Best Iron Rich Food List You Can Eat
Iron is a vital nutrient for everyone: The same mineral that’s used in metallurgy is crucial for good health, so much so that we can’t live without it.
While it is possible to take iron supplements, it’s also possible to get your daily dose from the foods you eat.
This list of iron-rich foods is for everyone – it includes choices for omnivores, pescatarians, and vegetarians as well as all the best vegan iron sources.
In all, you’ll find over 200 iron-rich foods listed.
Iron’s Role in a Healthy Diet
Why do we need iron, and what can happen to us if we don’t get the right amount?
According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health, iron’s main role is to ensure that all cells in the body get the oxygen they need.
The mineral is found in hemoglobin, which is a type of protein and a major component of red blood cells.
As you might remember from basic biology courses, these cells gather oxygen from your lungs as you breathe, after which they supply the rest of your cells with oxygen molecules.
When you don’t consume enough iron, you begin to suffer the effects of iron deficiency anemia, which begins with feelings of unexplainable fatigue. Other symptoms include:
- Decreased brain function that might show up as “brain fog” or trouble focusing
- Low attention span
- Learning problems in school-aged children
- Slow growth in children and infants
- Frequent headaches and/or migraines
- Feelings of dizziness
- Shortness of breath
- Unusually pale complexion
- Brittle nails
- Unexplained hair loss
- Cold hands and feet
- Pregnancy complications
- Pale gums
- Pale lips
- Pale or blueish whites of eyes
- Restless legs syndrome
- Twitching muscles
- Craving unusual foods
- Craving dirt, starch, or ice
- Low appetite, particularly in children and infants
- Mood swings
- Feelings of anxiety
- A sudden increase in menstrual flow in women
- Tongue changes including pale color, pain or tenderness, inflammation, and/or a smooth texture
One of the most troubling symptoms of iron deficiency is reduced immune function.
Equally worrisome is an irregular or accelerated heart rate, which happens due to long-term anemia.
If you have any heart problems, low iron can make them worse.
Be sure to see your doctor immediately if you suffer serious iron deficiency symptoms, as anemia can increase your risk of heart failure.
In serious cases of iron deficiency, the body can absorb too much lead, vital organs can stop functioning correctly, and death can occur.
Certain people are at a higher risk for anemia than others.
These include infants and children, women of childbearing age, frequent blood donors, people age 65 and older, and individuals who consume low-iron diets.
People who suffer from kidney disease or kidney failure are at an elevated risk too, particularly if they are dialysis patients.
Those who take blood thinners including heparin, aspirin, Coumadin®, and Plavix ® are also at a greater risk for developing anemia.
In most cases, symptoms are mild and easy to correct with changes to diet.
You might notice that spinach and swiss chard are missing from the iron-rich foods list. Although these plants are high in iron and great for you, they also contain a substance called oxalate, which binds iron and makes it harder for the body to absorb.
Factors that Affect Iron Absorption
It’s important to eat lots of iron-rich foods from this list, and it’s also important to understand that certain factors can affect the body’s ability to absorb the iron that you consume. Some things to keep in mind:
- Foods and beverages that are high in tannins can inhibit your ability to absorb iron from food. Avoid coffee, including decaf, as well as tea and wine for an hour before a meal containing iron and two hours after eating high-iron foods. Note that coffee, tea and wine can serve as important sources of antioxidants, and enjoy them between meals, or at meals where the emphasis isn’t on iron.
- According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, calcium can block iron absorption by as much as 50 percent. You can get around this by eating more iron-rich foods in combination with calcium-rich foods, and you can eat high-calcium foods at different times than you do iron-rich foods. Both nutrients are important; you shouldn’t skimp on either. Note that high-calcium antacids will block iron absorption too; try to take them separately if possible.
- Eggs do contain a little iron, but a substance called phosvitin binds the iron in the eggs, along with any other dietary iron consumed alongside them, and makes it unavailable for absorption. If you eat eggs, it’s a good idea to enjoy them at times when iron intake isn’t your main goal.
- Eating foods with vitamin C alongside non-heme iron (iron from non-meat sources) can increase absorption by as much as five times, so put an emphasis on combining iron-rich foods with those that also contain high levels of vitamin C, or enjoy more foods that contain both nutrients, including tomato sauce, dark leafy greens, and broccoli.
- Your body can only absorb a certain amount of iron at once, so spread your intake out over the day rather than consuming all of your iron rich foods at one sitting.
- If you take an iron supplement, you might want to use a pill splitter to break it in halves or quarters, and consume them with vitamin-C rich foods over the course of the day.
Be sure to see your doctor immediately if you suspect that you have an iron deficiency, particularly if you are suffering from serious symptoms.
Iron deficiency might be a sign of an underlying condition, and there are certain substances including medication, which can prevent the body from absorbing iron correctly.