Health Library

Good Food Sources of Iron

Image for iron 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.

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/

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