10 Healthy foods that are rich in iron

Are you getting enough iron every day? If not, you should, as our bodies need it to function well.

Iron is an essential mineral that helps keep the blood healthy to be able to carry oxygen around the body properly. It is needed to release healthy red blood cells and for proper hemoglobin function.

Chowing down iron-rich foods is the best way to have this nutritional powerhouse in your diet. Check out the following ten healthy foods that are rich in iron. 

Why is iron essential for your body?

Iron is an essential mineral that plays a pivotal role in maintaining overall health and well-being. Its importance stems from its involvement in several vital functions within the body:

Oxygen transport

Iron is a key component of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells responsible for binding to oxygen in the lungs and carrying it to tissues and organs.

Energy production

Iron is a crucial component of enzymes involved in energy metabolism. It helps convert nutrients from food into energy that your cells can use for various functions, including physical activity and mental alertness.

Immune function

Iron is essential for a well-functioning immune system. It supports the production of white blood cells, which play a critical role in defending the body against infections and illnesses.

Brain development

Iron is particularly important for infants and young children, as it supports brain development and cognitive function.

Healthy skin and hair

Iron is necessary for maintaining healthy skin, hair, and nails. Iron deficiency can manifest as pale skin and brittle nails.

Regulation of body temperature

Iron contributes to the body’s ability to regulate temperature, helping you stay warm in cold environments.

Detoxification

Iron is involved in the removal of toxins and waste products from the body, contributing to overall detoxification processes.

Maintaining an adequate iron intake through a balanced diet is essential to support these functions and promote overall health and vitality.

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What foods are rich in iron?

1. Spinach

Popeye loves spinach for a reason! Spinach is a nutritious leafy green that is beneficial for the skin, hair and bone health with its jam packed vitamin and mineral contents.

Eating spinach on a regular basis can improve blood glucose control in people with diabetes, lower the risk of cancer and enhance bone health.

In fact, a 100-gram spinach has over 28.1 mg of vitamin C, which is around 34 percent of a person’s everyday recommended amount [1].

Spinach also contains potassium, vitamin E, magnesium and, of course, iron. Generally, spinach contains 2.7 mg of iron which is about 15 percent of the recommended daily value for an individual.

The iron content in spinach is non-heme iron, a form of iron that is not generally observed well by the body.

Luckily, spinach is also rich in vitamin C, which significantly boosts iron absorption; hence, spinach is still a perfect source of iron.

2. Shellfish

Shellfish belongs at the top of the list among the tastiest and most nutritious kinds of seafood.

One of the many benefits of shellfish is its benefits to heart health, specifically in lessening HDL cholesterol in your blood. 

All types of shellfish are rich in iron, particularly clams, oysters and mussels. Numerically speaking, 100-gram clams may have at least 3 mg of iron, which is 17 percent of the recommended daily value [2].

Clams also provide other nutrients such as protein (around 24 grams), vitamin C (24 percent of the daily recommended amount) and vitamin B12 (4,125 percent of daily value). 

You better take note though, that clams’ iron content may vary depending on their species, as some may contain lower amounts.

The good thing is that the form of iron in clams is heme iron, which the body can easily absorb [3]. 

3. Legumes

Legumes, like beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and soybeans, are high in various nutrients, especially iron.

For instance, one cup of cooked lentils has 6.6 mg of iron, which is 37 percent of the daily value [4]. 

Meanwhile, different types of beans, such as black beans, navy beans and kidney beans, can help in easily bumping up your iron levels.

A half-cup of cooked black beans with 86 grams contains about 1.8 grams of iron, which is 10 percent of the daily value [5]. 

Aside from iron, legumes also contain folate, magnesium and potassium. With all these vitamins and nutrients, legumes are found to be helpful in reducing inflammation in people with diabetes and decreasing heart disease risk for people with existing metabolic syndrome. 

legumes

4. Red meat

Red meat is one of the good sources of iron, especially beef which can provide about 2.7 mg of iron for every 100 grams.

It is also a great source of other nutrients, such as protein, zinc, selenium and several B vitamins. You can acquire heme iron from eating red meat, which can help decrease your risk of many deficiencies, including anemia. 

A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests that women should eat meat after doing aerobic exercises to retain iron much better, compared with simply taking supplements [6].

In another study, researchers discover that having iron deficiency is prone to people who don’t normally eat fish, poultry and meat in their regular diet [7]. 

5. Dark chocolate

Sweet and delicious while still a healthy snack? Dark chocolate must be what we are talking about! One serving of dark chocolate can account for over 19 percent of the daily iron requirement.

Particularly, a 1-ounce or 28-gram serving of dark chocolate contains about 3.4 mg of iron, while you can also get other essential nutrients, such as magnesium, copper and prebiotic fiber. 

Dark chocolate is also high in antioxidant content that basically serves as a safeguard for your cells against free radicals.

You only need to ensure that the dark chocolate you will eat has over 60 percent of cacao in order to get much more health benefits. A compound in dark chocolate called flavonoid primarily functions for all its positive health benefits. 

Research suggests that cocoa powder and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity compared with powders and juices with flavors of acai berries and blueberries [8]. 

6. Broccoli

Broccoli is a nutritious vegetable that is rich in fiber, vitamins C, vitamin K and iron. A one-cup serving of cooked broccoli has about one mg of iron, which is six percent of the required daily intake. Though it may not be that high in iron content, broccoli is still a fairly good source of the mineral.

