What is iron?

Iron is a mineral that combines with protein to form hemoglobin, the red substance in blood that carries oxygen to the body’s cells. Iron helps prevent nutritional anemia and increase resistance to infection.

Children

  • 7-12 months: 11 mg/day
  • 1-3 years: 7 mg/day
  • 4-8 years: 10 mg/day
  • 9-13 years: 8 mg/day

Men

  • 14-18 years: 11 mg/day
  • 19+ years: 8 mg/day

Women

  • 14-18 years: 15 mg/day
  • 19-50 years: 18 mg/day
  • 51+ years: 8 mg/day
  • Pregnant: 27 mg/day
  • Lactating:
  • 18 years: 10 mg/day
  • 19-50 years: 9 mg/day

Which foods contain iron?

There are two forms of iron found in foods: heme and nonheme. Iron from heme food sources is better absorbed into the body than nonheme sources. Heme iron is found in animal foods that contain hemoglobin. Heme food sources of iron include red meats, poultry, and fish.

Plant foods contain the nonheme iron, which is not as well absorbed. Most sources of dietary iron are in the nonheme form. Good food sources of nonheme iron include fortified cereals, beans, lentils, tofu, spinach, dried fruits (apricots, prunes, raisins), prune juice, enriched breads, broccoli, and nuts.

What is the role of Vitamin C?

To increase absorption of iron in foods of plant origin, include vitamin C-rich foods such as:

  • citrus fruits and juices
  • broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage
  • tomatoes and peppers
  • baked potatoes
  • melon, berries and kiwi

If you take medication and eat grapefruit or drink grapefruit juice, check with your pharmacist about possible food-drug interactions.

Should I take an iron supplement?

Your doctor or registered dietitian may recommend an iron supplement. A commonly reported side effect when taking iron supplements is constipation. Increasing fiber in the diet (whole grain breads, cereals, fruits, and vegetables), increasing your fluid intake, and moderately increasing exercise will all help to relieve constipation. Do not take iron and calcium supplements together. Men usually do not need an iron supplement.

Sample High-Iron Menu

Breakfast

  • ¾ cup iron-fortified cream of wheat
    • Iron (mg): 9.0
  • 4 oz. orange juice
    • Iron (mg): 1.0
  • 8 oz. skim milk
    • Iron (mg): 0.1

Lunch

  • 1 cup bean soup
    • Iron (mg): 2.0
  • ½ chicken breast
    • Iron (mg): 1.0
  • 2 slices enriched bread
    • Iron (mg): 3.0
  • ¼ tomato sliced
    • Iron (mg): 0.6
  • 2 large leaves of lettuce --
  • 1 tsp mustard --
  • 1 cup fresh strawberries
    • Iron (mg): 0.6
  • 8 oz. skim milk
    • Iron (mg): --

Dinner

  • 5 oz. lean roast beef
    • Iron (mg): 2.0
  • 1 medium baked potato
    • Iron (mg): 1.0
  • 1 tsp margarine --
  • 1 cup tossed spinach salad
    • Iron (mg): 2.0
  • 1 oz. walnuts
    • Iron (mg): 1.0
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinaigrette
    • Iron (mg): --
  • 5 dried apricot halves
    • Iron (mg): 1.0

Total Iron: 25.6

Iron Content of Selected Foods

  • Total Raisin Bran® cereal, ¾ cup
    • Iron (mg): 18
  • Cream of Wheat®, Instant, cooked ¾ cup
    • Iron (mg): 9
  • Clams, canned, drained, ¼ cup (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 8
  • Grits, instant, ½ cup
    • Iron (mg): 7.1
  • Liver, beef, cooked 3 ½ oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 7
  • Tofu, raw ½ cup
    • Iron (mg): 7
  • Lentils, boiled 1 cup
    • Iron (mg): 7
  • Oysters, raw 6 (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 5
  • Navy beans, cooked 1 cup
    • Iron (mg): 5
  • Molasses, blackstrap 1 tbsp.
    • Iron (mg): 4
  • Spinach, cooked ½ cup
    • Iron (mg): 3
  • Beef, sirloin 3 ½ oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 4
  • Shrimp 3 oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 3
  • Green peas, frozen, boiled 1 cup
    • Iron (mg): 3
  • Vegetable or soy burger 1 patty
    • Iron (mg): 2.9
  • Soy milk 1 cup
    • Iron (mg): 2.7
  • Beef, ground, cooked* 3 ½ oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 2
  • Turkey, dark meat 3 ½ oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 2
  • Turkey, light meat 3 ½ oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 2
  • Pistachio nuts 1 oz. (47 nuts)
    • Iron (mg): 2
  • Pork tenderloin 3.5 oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 2
  • Prune juice ½ cup
    • Iron (mg): 2
  • Broccoli, boiled 1 cup
    • Iron (mg): 1
  • Tuna, light meat, canned 3 oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 1
  • White bread, enriched 1.6 oz.
    • Iron (mg): 1
  • Potato, baked 1 med (3 ½ oz.)
    • Iron (mg): 1
  • Sesame seeds 2 tbsp.
    • Iron (mg): 1
  • Haddock, cooked 3 oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 1
  • Raisins ¼ cup
    • Iron (mg): 1
  • Dried apricots 5 halves
    • Iron (mg): 1
  • Chicken breast 3 oz. (heme)
    • Iron (mg): 1

*Choose the leanest cuts of meats, such as tenderloin, sirloin, beef round, and reduced fat ground meat.

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