In many ways, iron deficiency anemia is the nutrient deficiency that drains a person’s potential and quality of life. Not generally come to mind with nutrient deficiencies. But when you look closely you can see that both are significantly impacted with iron deficiency anemia symptoms such as inability to concentrate, chronically tired or fatigued, low energy, impaired cognitive function (ability to think well and rationally), decline in mood, constantly feeling cold, increased susceptibility to infections, and loss of hair. Imagine how all that affects the human experience, let alone school and work performances.
Other signs and symptoms include pale appearance (doc’s will use the term pallor), shortness of breath, general weakness, dizziness/light-headedness, poor appetite, brittle nails, cold hands/feet, chest pain, headaches, unusual cravings of non-food items (in pregnant women this is called pica), inflamed/sore tongue, tingling/crawling feeling in feet and legs, and the list of unfunness goes on and on.
Women and children are affected more often than men with this deficiency due to a variety of reasons. That is not to say that men cannot develop iron deficiency anemia. According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency anemia is the most widespread nutrition deficiency worldwide with an estimated 2 million or 1/3 of the world’s population suffering from the deficiency.
Women are at a higher risk because of they tend to eat less than men (which limits opportunities to get iron), have monthly blood loss (which contains iron) during menstruation and while pregnant they have an increase in blood volume and provide iron for both them and the growing baby.
Children are at a higher risk because of their iron needs related to growth and those pesky, picking eating food jags. One sneaky reason that children get low in iron is due to over-consumption of dairy. Their little bellies fill up on calcium rich milk and they don’t have the stomach room available for iron rich foods. Additionally, children born to iron deficient mothers are likely to be born with low iron levels.
Vegetarians, vegans, smokers and women with significantly higher than normal blood loss during menstruation have an increased need/challenge to get iron. There is no need to start eating meat as it is entirely possible to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet and get plenty of iron. Smokers be advised that low iron is on the LONG list of smoking drawbacks and now is a great time to nip the habit in the butt! If that’s not on your agenda, you too can still get enough iron, but know that you’re needs are higher than non-smokers.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron varies depending on age and gender. You can find your RDA by clicking HERE. Note that medical conditions, lifestyle factors and smoking can all affect your personal iron RDA. For the purpose of this article, we’ll be using the RDA for non-pregnant women between the ages of 19-50, which is 18 mg.
Iron comes in two dietary forms: heme (found in meat) and non-heme (plant based). For those that are vegetarian, vegan or consume little amounts of meat, there are many sources of plant based iron available to choose from. The trick is to consume these foods regularly and frequently with plenty of vitamin C rich foods. Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron from non-heme sources.
The heme iron found in meat is readily absorbed, but when you get down to the facts, meat actually doesn’t pack that much of a nutritional punch when it comes to iron. A serving-size, 3 ounces steak contains a whopping 2 mg of iron when the RDA for ladies is 18 mg! If you’re talking a 3 ounce serving of chicken, you’re getting a lousy 1.1 mg of iron, unless you get one of the pieces with a vein in it – you might get an extra pop of .01 mg from that grossness, if you’re lucky. That’s not to slam meat-eaters, but to bring light to the facts.
Before we dive into the delicious list of iron rich foods and the super fun ending, let's talk iron supplements. If your healthcare provider recommends an iron supplement, ask for one that is easy to digest and take per your healthcare provider's orders. Still eat iron rich foods until it becomes a habit. Your iron levels will come up sooner and stay up because you'll be hip to the beat of eating iron rich foods on the regular.
Below are lists of both plant-based iron rich foods and vitamin C rich foods. You’ll notice spices and herbs amongst the list. That doesn’t mean to eat a spoonful of cinnamon, but rather to add 1 teaspoon to a recipe that calls for ½ a teaspoon and/or adding more spices to the foods you’re already consuming. Additionally, it’s not suggested to only eat foods on this list, but to eat the foods on this list frequently (several times a day) by adding them to what you are already eating or seeking out recipes that include these foods.
To help this information sink in, try coming up with 4 to 5 variations of the foods below to get a total of 20 mg iron in day.
At the end of the list you’ll find a sweet bonus item that can greatly improve both your iron levels and the iron levels of a family in need.
Plant-Based Iron Rich Foods
Note: Foods marked with an * after them are recommended by the Environmental Working Group to purchase organic.
Tip: You’ll see a lot of legumes (beans and lentils) featured on this list packing awesome amounts of iron. To get the nutritional benefits of beans without the gas, make sure to rinse your beans (whether soaked or canned) until all the bubbles are gone to get rid of the majority of the gas causing oligosaccharides. Start with a small amount of beans and work your way up. This allows your digestive system time to adapt to them. Finally, rinse your lentils after cooking them and definitely start with small amounts. Large amounts of lentils are not for legume rookies!
