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. Hemochromatosis is a disease in which too much iron builds up in the body, causing iron overload. How much iron we need depends on age and gender.

AgeMaleFemalePregnancyLactation
Birth to
6 months
0.27 mg*0.27 mg*
7 to 12
months
11 mg11 mg
1-3
years
7 mg7 mg
4-8
years
10 mg10 mg
9-13
years
8 mg8 mg
14-18
years
11 mg15 mg27 mg10 mg
19-50
years
8 mg18 mg27 mg9 mg
51+
years
8 mg8 mg

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

FoodAmountIron
Total™ Raisin Bran Cereal3/4 cup18
Cream of Wheat®,
instant, cooked
3/4 cup9
Clams, canned, drained
(heme)
1/4 cup8
Grits, instant1/2 cup7
Liver, beef, cooked
(heme)
3 1/2 oz7
Tofu, raw1/2 cup7
Lentils, boiled1/2 cup7
Oysters, raw
(heme)
65
Navy beans, cooked1 cup5
Molasses, blackstrap1 Tbsp4
Spinach, cooked1/2 cup3
Beef, sirloin
(heme)
3 1/2 oz4
Shrimp
(heme)
3 oz3
Green peas, frozen, boiled1 cup3
Vegetable or soy burger1 patty3
Soy milk1 cup3
Beef, ground, cooked
(heme)
3 1/2 oz2
Turkey, dark meat
(heme)
3 1/2 oz2
Turkey, light meat
(heme)
3 1/2 oz2
Pistachio nuts1 oz (47 nuts)2
Pork, tenderloin
(heme)
3 1/2 oz2
Prune juice1/2 cup2
Broccoli, boiled1 cup1
Tuna, light meat, canned
(heme)
3 oz1
Bread, white, enriched1.6 oz1
Potato, baked

1 medium (3 1/2 oz)

1
Sesame seeds2 Tbsp1
Haddock, cooked
(heme)
3 oz1
Raisins1/4 cup1
Dried apricots5 halves1
Chicken, breast
(heme)
3 oz1

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.

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.

Sample high-iron diet

Food item (Iron content in mg)

Breakfast

  • 3/4 cup iron-fortified cream of wheat (9.0 mg)
  • 4 oz orange juice (1.0 mg)
  • 8 oz skim milk (0.1 mg)

Lunch

  • 1 cup bean soup (2.0 mg)
  • 1/2 chicken breast (1.0 mg)
  • 2 slices enriched bread (3.0 mg)
  • 1/4 tomato, sliced (--)
  • 2 large leaves of lettuce (--)
  • 1 tsp mustard (--)
  • 1 cup fresh strawberries (0.6 mg)
  • 8 oz skim milk (0.1 mg)

Dinner

  • 5 oz lean roast beef (2.9 mg)
  • 1 medium baked potato (1.0 mg)
  • 1 tsp margarine (--)
  • 1 cup tossed spinach salad (2.0 mg)
  • 1 oz walnuts (1.0 mg)
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinaigrette (--)
  • 1/4 cup raisins (1.0 mg)
  • 5 dried apricot halves (1.0 mg)

Total iron content of menu (25.6 mg)

The iron content of margarine and balsamic vinaigrette is unknown.

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