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Which Foods are Good Sources of Iron?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Iron can be found in both plant and animal-based foods, but most experts agree that humans absorb iron best from meat. Animal tissues contain what is known as “heme” iron, a name that derives from the blood hemoglobin that carries and creates the mineral in the first place. Iron can also be found in plant materials, particularly in nuts, seeds, and leafy greens like spinach. This sort of iron is “non-heme,” since it is not related to blood and is usually harder for humans to absorb.

Red Meat

So-called “red” meat, which is usually understood to be beef and other game that looks red when raw, is one of the best sources of heme iron. Muscular tissues are generally rich in red blood cells, which contain naturally high iron levels. Humans can usually absorb the mineral relatively easily, as the body breaks it down and processes it directly into the bloodstream. Animal livers are usually considered good sources, as well. One of the liver’s main functions is creating proteins, and it typically has very rich stores of readily-absorbable iron.

Poultry and Eggs

Heme iron can also be found in most poultry, including chicken, turkey, and duck. Birds do not typically have as much iron as mammals, but its quality is usually the same. People can also get the mineral from eggs, particularly egg yolks.

Shellfish and Seafood

Clams, oysters, and shrimp are typically good sources of iron, as are most other shellfish and crustaceans. Many fish also contain this important mineral, though the concentration can vary tremendously based on species and their diet. Wild-caught salmon, cod, and tuna are among the best sources. Farm-raised fish tend to still have some iron in their systems, but those that were fed more regimented diets made up primarily of grains and carbohydrates typically don’t have quite as much as animals that ate other small fish or iron-rich sea plants.

Leafy Greens

Iron also occurs naturally in many plants, and leafy greens like spinach and kale are among the best sources, along with seaweeds and some kelp species. The concentrations are in most cases far lower than in meats, since the mineral is not stored in or created by blood but rather occurs in ordinary fibrous cells. Iron is essential for plant life just as it is for animal life, but how it is created and stored is usually very different.

In most cases, raw leaves have the highest concentrations; cooking or otherwise exposing them to heat can cause many vitamins and minerals to leach out. Freezing for short durations doesn’t usually have the same effect, but over time — usually after about six months — some nutrient loss is common. Heme sources don’t usually face these issues of loss or reduction, since, in meats, the iron is permanently fixed in the tissues. It’s a lot easier to break it down in plants.

Fruits and Vegetables

Most fruits and vegetables also contain some iron, though the best sources tend to be those with the darkest flesh. Broccoli, asparagus, purple grapes, and plums are good examples. As with leafy greens, the best way for people to access these foods’ minerals is to eat them raw or just lightly cooked. Dried fruits usually contain the same amount of iron as their fresh counterparts, though, which can be a good option for people on the go.

Sugar beets are not normally considered high in iron, but blackstrap molasses, which is created by boiling and refining the beets, normally is. Blackstrap molasses is a very dense syrup-like substance that is commonly used in baking.

Nuts, Beans, and Seeds

Iron is typically available in every plant tissue, including seeds. Sunflower seeds and squash seeds, particularly pumpkin, are usually easy to find in most places. Tree nuts like almonds and cashews are also good sources of non-heme iron, and nearly every type of bean can also provide a rich supply. Black and kidney beans tend to have the highest concentrations, but lima beans and soybeans also rank near the top of the list. Soy products, particularly tofu and soymilk, are usually iron-rich, too.

Whole Grains and Fortified Foods

Similarly, most whole grains, like wheat and oats, also tend to be good sources. Baked goods made with whole grains usually have high concentrations of iron, though a lot depends on how the foods were processed. In general, the purer the grain, the more vitamins and minerals it contains, as a good deal be lost during refining.

Many food manufacturers will actually add non-heme iron to a number of so-called “staple” foods, like breads and cereal. In this way, foods that would not necessarily be good sources of iron on their own actually come to contain high concentrations. The best way for people to determine whether a particular product has been fortified is to read the label and look carefully at the ingredient list.

Absorption Tips

Heme iron can typically be directly absorbed into the human body no matter how it is consumed or what it is consumed with. The same is not always true for non-heme foods, however. Caffeine, calcium, and fiber can all make it harder for the body to absorb plant-based iron, and most health experts recommend limiting these things in meals rich in iron-containing plants.

Many experts say that people can help their bodies absorb non-heme iron by eating it alongside foods that are rich in vitamin C, particularly citrus fruits. Eating heme and non-heme foods together can also make a difference, and many people recommend cooking with a cast iron skillet in order to enhance the absorbability of iron. Whether or not this technique works is open for some debate, but it is popular in many places.

