High iron foods are good for a well-balanced diet. Iron is an essential mineral; this means your body cannot produce it on its own and you must consume it to use it. Luckily, there is a multitude of dietary options containing iron for meat-eaters or non-meat eaters alike.
Benefits Of Iron For Your Body
Iron plays multiple vital roles in the body to keep it functioning properly. Iron is vital for immune system function, brain function – specifically learning and memory – and, most prominently in the body, blood production (Growing Naturals).
The majority of iron is found in the hemoglobin and in the myoglobin. Hemoglobin is the part of the red blood cell that binds to oxygen and transports it throughout the body.
Myoglobin is the part of the muscle that accepts, stores, transports and releases oxygen (UCFS Health Org). If you are iron deficient, your hemoglobin and/or myoglobin will not function properly, which means you will not be able to use oxygen efficiently throughout the body.
16 Iron-Rich Foods
Beef will get you off to a fantastic start to reaching your daily iron intake, well, if you eat it for breakfast that is. If you are like most people and have beef for dinner, it will help you top off your iron goal for the day. Beef is a high iron food that is heme iron and will absorb more readily to hit your goal. With a multitude of ways to eat it (e.g. steak, hamburger, roast, etc.), beef is an option that never gets old.
Iron Content: 2.2 mg per 3 ounces serving.
Shrimp is an excellent source of iron, but breading and frying it does cut down on its content. Maybe grill it or add it to your pasta dish instead and get the full benefit of its high iron content.
Iron Content: 2.6 mg per 3 ounces serving.
The first of our non-heme iron sources, spinach, is a plant-based powerhouse. Even though you will not absorb as much of this iron as you would from beef or other animal meats, spinach is also high in vitamin C, which does increase the ability to absorb iron. Also, cooked spinach has a slightly higher iron content than raw spinach.
Iron Content: 2.7 mg per 100 grams of raw spinach; 3.6 mg per 100 grams of cooked spinach. Just over 3 cups of raw spinach and a half cup of cooked spinach each equal 100 grams.
4. Whole Wheat Bread
Although whole wheat bread doesn’t have a huge amount of iron, it is included because bread is widely consumed and has some to contribute to your daily intake.
In fact, make a sandwich and the bread alone has about 1.5 mg of iron. Hint: throw some spinach on your sandwich and get even more iron!
Iron Content: 0.7 mg per slice.
5. Enriched White Bread
Regular white bread does not have a significant source of iron; however, enriched white bread has added iron (and other nutrients) to help you get the amount you need.
Wheat bread has more iron than even enriched white bread, but there are a lot of picky children out there (I know I was!) who won’t touch wheat bread, so enriched white bread is an option if necessary.
Iron Content: 0.3 mg per slice.
Strawberries don’t just have iron but are also high in vitamin C to help absorb that iron. Because it is non-heme iron, that vitamin C is vital to make sure your body is getting enough usable iron in it. By the way, isn’t it great when some high iron foods taste great?
Iron Content: 0.4 mg per 100 grams.
All beans have different amounts of iron, but pretty much all beans are a great source of iron. There are some beans that have a very high amount of iron, such as natto beans and hyacinth beans; but many common types of beans have a good amount of iron as well, including black beans (1.81 mg), chickpeas (2.37 mg), kidney beans (1.96 mg), pinto beans (1.79 mg), refried beans (2.09 mg), and baked beans (1.51 mg).
Iron Content: 1mg to 7 mg per 100 grams; varies with a variety of beans.
Chicken and turkey don’t match the gold standard of heme iron in beef, but they do have an ample amount that will help you reach your iron goals. Most folks think red meat when thinking of high iron foods, but poultry can also help.
Iron Content: 1.4 grams per 3 ounces serving.
9. Potatoes, Potatoes, Potatoes
Red ones. Yellow ones. Brown ones. Orange ones. Potatoes are a good source of iron AND vitamin C to help absorb the iron. Potatoes are versatile as well; you can eat them roasted, baked, mashed, etc. and there are many different varieties to choose from so they don’t get boring.
Iron Content: 0.5 mg to 1.0 mg per 100 grams; varies with a variety of potato.
10. Dried Fruits
Some dried fruits have higher iron content because, during the drying process, some vitamins and minerals become more concentrated, leading to higher amounts per weight. The dried fruits high in iron are peaches, grapes (raisins), apricots, figs, and prunes.
Iron Content: 3-6 mg per 100 grams; varies with a variety of dried fruit.
Eggs aren’t going to drastically increase your daily intake of iron, but they do hold their own and will contribute to meeting your daily recommended intake. One of those high iron foods that people can add to their diets in many forms.
Iron Content: 0.6 to 0.9 mg per egg; varies with the cooking method.
Liver is somewhat of a power food in my opinion. Not only rich in iron, but in liver is also a slew of other vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, folate, and zinc.
Try to add liver to your diet once a week to reap the benefits of this fantastic food option. If you don’t like the taste of liver, try adding it so stews or soup to get the benefits, but mask the flavor. Pork liver leads the animals in iron content, but all animal livers are going to provide a good amount of iron.
Iron Content: 4.8 mg to 13.4 mg per 3 ounces serving; varies with animal liver.
