Experts have found that women who don’t consume a sufficient amount of iron-rich foods are particularly prone to iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia and chronic fatigue.  

By Betty Gold
February 16, 2021

Iron is an incredibly important mineral—your body needs it for growth and development, in addition to using it to produce hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to all parts of the body. Iron is also classified as an essential nutrient, meaning you must get it from the foods you eat.

"The Daily Value (DV) for iron is 18 milligrams," explains Sydney Spiewak, MS, RDN, CDN. According to Spiewak, in order to best understand the importance of eating iron-rich foods, we need to define the two different types of iron: Heme​ and ​non-heme​ iron. ​"Heme ​iron is found in animal meats and seafood, and is ​the form of iron that is most readily absorbed by the body," she explains. "Non-heme​ iron is found in plant-based foods, as​ opposed to meat. Non-heme​ iron is an important part of a healthy, ​well-balanced diet, however the iron in these foods will not be absorbed as completely as heme sources."

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When comparing ​heme​ and​ non-heme​ iron absorption, Spiewak says that individuals are likely to absorb up to 30 percent of the heme​ iron that they consume, but only​ between 2 to 10 percent of the non-heme ​iron they consume.​ For better or for worse, the amount of iron your body absorbs is partially based upon how much you already have stored. And women—especially those who don't consume a sufficient amount of iron-rich foods—are more prone to iron deficiency due to menstruation, which can lead to anemia and symptoms such as chronic fatigue.  

Luckily, there are plenty of delicious options for boosting your body's iron intake (none of which invoke graphic images of Popeye scarfing down canned spinach, thankyouverymuch). Here are five of the best heme​ iron food sources and five foods filled with ​non-heme​ iron​ to help you boost the amount of iron you eat, according to Spiewak. (FYI, she says that good sources of both heme and non-heme iron include 2.1 milligrams or more per serving.)

Heme Iron Food Sources

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All forms of shellfish are high in iron, but oysters, clams, and mussels are particularly good sources. Oysters have 8 milligrams per 3-ounce serving which is 44 percent of the DV; clams have close to 3 milligrams, or nearly 17 percent.

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Don’t knock them until you’ve tried ‘em—organ meats like liver (hey, pâté) and kidneys have as much as 5 milligrams per 3-ounce serving, which is 27 percent of the DV. Organ meats are also high in protein and rich in vitamin A, B vitamins, copper, choline, and selenium.

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Red meat has 2.2 milligrams per 3-ounce serving, or 12 percent of the DV. “Studies have suggested that those who eat meat, poultry, and fish on a regular basis may be less prone to iron deficiency,” says Spiewak. This is, of course, a multi-faceted finding, as many Americans’ diets also lack the rich sources of plant-based iron below.

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Certain types of fish are packed with iron, including tuna and sardines. Tuna has around 1.4 milligrams of iron in a 3-ounce serving (8 percent of the DV), and sardines have as much as 2 milligrams per 3-ounce serving (11 percent). Haddock and mackerel are other delicious iron-rich options.

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Dark turkey meat contains 1.4 milligrams of iron per serving, which is 8 percent of the DV (emphasis on dark meat, as light turkey meat contains approximately half that amount of iron).

Non-Heme Iron Food Sources

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According to Spiewak, cooked soybeans are a standout example here, as they contain 8.8 milligrams (nearly 50 percent of the DV) of iron in a 1-cup serving. A cup of cooked lentils contains 6.6 milligrams, which is 37 percent of the DV; a half-cup of black beans has 1.8 milligrams, or 10 percent of the DV.

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While Popeye wasn’t all wrong, don’t feel compelled to eat this delicious leafy green from a can. 3.5 ounces of raw spinach contains 2.7 milligrams of iron, which is 15 percent of the DV. Cooked spinach is (of course) far more concentrated: A cup of contains has 6.4 milligrams of iron, or 36 percent of the DV. Spinach is also rich in vitamin C—which significantly boosts your body’s ability to absorb iron—and antioxidants. Consuming spinach (and other leafy greens) with fat will help your body absorb the carotenoids, the most prominent antioxidant in the vegetable, so make sure to drizzle your spinach salad with EVOO.

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A 1-ounce serving of pumpkin seeds (aka pepitas) contains 2.5 milligrams of iron, which is 14 percent of the DV. Pistachios are also solid sources, with 1.1 milligrams per 1-ounce serving.

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A half-cup serving of our favorite soy-based protein has 3.4 milligrams of iron, which is 19 percent of the DV.

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A cup of cooked quinoa contains 2.8 milligrams of iron, which meets 16 percent of your DV. Quinoa is also packed with plant-based protein and antioxidants, folate, and magnesium.