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Food & Snack Sources of Iron

For nearly nine decades, Popeye the Sailor has been gleaning near-superhuman strength simply by popping the lid off a can of spinach and swallowing its contents; but it's not the fiber content of the leafy green that gives Popeye his strength – it's iron, an essential mineral that helps deliver oxygen to every cell of the body (Wax, 2015).

Of course, spinach does contain iron; but it contains far less iron than many other foods, including nuts, seeds and dried fruits. So why does Popeye eat so much spinach? Turns out an early report on the iron content of spinach had a calculation error that reported the iron content to be 10 times the actual amount – and the error wasn't detected for almost 40 years, nearly a decade after Popeye was introduced. By then, the reputation of spinach as one of the top sources of iron was pretty well-established; and it's an image that's persisted to some degree ever since. Does that mean you shouldn't include spinach in an iron-rich diet? Not at all – but there are other sources of iron that are both tastier and more convenient.

So - Why is Iron So Important?

Iron is essential to the production of healthy red blood cells, which carry life-giving oxygen to every cell in your body (Wax, 2015). When iron levels are low, your organs and other tissues may be deprived of the oxygen they need to function optimally, or even normally, leaving you at risk for diseases and medical issues like fatigue and weakness.

Low levels of iron cause a condition called anemia, which is characterized by symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, headaches, problems breathing and an increased sensitivity to cold temperatures. Although anyone can develop anemia, there are certain groups at greater risk, including:

  • women of childbearing years, due to menstruation or childbirth
  • people over the age of 65
  • people who take blood thinners, including aspirin
  • people with medical conditions that interfere with iron absorption
  • people with kidney failure
  • people with poor diets

Some types of cancer, as well as ulcers, can also cause anemia from chronic blood loss (Cleveland Clinic, 2014).

Foods Rich in Iron to Add to Your Diet

There are two “types” of dietary iron: heme iron that comes from animal sources like liver, oysters, clams, eggs and red meat and non-heme iron that comes from plant sources, like dried fruits, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. While eating a healthy, balanced diet is important to ensure you get as many beneficial nutrients as possible, sometimes your iron levels need a boost.

What is important to know is that nonheme iron isn’t as bioavailable as heme iron. In fact, the iron needs of vegetarians are 1.8 times higher than for those who eat meat to adjust for the bioavailability. When you combine sources of non-heme iron with heme sources, the absorption of the plant-based non-heme iron is increased (National Institutes of Health [NIH], 2016).

One of the simplest ways to increase your levels of iron is with high-iron snacks that can be incorporated into your daily routine. Dried fruits like raisins, apricots and prunes are among the best sources of non-heme iron, followed by nuts like almonds and Brazil nuts (Wax, 2015). Combine more than one source into a make-your-own trail mix or buy a trail mix already prepared and keep some on-hand at work to give you a midday boost of healthy energy.

The best natural sources of iron in food include (Wessling-Resnick, 2009):

  • Beef (2.3 mg iron per 3-ounce serving)
  • Dark meat of chicken (1.13 mg iron per 3-ounce serving)
  • Bran cereal (5.8 to 18 mg iron per cup)
  • Raisins (0.8 mg iron in a 1.5-ounce serving)
  • Kidney beans (1.97 mg iron per ½ cup)
  • Prunes (0.45 mg iron in five prunes)
  • Cashew nuts (1.89 mg iron per ounce)

Are You Getting Enough Iron?

The amount of iron you need in your daily diet changes based on your age, gender and other factors. Ideally, women from 19 to 50 years of age need about 18 mg of iron each day, while men of the same ages need about 8 mg daily. Once women enter menopause, their need also drops to about 8 mg per day. Boys from age 14 to age 18 need about 11 mg per day, while girls of the same age group need about 15 mg daily. Pregnancy increases the recommended Daily Value (DV) for iron to 27 mg per day, regardless of age. See the below chart for more specifics on how much iron is recommended! (NIH, 2016).

When it comes to iron, it's important to get enough – but you don't want to overdo it, either. Too much iron can result in problems like dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and headache (Wax, 2015). Overdosing on iron is associated primarily with taking too many iron supplements, which is one more reason why it's important to get your recommended amount of iron from your food and to not rely on iron supplements (NIH 2016).

To be extra safe, try getting extra iron through plant sources instead of meats. Why? Because non-animal sources of iron like the kind found in fruits and nuts is absorbed at a different rate, which reduces the risk of overloading your system with too much iron if you add plant-based iron-rich snacks to your diet.

