Iron Foods Can Energize Your Body

By , SparkPeople Blogger

Minerals work throughout the body to regulate processes and provide structure. Iron while an essential trace mineral, is not widely talked about. Because it can frequently be low and zap your energy, let's take a closer look at this essential nutrient.

What is it?

Iron is an abundant metal necessary to help carry oxygen to all parts of the body as part of blood cells. It is also essential for cell growth regulation and mediation. Estimates suggest 60-65 percent of the iron in our body is part of hemoglobin. Another 30 percent is stored as ferritin in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. A small portion of iron is found in transport. The amount of available iron is largely dependent on gender, body size, and blood volume with men having more iron than women do.

How much do I need?

Requirements per kilogram of body weight are highest during infancy since newborns have low iron stores at birth. They are also high in adolescents because of their rapid rate of growth. Menstruating women have a higher need than those that are non-menstruating and due to expanding blood volume, needs for women are highest during pregnancy. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for iron in infants is 11 mg/day while adolescent teens require up to 15 mg/day and pregnant women require a whopping 27 mg/day. Adult men and women over the age of 51 are encouraged to consume 8 mg of iron each day. Adult women between the ages of 19-50 should aim for 18 mg of iron each day. According to the Institutes of Medicine, vegetarian men and post-menopausal women need 14 mg daily and pre-menopause vegetarian women should aim for 33 mg each day.

Where do I find it?

There are two different types of iron. Heme iron comes from animal food sources and is two to three times more absorbable than non-heme iron from plant food sources. Heme sources of iron typically have an absorption rate of 15-35 percent with minimal influence from other foods in the diet. In comparison, non-heme iron sources have a 2-20 percent rate of absorption and are significantly influenced by other foods. This is an important point especially since intestinal absorption is the major control mechanism for iron.

Good heme sources of iron include:

Beef, lamb, veal – 2.5 mg per 3 ounce serving

Beef, chuck, lean – 3.2 mg per 3 ounce serving

Beef, lean ground: 10% fat – 3.9 mg per 3 ounce serving

Beef liver – 7.5 mg per 3 ounce serving

Beef tenderloin, roasted – 3.0 mg per 3 ounce serving

Chicken liver – 12.8 mg per 3.5 ounce serving

Boiled Shrimp – 2.6 mg per 3 ounce serving

Good non-heme sources of iron include:

Apricots, dried – 1.7 mg per 10 medium sizes fruits

Black beans, boiled – 3.6 mg per 1 cup serving

Cereal, ready-to-eat, 100% iron fortified – 18.0 mg per ¾ cup serving

Kidney beans, boiled – 5.2 mg per 1 cup serving

Lentils, boiled – 6.6 mg per 1 cup serving

Lima beans, boiled – 4.5 mg per 1 cup serving

Molasses, blackstrap – 3.5 mg per 1 tablespoon serving

Navy beans, boiled – 4.5 mg per 1 cup serving

Oatmeal, prepared instant fortified – 10 mg per 1 cup serving

Pinto beans, boiled – 3.6 mg per 1 cup serving

Spinach, fresh cooked – 6.42 mg per 1 cup serving

Tofu, raw, firm – 3.4 per ½ cup serving

Additional Considerations

Iron deficiency can gradually develop when intake and absorption does not meet daily needs by the body. Maximizing non-heme iron absorption is most important when daily intake is less than recommended, intake needs are high (during pregnancy and teen growth spurts), iron losses are high (during heavy menstruation) or when only non-heme sources are selected. Medical conditions also increase risks of anemia from iron deficiency. If you have kidney disease (especially those on dialysis) or gastrointestinal disorders (such as Celiac Disease or Crohn's Syndrome), please work with your medical team to monitor iron absorption and storage levels. People who follow dietary practices that exclude all animal products (vegan diet) are also at increased risks for iron deficiency.

Signs of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • Persistent feelings of weakness and being tired
  • Changing performance at work or school
  • Body temperature irregularities
  • Frequent infections or illnesses due to decreased immune responses
  • Inflammation of the tongue
  • Sudden and persistent interest in eating non-nutritive items such as dirt or chalk (condition called pica or geophagia)
Tips and Tricks

To increase iron absorption try these tips:

  • Include a meat source of protein with plant food sources to increase plant iron absorption.
  • Include foods that provide a good source of vitamin C in the same meal with plant iron food sources since vitamin C helps with non-heme iron absorption.
  • Avoid coffee and tea with iron-rich foods since the tannins in the tea and coffee decrease iron absorption. Herbal teas such as chamomile, peppermint, lime flower, and pennyroyal should also be limited when maximum iron absorption is desired.
  • Spinach, beet greens, rhubarb, and Swiss chard contain an oxalate acid that binds with iron and makes it unavailable for the body. Be sure you are not relying on these vegetables as your primary plant based iron source.
  • Use a cast iron pot or skillet, especially with acidic foods for food preparation.
  • If your medical provider has recommended an iron supplement, be sure you are taking it several hours before a meal containing coffee, tea, dairy products or calcium supplements as these can significantly decrease the amount of iron absorbed.
Do you have trouble getting enough iron in your diet? What are your favorite high iron foods?

