If you’ve been told you’re not getting enough iron in your diet, you are not alone. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency globally — especially among children and pregnant women — and the only nutrient deficiency that is widely prevalent in developed countries, according to the World Health Organization. And that’s a big problem because the mineral plays a number of really important roles in our bodies’ daily functioning.
Iron gets used by the body to help make the hemoglobin in red blood cells, which then carry oxygen throughout the body, from our lungs to our muscles and other organs. Blood cells also use hemoglobin to help carry carbon dioxide from other parts of the body to the lungs, where we exhale it out of the body. Plus, the body needs iron to make some hormones and connective tissue.
It’s not a nutrient that you want to be lacking in. Not getting enough iron, a condition termed iron deficiency anemia (or just anemia), makes it difficult for your blood cells to deliver the oxygen your tissues and organs need. Symptoms you’ll notice can include feeling tired or not having any energy, having an upset stomach, finding it difficult to concentrate or remember things, having trouble keeping your body temperature regulated, or easily catching infections or getting sick.
So how much should you be getting? Women between 19 and 50 should be getting 18 milligrams (mg) of iron per day — and a whopping 27 mg if they’re pregnant. (The amount of blood in your body increases when you’re pregnant because you are delivering oxygen to the baby’s organs as well as your own; that requires more iron.) Women over 50 need less iron — only 8 mg per day — since women need less iron after they stop menstruating. Men age 19 and older need 8 mg of iron every day. And kids and babies need between 7 and 15 mg per day, depending on their age, according to recommendations from the National Institutes of Health. (Note: You can get too much iron. Don’t exceed 45 mg per day for teens and adults and 40 mg per day for children 13 and younger.)
The good news is that a lot of common foods are high in iron — from chocolate and pumpkin seeds to fortified cereals and red meat.
“There are two types of iron: heme iron from animal sources and non-heme iron from plant sources,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, author of Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family and a nutrition counselor in private practice in Brooklyn, New York. Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body than plant-based non-heme iron, so it’s important to get both types of the nutrient in your diet, she adds. You’ll need to aim for nearly twice as much iron per day if you’re relying on plant sources alone. Here are 10 foods high in iron that can help you get all of the mineral you need.
Eggs, Red Meat, Liver, and Giblets Are Top Sources of Heme Iron
a bowl of eggs
Lots of animal proteins have heme iron, including egg yolks (1 mg in two large egg yolks), red meat (2 to 3 mg per 3 ounces), poultry (2 mg per 3 ounces of dark-meat turkey), and pork (0.5 to 1 mg per 3 ounces).
Organ meats like liver and giblets are especially rich in iron. Supplying more than a quarter of the daily requirement for an adult woman, beef liver “is incredibly high in iron at 5 mg per 3-ounce slice,” notes Largeman-Roth. Pork liver is an even smarter option, as it’s slightly leaner and has higher levels of both iron (a whopping 15 mg per 3-ounce serving) and vitamin C. Just be sure you’re eating liver in moderation because its high vitamin A level may put you over the recommended limit if you eat too much; pregnant women should avoid liver all together because of its vitamin A, which has been associated with birth defects. Finally, liver is also high in cholesterol for those watching.
Oysters, Mussels, and Clams Are Rich Sources of Iron
Go ahead and splurge on the seafood appetizer — it comes with a generous side of iron! Bivalve mollusks like clams, mussels, and oysters are loaded with the important nutrient (plus zinc and vitamin B12). Five medium oysters deliver more than 3 mg of iron. Make your own at home with this supersimple 15-minute recipe.
If oysters, mussels, and clams aren’t on your regular menu, common fin fish — like haddock, salmon, and tuna — have some iron, though not as much as mollusks.
Chickpeas Are a Vegetarian-Friendly Iron Powerhouse
These legumes provide your body with almost 5 mg of iron per cup, plus a hearty dose of protein, making them a smart option for vegetarians. Chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans) are a tasty addition to salads and pasta dishes and can be an unexpected way to mix up salsa. If you’re not a fan of the texture, puree chickpeas to create homemade iron-rich hummus! Adding lemon juice to your hummus will increase the vitamin C in the snack and help your body more easily absorb the non-heme iron in the legumes.
