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What Foods Are High in Iron?
Are you suffering from fatigue, having difficulty sleeping, or coming down with every little virus you come in contact with? Do you get a lot of headaches, become short of breath while exercising, or get head rushes when you stand up? Do you have brittle hair and nails, pale skin on the lining of your eyes and inner mouth, or a sore tongue?
All of these are symptoms of anemia, which is a very common nutritional deficiency. Not getting enough iron in your diet can make getting through the day quite a challenge (it means not enough oxygen is circulating in your blood!), but people often complain that taking an iron supplement can cause some unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects. The good news is that you can achieve optimal iron levels through your diet!
Foods With High Levels of Iron
The most iron-rich foods come from animal sources, specifically organ meats, wild game, and seafood that comes in a shell, like oysters, mussels, and clams. Other good animal sources of iron include:
- Canned sardines and anchovies
- Meats like pork, fish, or chicken have iron, but in lower amounts than red meats
- Eggs (less iron-rich than meats, but a good source, nonetheless)
Vegetarian Sources of Iron
There are numerous non-animal foods that are high in iron, but there is a catch - the iron isn't as easily accessible to the body. To be able to absorb more of the iron in vegetables, they either have to be consumed with one of the animal sources of iron or with a source of vitamin C.
So vegetarians, don't fret! Just add a spritz of lemon juice to that salad, or have a sliced tomato or an orange with your meal. Tomato sauce counts, too, so you can be sure you are absorbing the iron-rich beans in your chili and the spinach in your spaghetti.
Other vegetables that are high in vitamin C include peppers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli (also high in iron!), peas, sweet potatoes, and cauliflower.
Below are some of the most iron-rich vegetarian foods:
- Boiled Soybeans and Tofu
Read the nutritional information on the back of similar products. The cheapest option often has fewer nutrients. For instance, I always compare the iron, protein, and sodium content when purchasing beans. Often the cheaper can has less iron and protein, and a lot more sodium. As someone who is anemic, the difference is worth spending a few extra cents to get all the iron I can.
- Oat or wheat bran
- Whole wheat
- Numerous other grains, just in lower levels than the above: sorghum, Kamut, spelt, quinoa, barley, rye, buckwheat
Some foods must be prepared properly to ensure the nutrients, including iron, can be absorbed. Soaking helps to release phytase, an enzyme required to break down the phytic acid that is found in grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. This will also help with digestion.
- Pumpkin & squash seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Blackstrap molasses
Herbs Have Iron, Too!
Most people aren't aware that many herbs contain iron. I can't think of a better reason (besides flavor, of course) to stock your pantry with a selection of seasonings. Rosemary is great for seasoning poultry, curry powder can be mixed with coconut milk for a delicious Indian-inspired sauce, and cinnamon can be added to oatmeal- there are just so many possibilities. The following herbs are highest in iron:
- Curry Powder
- Garam Masala
Note: Avoid drinking coffee or tea with your meals. They inhibit iron absorption. The same goes for any herbal tea that includes polyphenols.
What Can You Include More Of?
As you can see, there are many food sources for getting more iron in your diet. Supplements are an option, too, if you don't have any side effects from it; and it seems that cooking with a cast iron pan will transfer some of the iron into the food as well. A lot of breakfast cereals and snack foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals, including iron, but I don't want to steer people toward those sources, because they aren't going to do anything else positive for your health. And finally, some of the foods listed above like caviar and nuts, though high in iron, should really be eaten in moderation.
- Tania Neubauer, ND, LMT, clinical herbalist
- McKinley Health Center
- Office of Dietary Supplements
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.