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A lot of great information in this article. Report
AQUAGIRL08 3/20/2021
Thank you. This was very helpful! Report
I ran into a bit of low iron, low hemoglobin, recently. I learned I at the start of a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes cancer takes your iron for itself. Report
THINCPL2004 1/7/2021
Great article Report
GEORGE815 8/12/2020
Thanks Report
ATEAMSIS08 7/9/2020
For years I have been anemic, but lately my iron numbers have been good. Excellent article. Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
Thanks Report
Great Article Report
Couple of years ago I got very sick. Over the course of a couple of weeks I lost over 20 pounds and couldn't get over it. DH finally had had enough and drug me kicking and screaming to the Dr. Long story short, I was admitted immediately for dehydration and anemia. I spent weeks.. probably about 6 back and forth to the hospital getting ivs for it. Not fun. Don't delay going to the Dr until you feel better. Report
I like dried apricots for snacks, and eat both eggs (probably a dozen a week?) & liver, maybe should have it more often. I also eat pinto, navy & kidney beans but not lima, unless snuck onto veg soup. Not overly excited by spinach but I do eat raw in salad w/ orange segments. Was anemic as a child so curious how I'll do as a senior. My vitamin D level is good. Report
I like dried apricots for snacks, and eat both eggs (probably a dozen a week?) & liver, maybe should have it more often. I also eat pinto, navy & kidney beans but not lima, unless snuck onto veg soup. Not overly excited by spinach but I do eat raw in salad w/ orange segments. Was anemic as a child so curious how I'll do as a senior. My vitamin D level is good. Report
I like dried apricots for snacks, and eat both eggs (probably a dozen a week?) & liver, maybe should have it more often. I also eat pinyo, navy & kidney beans but not lima,unkess Report
We all need iron and knowing and understanding were to get it is important, good article. Report
Once again a super helpful article. I read the comments and always lesrn so much more than the complicated dietary math. I know haw tough ut us to est. “” numbers””” and how we all must measure snd juggle, but that gem about Flintstones is so perfect, simple. I wll check my ferritin as well and ask my dr if there is any concern. Report
After being sick for about 6 - 8 weeks, I was severly dehydrated and severly anemic. Had to show up at the hospital for pushes for about 6 weeks. Hated having to sit there with ivs in me and nothing to do. Report
Thanks Report
thanks Report
Great info! Thanks! Report
Great article. It's been a bit of a challenge for me. I'm receiving iron infusions however, it's still a bit of a battle.

This was interesting information on spinach, beets and swiss chard. I had increased my consumption and was unaware that they were not able to be absorbed. Report
VERY helpful article, even 4 years later :) I was dx with iron-deficiency anemia 3 months ago and treatment didn't seem to be working as well as we'd hoped. I had discovered the antacids & PPI I was taking for reflux were likely significantly reducing my iron absorption. Now I can see a number of other tips and tricks for tweaking my diet to enhance absorption. Thanks a bunch. Report
Wonderful article....I've been anemic for years now; been on and off supplements but nothing seems to have helped. I hate liver of all kinds...... Report
Go Popeye! Report
I also have difficulty when trying to donate & i have no periods. The nurse has advised me to eat a handful of raisins daily for a couple of weeks prior to donating. Report
you left out the imformation about cast iron cookware. I used it with both of my pregnacies, and the Dr. monitored my iron during them. It remained with in normal limits. Cooking more acidic foods release iron from cookware into the food with out the side effects that medications will give you. Still have my pans kids are gone. Report
When I was pregnant 30+ years ago I read a book re diet and then it was highly reccomended that a healthy diet included more iron and was better to get it the natural way vs. supplements Then a number of years ago I had some bouts of severe animia I did take an iron supplement but am more interested in getting my iron through food. Thanks for the info Report
I have an iron deficiancy. My Doctor put me on a high dose Iron pill and told me to eat more beef. I decided to opt for another option. Went to my health food store and began taking a supplement called Recovery I. All is fine, I no longer need the supplement. I do, howerver, take an advanced multiple vitamin/mineral twice a day. Oh, I also enjoy liver and onions once a month. Report
I am a regular blood donor, whenever my iron levels are high enough. There are times I have to defer. I'm now in menopause and I'm curious to see if my iron levels will increase over time. Sometimes I take supplements a couple of weeks prior to my blood donation to try and boost it so I can donate, and I donate every 10 weeks (instead of 8). I am healthy so I have no other issues. I take thyroid medicine and do take it on an empty stomach in the a.m. and don't eat breakfast right away.

