Your guide to getting enough foods that are high in iron

red blood cells need iron rich foods to thrive

Your guide to getting enough foods that are high in iron

Iron is a mineral that is important for energy levels, cognitive function, and physical performance. The average person needs 18 mg of iron per day to maintain their health. There are many reasons why people might have trouble getting enough iron in their diet. Vegans/vegetarians who don’t eat meat or eggs, those with digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease which can interfere with the absorption of dietary iron from plants sources, or those who simply do not get enough calories in order to meet the recommended requirements may all have iron deficiencies. This post will explain why you need iron and list foods that are high in iron so that you can make sure your body has all it needs!

The importance of iron in the body

red blood cells thrive on foods that are high in iron

Iron is an essential mineral for the body, this means that it needs to be consumed daily so your body can function properly and stay healthy.

Iron is involved in many of the body’s functions.

Here are some of the functions that iron needs to perform in your body:

  • Transporting oxygen around the body through our red blood cells, melanin synthesis (the pigment responsible for skin colouration) and myoglobin function (Protein found in muscles used by them as an energy source).
  • Iron helps to process many of the body’s chemical reactions including energy production.
  • Iron is also responsible for producing new cells, regulating cell growth and supporting immune system functions.

One of the most important things that iron does in our bodies is maintain healthy red blood cells. These are used by hemoglobin to transport oxygen around the body. This iron function is so important to us that our bodies will actually be able to detect even small changes in blood oxygen levels. And begin taking action by increasing red blood cell production, which increases hemoglobin’s ability to transport more oxygen through your body.

What can cause an iron deficiency?

Iron deficiencies are surprisingly common but not talked about much or at all.

The deficiency can occur for many reasons including:

  • Not getting enough iron in your diet on a regular basis is more common than you think. This could be due to poor nutrition, eating disorders, dietary restrictions. Or simply not being aware of what foods are high in iron and how much it takes to get the daily recommended amount.
  • Low absorption of Iron due to medical conditions such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease.
  • Blood loss, especially in menstruating women who lose iron through their period every month. On top of any blood lost during activities like exercise (which causes some minor bleeding). If you are regularly losing more than about 30% of your blood it is likely that you will develop iron deficiency.


What can happen if you don’t get enough iron in your diet?

If you do not consume enough iron over time it can lead to health problems such as anemia. This is a condition where your body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells because they are breaking down faster than they are being replaced, this means that less oxygen will be available for the body to use.

If you do not get enough iron in your system, even for a short period of time, this can lead to serious health risks such as anemia and other related conditions.

Some signs that you may have low levels include fatigue, pale skin colouration (in the face, hands and feet), brittle nails, slow growth in children or babies (especially if they are born prematurely), headaches, irritability or difficulty concentrating.

Foods that are high in iron

spinach - foods that are high in iron

Iron in food can either be haem iron (found in animal products like meat, the dark meat of poultry and seafood), which the body finds easy to absorb, or non-haem iron in plant-based foods. Non-haem iron is a little harder for the body to absorb.

Some good sources of non-haem iron include:

  • spinach (2.7 mg per 100 g), kale (1.5 mg per 100 g) and other leaf vegetables including rocket (arugula) (0.15 mg per cup) and swiss chard (1.7 mg per 100 g);
  • legumes such as lentils (3.3 mg per 100 g), peas (1.5 mg per 100 g) or beans (5.1 mg per 100 g);
  • dried fruit like apricots (2.7 mg per 100 g), raisins (1.5 mg per 100 g) or figs (2 mg per 100 g);
  • nuts & seeds such as almonds (1.1 mg per ounce), walnuts (0.8 mg per ounce) or sesame seeds (1.3 mg per tablespoon), sunflower seeds (7.4 mg per cup) or chia seeds (2.2 mg per ounce); and
  • whole grains like brown rice (0.8 mg per cooked cup) or quinoa (2.8 mg per cooked cup).
  • Tempeh is an excellent source of non-haem iron (2.2 mg per ounce), as is tofu (5.4 mg per 100 g) and
  • some foods are fortified with iron, such as some breakfast cereals.


