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The 10 Best Foods High in Iron

Written by Daisy Whitbread, MScN
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The 10 Best Foods High in Iron

Iron is an essential mineral used to transport oxygen to all parts of the body. A slight deficiency in iron causes anemia (fatigue/weakness), and a chronic deficiency can lead to organ failure. Conversely, too much iron leads to the production of harmful free radicals, and interferes with metabolism, causing damage to organs like the heart and liver.

The body is able to regulate uptake of iron, so overdose is rare and usually only occurs when people take supplements. Iron from natural food sources, like the ones listed below, are considered safe and healthy.

While iron is better absorbed from heme (meat) sources, non-heme (plant) iron is better regulated causing less damage to the body. Foods high in iron include fortified cereals, beef, shellfish, dried fruit, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, quinoa, mushrooms, and squash seeds. The current daily value (DV) for iron is 18 milligrams (mg).

Below is a list of high iron foods. For more high iron foods see the lists of high iron foods by nutrient density, non-heme plant-based iron foods, meat based heme-iron sources, high iron foods for vegans and vegetarians, and the list of fruits and vegetables high in iron.


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List of High Iron Foods

1Fortified Cereals
A bowl of bran flakes
2Beef (Skirt Steak)
A steak on a plate
A 3oz (85g) serving of lamb provides up to 13% DV.
3Shellfish (Oysters, Mussels, Clams)
Oysters on a plate

More Seafood High in Iron (%DV per 3oz)

Cuttlefish (51%), Whelk(48%), Octopus (45%), Mussels (32%), Abalone (18%), and Scallops (14%).
4Dried Fruit (Apricots)
Dried Apricots

More Dried Fruit High in Iron (%DV per cup)

Peaches (36%), Prunes (26%), Figs (17%), Raisins (17%), and Apples (7%). Note: Dried fruit is high in sugar and calories.
5Large White Beans
White Beans

More Beans High in Iron (%DV per cup cooked)

Soybeans (49%), Lentils (37%), Kidney beans (29%), Garbanzo beans (Chickpeas) (26%), and Lima beans (25%), Navy (24%), Black Beans (Frijoles Negros) (20%), Pinto (20%), and Black-eyed Peas (20%).
See more vegetarian and vegan foods high in iron.
6Spinach
A Bowl of Spinach

More Greens High in Iron (%DV per cup)

Cooked Swiss Chard (22%), Cooked Turnip Greens (16%), Raw Kale (6%), and Raw Beet Greens (5%).
See more fruits and vegetables high in iron.
7Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate squares
1 cup of cocoa powder provides 66% DV. A 1.5oz (44g) candy chocolate bar provides 6% DV.
8Quinoa
A bowl of quinoa

Other Grains High in Iron (%DV per cup cooked)

Oatmeal (12%), Barley (12%), Rice (11%), Bulgur (10%), Buckwheat (7%), and Millet (6%). Bran from whole grains can harm absorption of iron supplements, while whole grains are a good source of iron, they should not be consumed with iron supplements.
9White Button Mushrooms
Mushrooms

More Mushrooms High in Iron (%DV per cup sliced)

Morels (45% DV), Oyster (6% DV), Shiitake (3% DV).
10Squash and Pumpkin Seeds
Squash and Pumpkin Seeds

More Nuts & Seeds High in Iron (%DV per oz)

Sesame (23%), Sunflower (11%), and Flax (9%), Cashews (9%), Pine nuts(9%), Hazelnuts (7%), Peanuts (7%), Almonds (7%), Pistachios (7%), and Macadamia (6%).

See All 200 Foods High in Iron

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Iron rich foods include fortified cereals, beef, shellfish, dried fruit, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate, quinoa, mushrooms, and squash seeds.

Iron Rich Foods by Nutrient Density (Most Iron per 100grams)

#1 Dried Herbs (Thyme, Parsley, Spearmint, Black Pepper, Marjoram)687% DV (123.6mg) in 100grams
#2 Fortified Cereals376% DV (67.7mg) in 100grams
#3 Spirulina (Dried Seaweed)158% DV (28.5mg) in 100grams
#4 Rice Bran103% DV (18.5mg) in 100grams
#5 Cocoa Powder86% DV (15.5mg) in 100grams
#6 Liver (Chicken Liver)72% DV (12.9mg) in 100grams
#7 Caviar (Fish Roe)66% DV (11.9mg) in 100grams
#8 Shellfish (Oysters, Mussels, Clams)51% DV (9.2mg) in 100grams
#9 Wheat Germ35% DV (6.3mg) in 100grams
#10 Squash and Pumpkin Seeds33% DV (6mg) in 100grams

Non-Heme (Plant Based) Iron Foods

#1 Vital Wheat Gluten29% DV (5.2mg) in 100 grams
#2 Artichokes28% DV (5.1mg) in 1 cup
#3 Green Peas14% DV (2.5mg) in 1 cup
#4 Tempeh12% DV (2.1mg) in 100 grams
#5 Acorn Squash11% DV (1.9mg) in 1 cup
#6 Dried Gogi Berries11% DV (1.9mg) in 5 tbsp
#7 Tofu10% DV (1.9mg) in 1/5 Block
#8 Whole Wheat Bread6% DV (1.1mg) in 1 slice
#9 Molasses5% DV (0.9mg) in 1 tbsp
#10 Sorghum Syrup4% DV (0.8mg) in 1 tbsp