Whether you eat fresh tuna or canned, both options are good sources of iron. Iron also has a plethora of other health benefits, including, but not limited to, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and potassium, and immune system smart manganese, zinc, vitamin C and selenium. Tuna is also high in B vitamins, which strengthen bones and improve skin health.
Iron Content: 0.9 mg to 1.9 mg per 3 ounces serving; varies with the type of tuna and preparation.
It feels like broccoli makes it onto every healthy food list, doesn’t it? Makes sense because broccoli is a superfood, with its high levels of vitamins and minerals. Iron is one of the many minerals it carries, having 1.1 mg per NLEA serving (which is the amount usually eaten in one sitting).
Iron Content: 0.7 mg per 100 grams.
Who would have thought watermelon, which seems just like sweet water, would have a significant amount of iron. Per 100 grams, watermelon does not compare with other foods on this list, but the typical serving of watermelon is almost three times of other foods, so the amount of iron is 0.7 mg per serving.
Iron Content: 0.2 mg per 100 grams.
16. Cast Iron Pan
No, don’t eat the pan to increase your iron intake (although that would be a lot of extra milligrams!), however, simply cooking with an iron pan can increase your iron intake. Your food absorbs iron directly from the pan; more acidic foods with high moisture will absorb the most iron.
Here’s one example: 100 grams of spaghetti sauce has been shown to increase from 0.6 mg to 5.7 mg of iron after cooking in cast iron (See Study). If you cook foods for longer and stir frequently, you can also increase the amount of iron absorbed into your food.
Iron and Exercise
There are essentially two types of exercise- aerobic and anaerobic. Anaerobic exercises are those that require more oxygen than the body can provide and are short in duration; typically, you cannot perform an anaerobic exercise for more than a minute or two.
Oxygen is needed to produce ATP (which is energy for muscles and other tissue)(Health Guidance); luckily, we have a supply, albeit a short supply, or other energy sources for high-intensity exercises. These exercises include weight lifting, sprints, jumping and other all-out bouts of exercise.
Aerobic exercises, on the other hand, are those that DO use oxygen to produce ATP and can be longer in duration. Jogging, cycling, cross-country skiing and other long-distance exercises are aerobic in nature. Other names for aerobic exercises are endurance, cardiovascular or cardio training.
If you are not getting enough iron, you are likely going to have problems transporting oxygen, meaning you will not be able to keep up with oxygen demands in the muscles and you will fatigue quickly, no matter how efficiently your heart and lungs are working. This is why iron consumption is vital to effective workouts.
Consuming and Absorbing Iron
Iron is a finicky nutrient, where your body only absorbs a small amount of what you actually consume and there are many factors that affect how much iron you absorb.
There are two different forms of iron in food: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animal meats and is more easily absorbed, at a rate of between 7 and 35 percent of what you consume.
Non-heme iron is found in plant-based, iron sources and the body absorbs between 2 and 20 percent of what you consume (Non-heme study). These ranges are quite large and can really affect the amount of iron you are actually absorbing.
So, even if you are diligent about getting the recommended amount of iron in your diet, you may have other factors determining the amount that actually gets stored.
Iron and Vitamin C
Vitamin C increases the rate of iron absorption (Parenting Science). So be sure to eat foods high in vitamin C (tomatoes, strawberries, citrus fruits). Luckily, there are some foods on our list that are high in both vitamin C and iron!
Hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder that affects the absorption of iron. You may be thinking this hinders your absorption, however, hemochromatosis INCREASES your rate of iron absorption by as much as 4 times.
Too much iron can also be a problem, as excess iron gets stored in the liver, pancreas, and heart, potentially causing other diseases (Mayo Clinic).
There are some substances that inhibit the absorption of iron. If you have hemochromatosis or eat a high amount of animal protein (paleo people, I am looking at you!) you will want to consume some of these to limit the amount of iron you absorb: eggs, calcium, zinc, magnesium, copper, tea, coffee, cocoa, and fiber. Be careful of eating these foods if you have low iron or do not eat animal meats (Parenting Science on iron absorption).
How Much Iron You Need
Iron recommendations vary by gender, age and “condition.” Refer to the following to see your recommended daily intake: Iron Health Fact Sheet.
The range of recommended iron intake is between 7 and 27 mg. However, because there are so many factors affecting iron intake, you need to be aware of how your diet and life affect your own iron absorption. km
Women are generally going to need a higher amount of iron, specifically, pregnant and menstruating women. Pregnant women need more to ensure a healthy fetus and menstruating women need more because iron is lost during each monthly cycle.
Those who do not eat animal meat are also going to need a higher intake of iron because non-heme iron does not absorb as readily as heme iron. The recommended amount of iron consumption for non-meat eaters is 1.8 times higher than those who do eat animal meats.
Can You Get Too Much Iron?
Eating too many high iron foods can be a problem. The upper daily limit recommended by the National Institute of Health is 40-45 mg. This is the amount that could lead to gastrointestinal problems such as stomach ache, nausea, constipation, and vomiting.
If you consume iron in the amount of the hundreds or thousands of mg per day, you can have serious, life-threatening conditions such as organ failure, coma or convulsions.
If you are trying to increase your iron intake and simultaneously start having new symptoms associated with too much iron, see your doctor.
Nolan McMonagle is a Physical and Health Educator, committed to guiding people towards healthy choices. He has a degree in B.S. Exercise Science.
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