Are you getting enough iron daily?
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The chances are that most of us probably aren’t. Our bodies need iron to grow and develop. Iron can also help prevent anemia and protect our bodies from infection.
If you haven’t been chowing down on iron-rich foods, there are some easy ways to incorporate this nutritional powerhouse into your diet.
Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, explains which iron-rich foods you should eat and how much iron you need daily.
Types of iron found in food
There are two main types of iron — heme and non-heme iron.
- Heme iron. This type of iron comes from hemoglobin. “Heme is better absorbed by the body and is commonly found in liver, meat, poultry and seafood,” says Zumpano.
- Non-heme iron. “Non-heme iron is commonly found in legumes (beans), nuts, seeds and certain vegetables like spinach and potatoes,” she continues. You can also get iron through fortified sources such as tofu, grains, bread and cereal.
“Iron is a vital component of hemoglobin, which makes it an important mineral that our bodies need in order to carry oxygen so that our cells can produce energy,” explains Zumpano. “If we don’t have enough iron, we will not have enough red blood cells to transport oxygen. This leads to extreme fatigue and lightheadedness.”
Iron is also essential for brain development and growth, and the production of many other cells and hormones in your body.
“Without adequate iron stores, individuals can develop a condition called iron-deficiency anemia — the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide,” she adds. “It’s associated with symptoms like fatigue, weakness, trouble maintaining body heat, pale skin, dizziness, headache, and an inflamed tongue.”
Foods rich in heme iron
There are plenty of foods high in iron. You’ll find heme iron in the following types of food:
“Aim to include a source of protein with each meal, which can help you meet your daily iron needs,” Zumpano suggests.
Foods rich in non-heme iron
Still want some more foods with iron? The following iron-rich foods list includes non-heme iron options.
Iron-rich legumes include:
- Dried or canned peas and beans (kidney, garbanzo, cannellini and soybeans).
- Tempeh (fermented soybeans).
Iron-rich bread and cereal include:
- Enriched white bread.
- Enriched pasta.
- Wheat products.
- Bran cereals.
- Oat cereals.
- Cream of Wheat™.
- Rye bread.
- Enriched rice.
- Whole-wheat bread.
Iron-rich fruits include:
- Prunes and prune juice.
Iron-rich vegetables include:
- String beans.
- Dark leafy greens, like dandelion, collard, kale and spinach.
- Cabbage and Brussels sprouts.
- Tomato paste.
Other foods rich in iron include:
- Blackstrap molasses.
- Pumpkin seeds.
- Sesame seeds.
- Flax seeds.
- Pine nuts.
- Macadamia nuts.
- Hemp seeds.
“If you choose not to consume meat and fish, then be sure to include plant-based sources of protein such as legumes (dried beans, lentils and split peas), nuts, seeds and tofu with each meal,” advises Zumpano. “Be sure to pair non-heme iron foods with vitamin C to increase the absorption of iron. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits (lemon, lime, orange, kiwi and grapefruit), strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli and spinach.”
How much iron you need
According to Zumpano, the daily recommended amount of iron for adults ages 19 to 50 is:
- 18 milligrams (mg) a day for women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB).
- 27 mg a day for pregnant people.
- 9 mg a day for lactating people.
- 8 mg a day for men and people assigned male at birth.
In general, you also tend to need more iron to make up for what is lost during menstrual cycles. Women and people AFAB and are 51 and older should aim for 8 mg of iron daily.
For children, the recommended amount of iron can vary based on age:
|7–12 months||11 mg|
|1–3 years||7 mg|
|4–8 years||10 mg|
|9–13 years||8 mg|
|14–18 years||11 mg for males|
15 mg for females
While these are general guidelines, Zumpano advises getting a personalized recommendation from a doctor, and a formal diagnosis if you suspect you’re low on iron.
“Your daily iron needs can be obtained through your diet, although if you have low blood iron levels or have difficulty absorbing iron, you may need a supplement,” notes Zumpano. “Talk to your healthcare provider if you feel that you could benefit from supplemental iron.”