Foods that are high in iron – table


Breakfast cereals, fortified with 100% of the DV for iron, 1 serving 18 100
Oysters, eastern, cooked with moist heat, 3 ounces 8 44
White beans, canned, 1 cup 8 44
Chocolate, dark, 45%–69% cacao solids, 3 ounces 7 39
Beef liver, pan fried, 3 ounces 5 28
Lentils, boiled and drained, ½ cup 3 17
Spinach, boiled and drained, ½ cup 3 17
Tofu, firm, ½ cup 3 17
Kidney beans, canned, ½ cup 2 11
Sardines, Atlantic, canned in oil, drained solids with bone, 3 ounces 2 11
Chickpeas, boiled and drained, ½ cup 2 11
Tomatoes, canned, stewed, ½ cup 2 11
Beef, braised bottom round, trimmed to 1/8” fat, 3 ounces 2 11
Potato, baked, flesh and skin, 1 medium potato 2 11
Cashew nuts, oil roasted, 1 ounce (18 nuts) 2 11
Green peas, boiled, ½ cup 1 6
Chicken, roasted, meat and skin, 3 ounces 1 6
Rice, white, long grain, enriched, parboiled, drained, ½ cup 1 6
Bread, whole wheat, 1 slice 1 6
Bread, white, 1 slice 1 6
Raisins, seedless, ¼ cup 1 6
Spaghetti, whole wheat, cooked, 1 cup 1 6
Tuna, light, canned in water, 3 ounces 1 6
Turkey, roasted, breast meat and skin, 3 ounces 1 6
Nuts, pistachio, dry roasted, 1 ounce (49 nuts) 1 6
Broccoli, boiled and drained, ½ cup 1 6
Egg, hard boiled, 1 large 1 6
Rice, brown, long or medium grain, cooked, 1 cup 1 6
Cheese, cheddar, 1.5 ounces 0 0
Cantaloupe, diced, ½ cup 0 0
Mushrooms, white, sliced and stir-fried, ½ cup 0 0
Cheese, cottage, 2% milk fat, ½ cup 0 0
Milk, 1 cup


How to improve the absorption of iron from plant-based sources

The best way to improve the absorption of non-haem iron is to combine it with a source of vitamin C. This can be done by eating a meal that includes other foods such as tomatoes, capsicum (bell peppers) or citrus fruits.

Which Vitamin C rich foods are good to eat with non-haem sources of iron?

Some great sources of vitamin C include oranges (91 mg per fruit), grapefruit juice (92 mg per cup), strawberries (40 mg per cup) or kiwifruit (64 mg per fruit). Other sources include green capsicum (75 mg per cup), broccoli (62 mg per cooked cup) or Brussels sprouts (54 mg per cooked cup).

An example meal that includes iron-rich foods with Vitamin C could be a spinach salad with oranges, strawberries and walnuts. Another iron-rich meal could include a lentil burger patty with a tomato sugo sauce and a side salad with slices of orange.

Other ways to increase vitamin C content

When cooking with iron cookware, the amount of iron in your food can be increased by up to ten times. You should avoid cooking acidic ingredients like tomatoes or lemons for too long as this will cause them to lose their vitamin C (and hence reduce the absorption of non-haem iron).

What to do when you suspect low iron levels

If you suspect low iron levels, you should try increasing the amount of iron-rich foods that you eat. If these are not already major components of your diet, add them in gradually and monitor how you feel. As well as looking out for signs such as an improvement in energy levels or skin tone (and depending on what else you eat, you may also notice a reduction in the amount of time food remains in your stomach).

Be aware that some foods which are rich sources of iron can hinder its absorption if eaten at the same time as non-haem iron. These include tea and coffee (both regular and decaf), eggs, dairy products & calcium supplements. So try to eat these at different times to iron-rich foods.

Iron supplements can be used as a quick fix, but they are best avoided unless under the guidance of your doctor.

When choosing an iron supplement make sure it is in the ferrous form and is in a dose that suits your needs. For example, if you are an adult female who doesn’t smoke or drink excessively (which can both reduce iron levels) then choose one containing 30mg of elemental iron.

If you know you have low iron levels make sure to avoid eating foods that contain phytic acid such as cereals, legumes and nuts for at least two hours before or after taking iron supplements.

Useful Tips & Tricks


  • Try to eat iron-rich plant-based foods like lentils, beans (especially soy), seeds/nuts (such as pumpkin seeds) with vitamin C containing vegetables such as tomatoes or capsicum.
  • Iron absorption can also be increased by cooking acidic foods in a cast iron pan. Since the acid from the food will cause an increase in non-haem iron’s assimilation into your body.
  • Don’t drink tea or coffee at least 30 minutes before and after meals.
  • If you do find out that you are deficient, speak to a doctor about taking an organic supplement such as organic spirulina powder. This provides high amounts of non-haem iron (and many other vital nutrients).



Iron is an important mineral that the body needs for energy. If your diet doesn’t include enough iron, you may experience symptoms like fatigue and weakness. Iron also helps red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body which can help with brain function as well as many other things. The good news is that there are plenty of plant-based foods that are high in iron to choose from! You just need to be sure you’re eating enough of them or adding a few tricks to increase absorption into your diet.

Are you aware of how much iron you are consuming in your diet? What iron-rich foods would you like to consume this week to improve your consumption of iron?


Image credits

“Malabar or Chinese Spinach” by La.Catholique is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Red blood cells” by treehouse1977 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


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