Moreover, one serving of broccoli contains 112 percent of the required daily value of vitamin C, which can help your body absorb iron much better. With the same serving size, broccoli also provides folate and five grams of fiber and vitamin K. 

Broccoli belongs to the cruciferous vegetable family, where cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and cabbage are included as well.

Cruciferous vegetables generally have indole, sulforaphane and glucosinolates–plant compounds that are known to protect against cancer [9]. 

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7. Dark leafy greens

Aside from spinach, other dark leafy greens are rich in iron, such as beet greens, collard, swiss chard and kale.

For every serving of dark leafy greens, you can acquire anywhere between 2.5 to 6.4 mg of iron, which is about 14 percent to 36 percent of your daily value requirement. 

For you to better reap dark leafy greens’ iron content, complement them with a healthy fat like olive oil to allow your body to absorb carotenoids.

Also, you should eat dark leafy greens cooked rather than raw, as they contain more iron when heated. 

For example, cooked swiss chard has over 3.95 mg per cup, while cooked beet greens have 2.74 mg of iron per cup. Collard greens, kale and turnip greens, when all cooked, are also great sources of iron. 

8. Tofu

Tofu proves its worth once again! It can give you around 2.15 mg of iron per a quarter-block of serving, while a half-cup serving with 126 grams of tofu provides 3.4 mg of iron, which is 19 percent of the daily recommended value [10].

Aside from being a great source of iron, tofu has many other nutrients to offer, such as thiamine and several minerals, including calcium, magnesium and selenium. Additionally, tofu is the best alternative source of protein, providing 22 grams per serving.

Furthermore, tofu contains unique compounds called isoflavones, which have been associated with a lowered risk of heart disease, improved insulin sensitivity and relief from menopausal symptoms. 

Tofu is a soy-based product that is popular among vegetarians and healthy dieters in some Asian countries. There are many kinds of tofu suitable for your daily diet, like silken tofu and extra firm tofu.

9. Whole grains

Whole grains, like quinoa, oatmeal, barley, rice, bulgur, buckwheat and millet, are all good plant-based iron sources. 

For example, quinoa has over 2.76 mg of iron for a one-cup serving, which is equal to 16 percent of your daily needs. Not to mention, quinoa is gluten-free, which is another reason to love this whole grain!

On the other hand, one serving of oats can give you 3.4 mg of iron nutrients, which is about 19 percent of the daily requirement.

Adding whole grains to your daily diet can provide a variety of nutrients as well. Whole grains contain minerals, complex carbohydrates, protein and vitamins, particularly folate, magnesium, fiber, zinc and protein.

Whole grains can provide a wide range of health benefits, such as the reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. 

whole grains

10. Seeds

Seeds are another versatile and tasty source of plant-based iron, specifically pumpkin, squash and sesame. 

Sesame seeds contain 1.31 mg of iron for every tablespoon while a whole cup of this plant-based iron provides a whopping 20.95 mg.

Meanwhile, a 28-gram serving of pumpkin and squash seeds provides about 2.5 mg of iron, which is 14 percent of the recommended daily value–all while being a great portable snack!

How much iron should I take per day?

Determining the right amount of iron your body needs daily is essential to maintain good health. Iron requirements can vary based on age, gender, and life stage. Here’s a general guideline:

  • For adult men: The recommended daily intake of iron for adult men is approximately 8 milligrams (mg).
  • For adult women: Adult women of childbearing age typically need more iron, around 18 mg per day, due to losses during menstruation.
  • During pregnancy: Pregnant women have increased iron needs to support both their own health and the growing baby. The recommended daily intake during pregnancy is about 27 mg.

It’s important to note that individual iron requirements may vary based on factors like activity level, overall health, and dietary choices.

Consulting with a healthcare professional can provide personalized guidance on your specific iron needs.

Balancing your iron intake is crucial. Consuming too little iron can lead to iron deficiency [12], while excessive iron intake can have adverse health effects.

Takeaway

Keeping your iron levels stable by eating the best food sources can help you age better and live longer.

Research suggests that certain gene sets linked to iron can potentially lengthen lifespan, health span and longevity [11]. 

Aside from its anti-aging properties, you can also gain other health benefits, including improving the immune system, minimizing bruising, boosting athletic performance, enhancing cognition and improving skin and hair appearance. 

FAQs

What is a good amount of iron to take daily? 

The recommended daily intake of iron varies depending on age, gender, and life stage. For adult men, it’s around 8 milligrams (mg), while adult women of childbearing age need approximately 18 mg per day. Pregnant women have higher iron requirements, about 27 mg per day.

Which fruit is rich in iron?

One fruit that is relatively rich in iron is dried apricots. They contain a moderate amount of non-heme iron, making them a good choice to help boost your iron intake when included as part of a balanced diet.

What are the signs of being low on iron?

Iron deficiency can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, pale skin, shortness of breath, and difficulty concentrating.

Is it better to take iron supplements or iron from food?

Iron supplements may be recommended by a healthcare professional if you have a diagnosed iron deficiency or anemia. However, it’s generally best to aim for iron from dietary sources whenever possible.

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[1] https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/
[2] https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/171975/nutrients 
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2349916
[4] https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/172421/nutrients
[5] https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173735/nutrients
[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1442656/
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26891320 
[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21299842 
[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12094621 
[10] https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/172475/nutrients 
[11] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200716101548.htm 
[12] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355034

Photograph: vadymvdrobot/Envato
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