Importance of an Iron-Rich Diet

Iron is essential for human life, and though the body does create some on its own, it's not usually enough. People need to eat iron in their diets in order to stay healthy. A deficiency of this important mineral is known medically as anemia, and it often causes fatigue and muscle weakness.

Most governments around the world set recommended levels of iron intake that can serve as a guideline for meal planning and usually also help standardize food labeling. A manufacturer of iron-rich beans, for instance, might include both how much iron is in the food as well as what percentage of a person’s recommended amount a single serving contains. These recommendations vary from country to country, and also tend to change based on age and gender. Women who are pregnant, for instance, typically need more iron than middle-aged men, and elderly people and children are usually advised to consume more than teenagers and young adults.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon165193 — On Apr 04, 2011

I am a blood donor and it used to happen when i was still in high school to have lack of iron. After i got pregnant I never checked my iron for almost two years. Last month i then found out that it is very low. I find it hard to concentrate and it's my first year in university but i am always irritated easily. I only eat once a day and i sleep a lot. I can see that i really need help.

By anon159169 — On Mar 10, 2011

I went to the doctor and they said my iron level was 25. Then after months later they said it was up to 66. That's good I thought but then he said my ferritin was down from 28 to 6. I have read that this is a protein that affects my iron.

By anon118857 — On Oct 15, 2010

@Anon65914: They did not get it wrong. Perhaps you read too quickly.

@Anon9361. Women's iron levels drop on their periods. Be sure it wasn't just your period causing low readings. It is natural.

By anon96341 — On Jul 15, 2010

it was that time of the month and was feeling quite ill. I went to the doctor and he told me I wasn't eating enough iron. I went on this website and it really helped me find out where I could find the iron I needed.

By anon79901 — On Apr 25, 2010

i think i am anemic. i found this website very helpful. now i know what to eat. I love iron! thanks for saving my life.

By anon73277 — On Mar 26, 2010

I just found out that I am mildly anemic, and I didn't realize how important it is to have a balanced diet of green leafy vegetables and lean red meat. Especially since I am pregnant I need double the amount of iron, which is 30 milligrams a day instead of 15. For those who don't take their health seriously should rethink how they eat and what they eat.

By anon67826 — On Feb 26, 2010

i recently found out that i have a third of the recommended level of iron in my blood - this teamed with hypermobility disorder doesn't give me a huge confidence lift - but at least it explains why all my joints are painful.

By anon65914 — On Feb 16, 2010

You got it backward. Non heme or plant based iron is more difficult to absorb than heme (blood iron) there are two different receptors in the gut for iron absorption depending on which is present, and the non-heme iron has to go through additional processes before it can be used by the body.

Sorry vegetarians, Heme is easier than non-heme. Look it up in a physiology textbook.

But that's no reason to allow yourself to become anemic, there are great sources of plant based iron, so do your homework and stay healthy! We need you around to give us dirty looks while eating our steaks!

By anon51186 — On Nov 03, 2009

I recently came out of a bout of depression which had lasted for around half a year. During this time I was trying an antidepressant which cut my appetite down to nothing, and so I started eating much less than ever before. I then got off of that and onto a much better medication, but I was still feeling many effects which I thought must be depression, such as lack of energy and no desire to eat.

Finally, my rapid heartbeat prompted my doctor to get bloodwork done, and sure enough, I had anemia.

By anon42830 — On Aug 24, 2009

I am a strict vegetarian and recently found out that I am anemic. I also recently learned that although I am eating a wide variety of vegatables, legumes, nuts, fruits and grains, if I do not cook my grains for at least two hours then the phytic acids in the grains that can only be destroyed by cooking will block the absorption of iron in the small intestines. My recommendation is that we cook our grains for at least two hours. For example place oatmeal on a cookie sheet and bake at 200 degrees for two hours. It will not burn. Use the baked oatmeal for cooked cereals, granolas, cookies, etc. Also bake three cups brown rice with seven cups water and a pinch of salt at 300 degrees for two hours. Delicious and time saving! See the results after these changes.

By anon7440 — On Jan 26, 2008

By the time I was 13, I had broken both of my arms (at different times). I wasn't clumsy or excessively active. After breaking the second arm through my doctors suggested that I may be iron deficient even though I had a relatively healthy and balanced diet. But, it would seem, and I believe science supports, that even mild iron deficiency can weaken bones and make them more susceptible to breaks and fractures.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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