Getting enough iron is essential for your health. Here's how to do just that.

By Ariel Klein
Updated September 04, 2019
The Best Iron-Rich Foods—and All the Reasons You Should Eat Them
Credit: Getty Images

When it comes to eating well, many of us are guilty of merely counting calories and monitoring fat intake, but consuming enough vitamins and minerals is also imperative to our overall health. One of the most important minerals to be more mindful of is iron.

In order to truly appreciate the benefits of iron, it’s helpful to understand how exactly it works within our bodies. We sat down with Rebecca Ditkoff, RD, a New York-based registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition by RD, to gain some insight. “Iron is mainly known for its role in manufacturing hemoglobin (which is a protein in our red blood cells) and enables our red blood cells to transfer oxygen to the body’s tissues. It’s also known to help with metabolism, DNA synthesis, immunity, and healing,” Ditkoff says.

What Happens If I’m Not Getting Enough Iron?

Since our bodies don’t produce iron on its own, we have to get it from the foods we eat. Iron deficiency, also known as anemia, can be extremely serious. It’s usually caused by not having enough iron in your diet or by your body not being able to process and absorb iron. “Symptoms of an iron deficiency may include fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, headache, and pale skin. It’s also common in menstruating women, pregnant women, and can even be found in children,” Ditkoff says. Interestingly, she adds that “very few men are iron deficient and some may even be at risk for iron excess.”

Foods That Are High in Iron

Whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat lover, there are plenty of ways to make sure you’re getting enough iron. “Iron is widely available in foods, including meat, poultry, and fish, as well as grains, green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits," Ditkoff says. "Iron from plant sources (known as non-heme iron) is absorbed half as well as that from animal sources (known as heme iron).”

“Eating legumes, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans are a great way to boost your iron intake because you don’t need much," Ditkoff says. "Depending on the type of legume, they can range from 2.5 milligrams to 4.5 milligrams of iron per half-cup.”

It also turns out that Popeye was onto something by eating all of those cans of spinach. “It’s very nutrient-dense, meaning spinach provides many health benefits for very few calories. One of those benefits is the high amount of iron it contains. Roughly half of a cup of cooked spinach contains 3 milligrams of iron,” Ditkoff says. She also mentions that shellfish is her favorite source of iron because it’s heme iron, which is easier for our bodies to absorb. “All shellfish are high in iron, but clams, oysters and mussels are particularly good sources,” she says.

How Much Iron Do I need?

So how much iron should you be getting each day? Ditkoff says that “women ages 19 to 50 should be consuming 18 milligrams of iron per day, while men ages 19 to 70 only need about 8 milligrams.” She also shared a few tips to maximize iron absorption and prevent iron deficiency anemia:

  • Include a source of vitamin C at every meal to help maximize iron absorption.
  • Avoid drinking large amounts of tea or coffee with meals (since this can inhibit iron absorption).
  • Some cereals contain 18 milligrams of iron per serving (100 percent bran flakes, Grape-Nuts, and Total). Having three-quarters of a cup of your preference will ensure your daily iron intake.