10 Iron-Packed Foods for Combating Anemia and Low Energy (2024)

Functional Foods

Iron deficiency is more common than you may think, and this mineral is one you don’t want to skimp on. Reaching for these eats can help you get enough iron in your diet.

10 Iron-Packed Foods for Combating Anemia and Low Energy (1)

By

Leslie Barrie

10 Iron-Packed Foods for Combating Anemia and Low Energy (2)

by

Melissa Sleight, RDNcourtesy ofAmerican College of Lifestyle Medicine

Updated on July 2, 2024

10 Iron-Packed Foods for Combating Anemia and Low Energy (3)

By opting for whole, nutritious foods in their diet, vegetarians can get enough iron.

Iron plays a number of critical roles in the body, which makes iron-rich foods an essential part of any balanced diet. Fortunately, plenty of great iron-rich foods fit into all kinds of diets, from low carb to plant-based.

According to Sarah Gold Anzlovar, RDN, a Boston-based nutritionist in private practice, “Most well known is that iron is a key component of red blood cells and helps transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body.”

According to research, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency globally — especially among children and pregnant women — and it affects up to 30 percent of both women and children in the United States.

Iron deficiency, a condition called anemia, makes it difficult for your red blood cells to deliver oxygen, according to theMayo Clinic.

Needless to say, it’s vitally important to ensure that you keep up an adequate iron intake. With that said, read on to learn about some of the best healthy, iron-rich foods.

How Much Iron Do You Need Per Day?

According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, here’s how much iron different groups of people need per day:

Nonpregnant Women Ages 19 to 5018 milligrams (mg)

Pregnant Women27 mg

Women Age 51 and Older8 mg

Men Age 19 and Older8 mg

Infants and Children7 to 15 mg, depending on age

Avoid Consuming Too Much Iron

The Office of Dietary Supplements cautions against taking in more than 45 mg of iron per day if you are a teenager or adult and more than 40 mg per day among those age 13 and younger.

Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron: What’s the Difference?

“There are two types of iron: heme iron from animal sources and non-heme iron from plant sources,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, a nutritionist and the author of Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family. The Office of Dietary Supplements notes that meat, poultry, and seafood contain both heme and non-heme iron.

Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body than plant-based non-heme iron, states the Cleveland Clinic. This means it can be beneficial to get both types of the nutrient in your diet, Largeman-Roth adds. The Office of Dietary Supplementsstates that you should aim for nearly twice as much iron per day if you don’t eat meat.

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Eggs, Red Meat, Liver, and Giblets Are Top Sources of Heme Iron

10 Iron-Packed Foods for Combating Anemia and Low Energy (4)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in addition to some non-heme iron, lots of animal proteins have heme iron: 4 ounces (oz) of 93 percent lean ground beef provides 2.6 mg, meaning it’s a good source. Other examples include eggs (1.7 mg in two large eggs), turkey (1.2 mg per 3 oz of dark-meat turkey), and pork loin (just over 0.5 mg per 3 oz).

Organ meats like liver and giblets are especially rich in iron. For example, 113 grams (g) of chicken giblets have 6.1 mg of iron, making it an excellent source. Meanwhile, just 1 oz of pork liver comes packed with 6.6 mg of iron, another excellent source. If your cholesterol is high or if you are pregnant, avoid liver. The Cleveland Clinicnotes that liver is high in cholesterol(1 oz of pork liver contains 85.3 mg of cholesterol), and eating liver is linked to possible birth defects due to its high vitamin A content.

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Oysters, Mussels, and Clams Are Rich Sources of Iron

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Go ahead and splurge on the seafood appetizer — it comes with a generous side of iron! Bivalve mollusks like clams, mussels, and oysters are loaded with the important nutrient, according to theHarvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Per the USDA, six raw oysters deliver 4.9 mg of iron, making them a good source. They are also an excellent source of zinc, with 31.8 mg, as well as vitamin B12, with 13.6 micrograms.

As the Office of Dietary Supplements points out, zinc helps the immune system fend off viruses and bacteria, and vitamin B12 helps keep nerve and blood cells healthy.

If oysters, mussels, and clams aren’t on your regular menu, common seafood choiceshave some iron as well, according to the Mayo Clinic. For example, 3 oz of Chinook salmon has 0.2 mg of iron, per the USDA.

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Chickpeas Are a Vegetarian-Friendly Iron Powerhouse

10 Iron-Packed Foods for Combating Anemia and Low Energy (6)

Despite what some meat-eaters may say, there are plenty of healthy plant-based sources of iron. Chickpeas, a type of legume, provide 1.5 mg of iron per cup, per the USDA, making them an excellent source. They also deliver leanplant-based protein — 10.7 g per cup, to be exact.

Chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, are a tasty addition to salads and pasta dishes. They can be an unexpected way to mix up salsa, too. If you’re not a fan of the texture, puree chickpeas to create homemade iron-rich hummus.

Adding lemon juice to your hummus will increase the vitamin C in the snack and help your body absorb the non-heme iron in the legumes more easily. According to the Mayo Clinic, when you eat an iron-rich food at the same time as a vitamin C–rich food, you enhance your body’s ability to absorb the iron.

