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).
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.
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.
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 willdecrease 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.
Some protein from soy products may inhibit nonheme iron absorption.2
Calcium, milk, and antacids can inhibit absorption of iron supplements.5
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.5
High-Risk Groups for an Iron Deficiency
Menstruating Women - Due to blood loss during menstruation women of childbearing age are at risk of iron deficiency, the greater the blood loss the greaterthe risk.
Individuals with Kidney Failure - People with kidney failure, andespecially 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.
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.
Older infants and toddlers
People with low levels of Vitamin A - Vitamin A greatly helps move iron from storage in the body, without adequate amounts of vitamin A the body cannot regulate iron properly leading to an iron deficiency.
People with gastrointestinal disorders -Diarrhea, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal disorders and diseases can leadto an inadequate iron absorption.
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Iron Rich Foods by Nutrient Density (Most Iron per 100grams)
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.