Table 1: Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Iron (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2015)
Age Male Female Pregnant Lactating
0-6 months 0.27 mg* 200 mg
7-12 months 11 mg 260 mg
1-3 years 7 mg 700 mg
4-8 years 10 mg 1,000 mg
9-13 years 8 mg 1,300 mg
14-18 years 11 mg 1,300 mg 27 mg 10 mg
19-50 years 8 mg 180 mg 27 mg 9 mg
51+ years 8 mg 8 mg

Iron-Rich Recipes

Adding iron to your diet doesn\'t mean chugging down endless cans of spinach; there are plenty of iron-rich snacks like nuts and dried fruits that can help you improve your health and wellness without sacrificing flavor - no matter what Popeye says. So check out some of our top recipes for foods full of the mineral, as formulated by our Health Nut and Registered Dietitian.

Moringa Oatmeal

Moringa Oatmeal Recipe

Get your iron in early with this wholesome combination of whole grains, nuts, fruit, and superfood powders. Enjoy the great taste of oatmeal with this redolent recipe today!
Ingredients: Gluten-free rolled oats, almond milk, agave or maple syrup, vanilla extract, moringa powder, pistachios, dried mulberries, unsweetened shredded coconut, chia seeds.
Total Time: 10 minutes | Yield: 4 324-gram servings

Protein-Packed Detox Smoothie {vegan}

Protein-Packed Detox Smoothie Recipe {vegan}

An abundant source of all the nutrients you need, this scrumptious smoothie supplies a healthy helping of the essential mineral in addition to a beverage that’s as delicious as it is nutritious!
Ingredients: Almond milk, frozen banana, spirulina, hemp protein powder (optional), fresh mint, chia seeds, hemp hearts.
Total Time: 5 minutes | Yield: 2 399-gram servings

Farro Vegetable Salad

Farro Vegetable Salad Recipe

A perfect selection for a lunch or side dish, this palatable plate dispenses a delightful blend of fresh veggies and whole grains. For an offering of iron that also tastes great, try this simple salad today!
Ingredients: Organic farro, sun dried tomatoes, frozen corn (thawed), scallions, black olives, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots, salt, fresh dill, fresh mint, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar.
Total Time: 1 hour | Yield: 6 254-gram servings

Quinoa Tabbouleh Salad {gluten-free}

Quinoa Tabbouleh Salad Recipe {gluten-free}

This delectable dish supplies an unbeatable source of iron with a whopping 88% of the DV for the mineral. The recipe is also a staple of Mediterranean cuisine, so you know it tastes as good as it looks!
Ingredients: Quinoa, cherry tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh parsley, fresh mint, black pepper, salt.
Total Time: 40 minutes | Yield: 4 servings

Quinoa Veggie Wrap {vegan}

Quinoa Veggie Wrap Recipe {vegan}

As a flavorful finger food, simple snack, or light lunch- these toothsome collations offer an impressive 70% of the DV for iron with an impressive nutrient profile that doesn’t end there. Enjoy all these wraps have to offer and try this recipe today!
Ingredients: Tortilla wraps, quinoa, hummus, fresh spinach, sun-tomatoes, shredded carrots.
Total Time: 30 minutes | Yield: 4 wraps

Quinoa Stuffed Peppers {gluten-free}

Quinoa Stuffed Peppers Recipe {gluten-free}

A delightful dish for an undemanding dinner, these stuffed peppers can also be cut up and served as a pleasant party favor. Enjoy the piquant relish of this recipe at your next celebration!
Ingredients: Quinoa, green bell peppers, canned lentils, fresh spinach, feta cheese, frozen corn (thawed), salt, black pepper.
Total Time: 40 minutes | Yield: 6 259-gram servings (8 half-peppers)

Our Recommended Snack Sources of Iron

Discover easy ways to add iron to your diet with these snack selections from our Health Nut and Registered Dietitian.

References

Cleveland Clinic. (2014, September 09). Foods High In Iron (Anemia Diet). Retrieved February 22, 2016, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_Anemia/hic-anemia-and-iron-rich-foods

National Institutes of Health. (2016, February 11). Office of Dietary Supplements - Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/

Makni, M., Fetoui, H., Gargouri, N. K., Garoui, E. M., & Zeghal, N. (2011, September/October). Antidiabetic effect of flax and pumpkin seed mixture powder: Effect on hyperlipidemia and antioxidant status in alloxan diabetic rats. Retrieved February 26, 2016, from http://www.jdcjournal.com/article/S1056-8727(10)00097-8/pdf

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2015, November 30). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved March 1, 2016, from http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm274593.htm

Wax, E. (2015, February 2). Iron in diet. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002422.htm

Wessling-Resnick, M. (2009). Iron. Linus Pauling Institute. Retrieved from http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/iron