Fortified Breakfast Cereals Can Be Packed With Iron
Is a bowl of cereal your breakfast of choice? Opt for a fortified version to start off your day with a dose of iron. Check the nutrition label for the amount of iron per serving: Many varieties offer 90 to 100 percent of the daily recommended value, along with other important vitamins and minerals, such as fiber, zinc, calcium, and B vitamins.
Pumpkin Seeds May Be Small, But They Have Lots of Iron
Don’t underestimate these crunchy seeds. A 1/4-cup serving of pumpkin seed kernels contains more than 2 mg of iron, providing an easy iron boost to a variety of dishes. Add the seeds to homemade trail mix or bread or muffin recipes, or use them as a crunchy yogurt, cereal, or salad topping. Or try them alone for a quick and healthy snack. (That 1/4 cup of seeds also packs nearly 10 grams of hunger-squelching protein.)
Soybeans Are Filled With Iron and Other Essential Nutrients, Too
A cup of these legumes contains more than 4 mg of iron, plus they’re an excellent source of important minerals like copper, which helps keep our blood vessels and immune system healthy, and manganese, an essential nutrient involved in many chemical processes in the body. In addition, soybeans (also called edamame) are high in protein and fiber as well as many vitamins and amino acids. Largeman-Roth recommends including soybeans in stir-fries or making an edamame dip. Soy beans also make a tasty addition to pasta dishes, like this Edamame Lo Mein, or just enjoy them on their own, simply sprinkled with a little sea salt.
Prepare Black Beans With Vitamin-C-Rich Veggies for an Iron Win
Black beans serve up 4 mg of iron per cup. Looking for ways to incorporate beans into meals? Pair them with foods like kale, bell pepper, broccoli, and cauliflower, which are all high in vitamin C, a nutrient that helps with the absorption of non-heme iron in the body, says Largeman-Roth. Add beans to a salad, puree them into a dip to eat with raw veggies, or toss them into a stir-fry. The recipe possibilities for a can of black beans are endless! And if you’re looking for more variety, kidney, pinto, and fava beans all have iron, too.
Lentils Are Another Legume With Lots of Iron
Another legume worth an honorable mention in the iron department is lentils. Cooked lentils offer more than 6 mg of the mineral per cup and are loaded with fiber that fills you up, may help lower cholesterol, and may help stabilize your blood sugar. Lentils are also an extremely versatile ingredient in the kitchen — they’re a great addition to everything from soups and salads to burgers and chili.
Spinach (Bonus: Cook It to Get an Even Higher Dose of Iron)
Both raw and cooked spinach are excellent sources of iron, though cooking spinach helps your body absorb its nutrients more easily. Just 1 cup of cooked spinach delivers more than 6 mg of iron as well as protein, fiber, calcium, and vitamins A and E. While the leafy green often gets a bad rap in the taste department, especially among kids, it’s an easy ingredient to sneak into recipes undetected for a secret iron-boost (and as a non-heme iron source, it’s especially beneficial when paired with foods high in vitamin C, like some veggies). “I love using sautéed spinach in vegetable lasagna,” says Largeman-Roth. “It also works well in mini frittatas, which my kids love.”
Sesame Seeds Taste Nutty — and Have a Kick of Iron
“Sesame seeds have a wonderful nutty taste and are a rich source of iron,” says Largeman-Roth. The seeds, which contain 20 mg of iron per cup, are packed with a slew of essential nutrients, like copper, and they contain phosphorus, vitamin E, and zinc as well. An easy way to incorporate the seeds into your diet is to add them to a salad: Each tablespoon sprinkled on top will add over a milligram of iron to your daily count. Or get creative and give Largeman-Roth’s Ultimate Power Ball recipe a try for a sweet, iron-packed snack.