The nurse staff at the blood bank have told me many times, that my iron levels are not at an anemia level; it's just that the blood bank has a high standard for the health of the donor. They don't want to cause anemia and that's why they screen at a high iron level.

Giving blood has helped to educate me about iron and iron-rich foods. I am glad to see this article. Many people are ineligible these days to donate due to the prevalence of tatooing and hepatitis so donors are needed. If you tend to have iron rich blood, think about donating! It will save someone's life. That's my soapbox for the day! Report
I have a tendency to be very iron-deficient (single digit ferritin levels), so already know most of what has been said in this article, from doing my own research. It's one of the reason vegetarianism doesn't appeal to me. I'd never get enough iron from plants. The % of non-heme iron that's absorbed is too low to rely on it to boost my iron levels.

Spinach can actually bind with the body's own iron and deplete it, so I avoid spinach. But I do eat other plant sources.

This list doesn't have the best source of iron on it: OYSTERS Report
Unlike most folks, I have to watch my iron because my body tends to hang onto it.
I have to have blood tests to check my ferritin levels and so far I am squeeking by but I try to watch what I eat and not eat foods that are high in iron content. Report
I like my spinach with a little bit of horseradish and a few bacon bits. Report
Anyone know some TASTY spinach recipes? I love the stuff!! Report
I am glad to know that tofu, lima beans and black beans are good iron sources. I eat hardly any red meat and sometimes I wonder if I am missing anything. Like one person said it is all about a balanced, varied diet. Report
Thanks for the info Report
I love liver with onions and a baked potato!!! Wow! The best!! Report
Like popeye the sailor man Report
One thing for folks like me who take medication for hypothyroid conditions to keep in mind: Iron can block the absorption of that medication. Don't take a supplement with iron, or eat iron rich foods within at least 4 hours of your medication! Report
Healthy, non-vegetarian men rarely have an iron deficiency. In fact, it's believed that donating up to 5 units a year benefits men by reducing excess iron.

Give blood - save a life! Report
oops, i said something wrong. "heme" is related to "hemoglobin" which is in blood, but it doesn't mean blood itself. It's got something to do with the chemistry of binding to iron. Sorry about that! Report
There seems to be some confusion because of the wording. While it is true that oxalates (like in spinach) make it more difficult for your body to absorb iron, IT STILL HAS IRON. It's just LESS readily absorbed by your body than the heme (which stands for *blood* by the way) sources. Also, spinach and other dark leafy greens have other benefits - such as vitamin C, B vitamin folate, lutein. Report
Why would this article list spinach as a good source of non-heme iron when it's unavailable? There was no solution listed either. Does it mean we need to eat spinach with Vit C? Does it mean it's just useless to eat? As a vegetarian, I'm feeling pretty limited after this least in the veggie area. :( Plus, I'm not into eating "fortified" foods since the vitamins and minerals were often striped from the product, the product was processed to become "instant," and then the vitamins and minerals were added back in. Too much processing for my taste. Anyway, I'm sad. Report
Good to know. Report
I have never been anemic, but my mother is often turned away from donating blood b/c she is often anemic and doesn't realize it. She eats more vegetarian meals than I do, though; she is not partial to meat, though she does like fish. Report
I am a meat eater. Report
Too much iron can also be a problem. My husband has hemochromatosis which is an excess of the ferritin stored in the liver. This is under-diagnosed even though it is very common. It is suggested that everyone have their ferritin checked (a simple blood test), especially men and menopausal women. My husband had no symptoms, but his sister became very ill after menopause. It took a long time before they found out why. It is hereditary; parents can be carriers without having the disease. He was tested and found to have elevated levels as well, even though he was asymptomatic. Report
Not mentioned in the article is that Folic Acid aids in the absorption of Iron. I personally take a supplement that has both (my father used to supplement with Folic Acid as an immune system boost - worked better for him then Vitamin C), and let's just say that I've never had an issue with my blood hanging out at the top of the vial when they test for iron content before donating blood. Report
So, it is true that spinach, beet greens and chard are high in iron, but, the rest of the story is that the iron is not available. This stuff is so complicated...(sigh). It goes back to what dieticians say: Eat a varied (healthy) diet. Report
Odd about the tea - my sister used to be severely anemic and had problems after the birth of one of her children. Adding tea to her daily routine helped raise her iron levels. I've also read articles about tea helping (not hurting) with anemia problems. Report
It was good to know that oatmeal is a good source of iron - one of my favorite choices for breakfast. Plus I knew there was a reason I didn't like spinach. Yuck Report
One of the advantages of menopause is not having to be concerned about anemia from menstruation. Just as an aside, though, is Arnold Schwarzenegger a "heme-man"? Report