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Fortified Breakfast Cereals Can Be Packed With Iron

10 Iron-Packed Foods for Combating Anemia and Low Energy (7)

Is a bowl of cereal your breakfast of choice? Opt for a fortified version to start off your day with a dose of iron —Mayo Clinic recommends it as a way to up your iron total. Check the nutrition label for the amount of iron per serving. (And be sure to opt for the box with the least amount of added sugar.)

Per the USDA, raisin bran has 10.8 mg of iron per cup, and that makes it an excellent source. It is also an excellent source of fiber, a common characteristic of fortified cereals. The Mayo Clinic notes that dietary fiber can help relieve constipation and lower your odds of developing diabetes and heart disease.

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Pumpkin Seeds May Be Small, But They Have Lots of Iron

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Don’t underestimate these crunchy little seeds: 1cup of shelled raw pumpkin seedscontains 11.4 mg of iron, per the USDA. Pumpkin seeds provide a reliable iron source that you can add to a variety of dishes. Toss the seeds into your homemade trail mix, or your favorite bread or muffin recipes. You can also use them as a crunchy topping for yogurt, cereal, or salad. You may even want to try them alone for a quick and healthy snack — 1 oz packs 8.5 g of protein. Win-win!

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Edamame Is Filled With Iron and Other Essential Nutrients

10 Iron-Packed Foods for Combating Anemia and Low Energy (9)

A common sushi sidekick, a cup of these raw green soybeans contains about 9.1 mg of iron, per theUSDA, making them an excellent source. They’re also a good source of copper, which helps keep blood vessels and the immune system healthy, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements.

A cup of edamame is also an excellent source of manganese and fiber, and provides plant-based protein.

Largeman-Roth recommends including these raw soybeans in stir-fries, or making an edamame dip. Soybeans are a tasty addition to pasta dishes, too, or you can simply enjoy them on their own, steamed and sprinkled with a little sea salt.

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Prepare Black Beans With Vitamin C–Rich Veggies for an Iron Win

10 Iron-Packed Foods for Combating Anemia and Low Energy (10)

Boiled black beans serve up 3.6 mg of iron per cup, per the USDA, making them another rich source of this essential nutrient. To rev your iron absorption, pair them with healthy fare such as kale, bell peppers, broccoli, or cauliflower. As MedlinePlus notes, those foods are high in vitamin C, which is a nutrient that aids the absorption of non-heme iron.

Add beans to a salad, puree them into a dip to eat with raw veggies, or toss them into a stir-fry. Therecipe possibilities for a can of black beans are endless. And if you’re looking for more variety, kidney, pinto, and fava beans all contain iron, too, according to the USDA.

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Lentils Are Another Legume With Lots of Iron

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Another legume worth an honorable mention in the iron department is lentils. Cooked lentils offer an excellent source of the mineral, with about 12.5 mg per cup, per the USDA.

They also offer 15.6 g of fiber per cup, making them a rich source.Fiber may help lowercholesterol and stabilize your blood sugar, according to theHarvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Lentils are an extremely versatile ingredient in the kitchen — they’re a great addition to everything from soups and salads to burgers and chili.

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Spinach, Eaten Either Cooked or Raw, Offers Iron

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No matter how you prepare it, spinach is an excellent source of iron. Per the USDA, 1 cup of this healthy green (frozen and then boiled) delivers 3.7 mg of iron, as well as some protein, fiber, calcium, and vitamins A and E.

Calcium is a powerhouse, notes the Mayo Clinic. It keeps your bones strong, provides beneficial vitamin A for your vision and immunity, anddelivers vitamin Eto help your vision, blood, brain, and skin.

While the leafy green often gets a bad rap in the taste department, especially among kids, it’s an easy ingredient to sneak into recipes undetected for a secret iron boost. “I love using sautéed spinach in vegetable lasagna,” says Largeman-Roth. “It also works well in mini frittatas, which my kids love.” If eating spinach in a dish doesn’t sound appealing, try this green mixed into a naturally sweet fruit smoothie.

Remember, as a non-heme iron source, it’s especially beneficial when paired with foods high in vitamin C.

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Sesame Seeds Taste Nutty — and Have a Kick of Iron

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“Sesame seeds have a wonderful nutty taste and are a rich source of iron,” says Largeman-Roth. The seeds contain some iron — 1.3 mg per tablespoon, per the USDA—and offer a slew of other essential nutrients, like copper, as well as phosphorus, vitamin E, and zinc.

An easy way to incorporate the seeds into your diet is to sprinkle them on a salad: Each tablespoon will add over a milligram of iron to your daily count — and when you’re aiming for 18 mg a day, every bit counts!

The Takeaway

Iron is an essential nutrient and a key component of red blood cells, which transport oxygen around the body. While iron deficiency is common, especially in women and children, you can add plenty of foods full of this important nutrient to your diet.

Some of the best animal sources of iron include red meat, eggs, and shellfish such as oysters and mussels. Some of the top plant-based sources of iron include spinach, lentils, chickpeas, and beans.

Whatever your preferred diet, get some of these iron-rich foods into the mix to ensure that you get the iron you need to live a happy and healthy life.

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