10 Healthy Foods That Are Great Sources of Iron
1 / 11 Iron Is Essential for Metabolism, Muscles, and Normal Bodily Functions
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 spinach 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.