Heme (Meat Based) Iron Foods

#1 Lean Chuck Pot Roast (Beef)18% DV (3.2mg) in 3oz
#2 Canned Tuna15% DV (2.7mg) in 1 can
#3 Lamb Stew Meat13% DV (2.4mg) in 3oz
#4 Mackerel8% DV (1.4mg) in 3oz fillet
#5 Turkey Meat (Dark)7% DV (1.3mg) in 3oz
#6 Trout7% DV (1.2mg) in 3oz fillet
#7 Bass7% DV (1.2mg) in 1 fillet
#8 Chicken Breast6% DV (1mg) in 1/2 Breast
#9 Pork Chops5% DV (0.9mg) in 1 chop
#10 Chicken Drumstick4% DV (0.6mg) in 1 leg

Heme Iron vs. Non-Heme Iron

  • Non-heme iron comes from plant foods, heme iron comes from animal foods.
  • Heme iron can be absorbed more efficiently by the body.
  • The body can better regulate absorption of non-heme iron, helping to protect against toxic effects.

Factors which Affect Iron Absorption and Retention

  • The most important factor is your existing iron level. A low iron level will increase absorption, while a high iron level will decrease absorption. In general, you absorb 10-15% of the iron from foods. (2)
  • Meat proteins will increase the absorption of non-heme iron. (2)
  • Vitamin C will increase the absorption of nonheme iron by as much as 85%. (2,3)
  • Tannins, oxalates, polyphenols, and phytates found in tea and coffee can reduce the absorption of non-heme iron by up to 65%. Black tea reduces absorption more than green tea and coffee. (2,3,4)
  • The following teas and beverages also inhibit iron absorption: Peppermint tea, cocoa, vervain, lime flower, chamomile, and most other herbal teas with polyphenols. (4)
  • Calcium, polyphenols, and phytates found in legumes, whole grains, and chocolate can reduce absorption of nonheme iron. (2) Further milk, and antacids can inhibit absorption of iron supplements. (5)
  • Some protein from soy products may inhibit nonheme iron absorption. (2)
  • High fiber foods, such as whole grains, raw vegetables, and bran can inhibit absorption of iron supplements. (5)
  • Foods or drinks with caffeine can inhibit absorption of iron supplements. (4, 5)

Causes of Iron Deficiency

  • Menstruating Women - Due to blood loss during menstruation, women are at risk of iron deficiency. The greater the blood loss the greater the risk. (2)
  • Individuals with Kidney Failure - People with kidney failure, and especially those on dialysis, are at high risk of iron deficiency anemia. This is due to an inability of the kidney to create adequate amounts of the hormone erythropoietin which is necessary for red blood cell creation, and therefore, retaining iron. (2)
  • Pregnant and lactating women - A developing fetus requires a high amount of iron, likewise, there is a high amount of iron lost through breast milk after birth. (2)
  • Older infants and toddlers - Infants and toddlers require a lot of iron as they grow and so are at risk of iron deficiency. (2)
  • People with low levels of Vitamin A - Vitamin A helps move iron from storage in the body. Without adequate amounts of vitamin A the body cannot regulate iron leading to an iron deficiency. (2)
  • People with gastrointestinal disorders -Diarrhea, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal disorders and diseases can lead to an inadequate iron absorption. (2)
  • Cancer - 60% of patients with colon cancer are iron deficient. 29-46% of patients with other cancers are also deficient in iron. (2)
  • People with Gastrointestinal Disorders - People on a restricted diet, or who have problems absorbing nutrients are at risk for iron deficiency. This includes people after bypass surgery. (2)
  • People with Heart Failure - Around 60% of people with heart failure are iron deficient. (2)

Warnings

  • People with high levels of iron in their body may have Hemochromatosis. They should avoid the high iron foods listed in this article. Hemochromatosis can lead to organ damage. Symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, general weakness, weight loss, and stomach pain.
  • Liver is a high cholesterol food which should be eaten in moderate amounts and avoided by people at risk of heart disease or stroke.
  • Dark Chocolate, Pumpkin Seeds, Squash Seeds, Sesame Seeds, Dried Apricots, and Molasses are high calorie foods and should beeaten in moderate amounts by people with a high body mass index.

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Data Sources and References

  1. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 28.
  2. Office of Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet: Iron
  3. Hallberg L, Rossander L. Effect of different drinks on the absorption of non-heme iron from composite meals. Hum Nutr Appl Nutr. 1982 Apr;36(2):116-23.
  4. Richard F. Hurrell, Manju Reddy, and James D. Cook. Inhibition of non-heme iron absorption in man by polyphenolic-containing beverages. British Journal of Nutrition (1999), 81, 289-295
  5. National Library of Medicine Fact Sheet on Taking Iron Supplements.
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