Iron in the Diet

What is the role of Iron in the body?

One of the main roles of iron is to carry oxygen to the blood.  When you don’t get enough iron in the diet, it can lead to iron deficiency anemia.  Symptoms of this condition include low energy levels, headaches, irritability, shortness of breath and weight loss.

How much Iron do I need?

Iron requirements change with age and are different for males and females.  The recommendations are as follows:

Age Men Women
9-13 years 8 mg/day 8 mg/day
14-18 year 11 mg/day 15 mg/day
19-50 years 8 mg/day 18 mg/day
50 and older 8 mg/day 8 mg/day

Some groups of people may have higher requirements, which put them at greater risk of iron deficiency anemia.  These groups include:

  • People who have lost a lot of blood
    • Women with heavy periods
    • Those who donate blood often
    • People who have lost a lot of blood with surgery or an accident
  • Pregnant women and those who just had a baby
  • Strict vegetarians
  • Long-distance runners
  • People who have problems absorbing nutrients

What are good sources of Iron in the diet?

Iron is found in many animal products as well as several plant products.  The iron in animal products (heme iron) is more absorbable than that from plant sources (nonheme iron). However, you can improve the absorbability iron from vegetables by adding some meat or fish to the meal.  The following are some of the best sources of iron in the diet:

  • Animal Products- All animal products are good sources of iron, but the following contain the highest levels:
    • Lean Red Meat
    • Poultry (Dark Meat)
    • Egg Yolks
    • Salmon and Tuna
    • Oysters and Clams
    • Liver
  • Grains
    • Whole-grains
    • Iron-Fortified Cereals and Enriched Grains
  • Legumes
    • Lentils
    • Peas
    • Beans: Garbanzo, Kidney, Lima, Navy, Pinto, White and Soybeans.
  • Vegetables
    • Spinach
    • Turnip Greens
    • Beets
    • Baked Potato w/ skin
    • Mushrooms
    • Kale
  • Fruits
    • Dried Prunes & Prune Juice
    • Raisins
    • Figs
    • Apricots
  • Seeds and Nuts
    • Pumpkin Seeds

Tips to increase iron absorption:

Eating foods that contain Vitamin C helps to increase the absorption of iron.  Fruits and vegetables like citrus fruits, melons, kiwifruit, strawberries, green leafy vegetables, broccoli and green/red peppers are good sources of vitamin C.  The following are some examples of combinations to maximize iron absorption:

  • Putting meat in spaghetti sauce
  • Having a spinach salad along with a meat entrée
  • Try vegetarian chili that includes beans and stewed tomatoes
  • Include an orange along with whole grain bread and peanut butter

Cooking food in a cast iron skillet or taking a multivitamin with iron can help to meet your needs.  It is also good to avoid coffee and tea with meals as they decrease iron absorption.