Dietary Sources of Iron

P Iron is essential to all body cells. Iron functions primarily as a carrier of oxygen in the body, both as a part of hemoglobin in the blood and of myoglobin in the muscles. Iron deficiency anemia occurs when there is not enough iron in the red blood cells. This is a common problem often caused by pregnancy, blood loss, and a diet low in iron or poor absorption of iron by the body. There are a variety of possible symptoms of iron deficiency including:

Because the typical symptoms of iron deficiency have many causes, diagnosis by a blood test is needed to confirm the presence of iron deficiency anemia.

If your blood iron level is low, your health care provider may refer you to a dietitian to discuss dietary increase of iron-rich foods as well as a multivitamin pill or an iron supplement. Although iron is found in a variety of different foods and supplements, its availability to the body varies significantly. In general, iron is not readily absorbed by the body. Availability is partially determined by whether the iron is found in the form of HEME or NON-HEME iron.

HEME iron is found only in meat, fish and poultry and is absorbed much more easily than NON-HEME iron, which is found primarily in fruits, vegetables, dried beans, nuts and grain products. 

The following factors will increase the iron absorption from non-heme foods:

The following factors will decrease non-heme iron absorption:

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron for non-vegetarian pre-menopausal women is 18 mg/day.  The RDA for non-vegetarian men and post-menopausal women is 8 mg/day. Because of iron absorption issues in a healthful, high-fiber vegetarian diet, the RDAs for vegetarians are higher - 14 mg/day for vegetarian men and 33 mg/day for vegetarian women. Iron absorption should be twice for vegans who exclude all animal products. The upper level of intake should not exceed 45mg/day.

HEME Iron
Food Source

Serving
Size (oz.)

Iron (mg)

*Beef, chuck, lean

3.0

3.2

Beef, corned

3.5

1.9

Beef, eye of round, roasted

3.0

2.2

*Beef, flank

3.5

3.3

Beef, lean ground; 10% fat

3.0

3.9

Beef, liver

3.0

7.5

*Beef, round

3.5

3.1

Beef, tenderloin, roasted

3.0

3.0

Chicken, breast, roasted,

3.0

1.1

Chicken, leg, meat only, roasted

3.5

1.3

Chicken, liver

3.5

12.8

Chicken, thigh w/ bone

2.3

1.2

Clams, breaded, fried,

¾ cup

3.0

Cod, broiled

3.0

0.4

Flounder, baked

3.0

0.3

Oysters, breaded and fried

6 pieces

4.5

*Pork, lean ham

3.5

1.5

*Pork, loin chop

3.0

1.2

Salmon, pink canned

3.0

0.7

Shrimp, mixed species, cooked

4 large

0.7

Tuna, canned in water

3.0

0.8

Turkey, dark meat

3.5

2.3

Turkey, white meat

3.5

1.6

*Lean, trimmed of separable fat

NON-HEME Iron
Food Source

Serving Size

Iron (mg)

Almonds, raw, whole

10-12

0.7

Apricots, dried, med.-size

10

1.7

Bagel

1 whole

1.5

Baked beans, canned

½ cup

2.0

Black beans, boiled

1 cup

3.6

Black-eyed peas (cowpeas), boiled

1 cup

1.8

Bread, white, enriched

2 slices

1.8

Bread, whole wheat

2 slices

1.8

Broccoli, cooked

½ cup

0.6

Broccoli, raw

1 stalk

1.1

Dates

10 each

1.6

Grits, quick enriched white, cooked

1 cup

1.5

Kidney beans, boiled

1 cup

5.2

Lentils, boiled

1 cup

6.6

Lima beans, boiled

1 cup

4.5

Macaroni, enriched, cooked

1 cup

1.9

Molasses, blackstrap

1 tbsp.

3.5

Navy beans, boiled

1 cup

4.5

Oatmeal, fortified instant, prepared

1 cup

10.0

Peas, frozen and prepared

½ cup

1.3

Pinto beans, boiled

1 cup

3.6

Prune juice

½ cup

1.5

Raisins, seedless packed

½ cup

1.5

Rice, brown, cooked

1 cup

1.0

Rice, white enriched, cooked

1 cup

1.8

Soybeans, boiled

1 cup

8.8

Spaghetti, enriched, cooked

1 cup

1.6

Spinach, cooked (boiled, drained)

½ cup

3.2

Spinach, canned, drained

½ cup

2.5

Spinach, frozen, boiled, drained

½ cup

1.9

Tofu, raw, firm

½ cup

3.4

Vitamin supplements

varies

varies


In addition, many breakfast cereals are iron-fortified. Check nutrition information on package label for specific iron content.

References

"Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron." Office of Dietary Supplements. National Institutes of Health. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron.asp  08-24-07
Pennington, De Planter Bowes & Nichols Church. Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used. 17th ed. Philadelphia: JB Lipincott, 1998.