6.6
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.
  • Some substances decrease the absorption of nonheme iron. (Consuming heme iron and/or vitamin C 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
    • Papayas
    • Oranges and orange juice
    • Broccoli
    • Strawberries
    • Grapefruit
    • Cantaloupe
    • Tomatoes and tomato juice
    • Potatoes
    • Cabbage
    • 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.

RESOURCES:

American Dietetic Association
http://www.eatright.org/

The Vegetarian Resource Group
http://www.vrg.org/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Dietitians of Canada
http://www.dietitians.ca/

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/

References:

The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food & Nutrition Guide . Chronimed Publishing; 1998.

Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used . 17th ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1998.

Dietary supplement fact sheet: iron. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/. Updated August 24, 2010. Accessed July 11, 2012.

Iron and iron deficiency. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/vitamins/iron.html#Iron Sources. Updated February 23, 2011. Accessed July 11, 2012.

Perspectives in Nutrition . 2nd ed. Mosby-Year Book, Inc.; 1993



Last reviewed July 2012 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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