Asparagus: 1 cup of asparagus contains about 1.6 mg iron.
Basil: ½ cup chopped basil contains .67 mg iron.
Beets: 1 cup of beets contains 1.34 mg iron.
Black Beans: 1 cup of black beans contains 3.61 mg iron!
Broccoli: 1 cup of broccoli contains 1.05 mg iron.
Brussels Sprouts: 1 cup of Brussels sprouts contains 1.87 mg iron.
Chili Pepper: 2 teaspoons of chili pepper contains .93 mg iron.
Cinnamon: 2 teaspoons of cinnamon contains .43 mg iron.
Cloves: 2 teaspoons of cloves contains .5 mg iron.
Collard Greens*: 1 cup cooked collard greens contains 2.15 mg iron.
Cumin: Seeds: 2 teaspoons of cumin seeds contains 2.79 mg iron.
Fennel: 1 cup of chopped fennel bulb contains .67 mg iron.
Garbanzo Beans: 1 cup of garbanzo beans contains 4.74 mg iron.
Green Beans: 1 cup of green beans contains .81 mg iron.
Kale*: 1 cooked cup of kale contains 1.17 mg iron.
Kidney Beans: 1 cup of kidney beans contains 3.93 mg iron.
Leeks: 1 cup of cooked leeks contains 1.14 mg iron.
Lentils: 1 cup of cooked lentils contains 6.59 mg iron.
Lima Beans: 1 cup of lima beans contains 4.49 mg iron.
Mustard Greens: 1 cup cooked mustard greens contains 1.22 mg iron.
Navy Beans: 1 cup cooked navy beans contains 4.3 mg iron.
Olives: 1 cup canned black olives contains 4.44 mg iron.
Oregano: 2 teaspoons of oregano contains .74 mg iron.
Parsley: ½ cup of parsley contains 1.88 mg iron.
Peas: 1 cup of peas contains 2.12 mg iron.
Pinto Beans: 1 cup cooked pinto beans contains 3.57 mg iron.
Pumpkin Seeds: ¼ cup of pumpkin seeds contains 2.84 mg iron.
Quinoa: ¾ cup of quinoa contains 2.76 mg iron.
Romaine Lettuce: 2 cups of romaine lettuce contains .91 mg iron.
Sesame Seeds: ¼ cup of sesame seeds contains 5.24 mg iron.
¼ cup of sesame seeds is a ridiculous amount to eat all in one setting. This is a great example of adding a bit to recipes or looking for recipes that contain this food instead of eating a large amount to get a nutrient.
Spinach*: 1 cup cooked spinach contains 6.43 mg iron.
Summer Squash/Zucchini: 1 cup cooked summer squash contains .65 mg iron.
Swiss Chard: 1 cup cooked Swiss chard contains 3.96 mg iron.
Turmeric: 2 teaspoons of ground turmeric contains 1.82 mg iron.
Turnip Greens: 1 cup cooked turnip greens contains 1.15 mg iron.
Sources of iron, as well as their total iron content were found on World's Healthiest Foods and Well-Being Secrets.
Sources of Vitamin C:
Apricots, Asparagus, Avocado, Banana, Basil, Beets, Bell Peppers*, Blueberries, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cantaloupe, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cayenne Pepper, Cherries*, Chili Pepper, Cloves, Collard Greens, Corn, Cranberries, Cucumbers*, Garlic, Grapefruit, Grapes*, Green Beans, Kale*, Kiwi, Leeks, Lemon, Mustard Greens, Onion, Oranges, Oregano, Papaya, Parsley, Peas, Pears, Pineapple, Plums, Pomegranate, Raspberries, Romaine Lettuce, Spinach*, Strawberries*, Summer Squash*, Swiss Chard, Tomatoes*, Turnip Greens, Watermelon, Winter Squash and Zucchini.
Those featured in italics also contain iron.
Important to note that vitamin C is heat liable, meaning that it is destroyed by heat. Consequently cooking foods contain vitamin C will reduce the amount of vitamin C in the food. While it may no longer be the best source of vitamin C at that point it will have other nutrients. When focusing on getting vitamin C choose a method of preparation that doesn’t involve heat.
Lucky Iron Fish
In late 2015 I came across information on Lucky Iron Fish, an affordable, ingenious and even charitable idea for boosting iron levels. I mentioned the little fella in the recipes Natalie's Borscht and Lime-Ginger Carrot Soup.
You simply put the Lucky Iron Fish in whatever fluid based (soup, sauce, stew, etc.) food that you’re preparing and it enriches the dish with iron! Even better, when you purchase a Lucky Iron Fish for you, the company donates 1 to a family in need. That’s a win-win situation.
Click HERE to learn more about the Lucky Iron Fish and get you one!
With the exception of the Lucky Iron Fish (I have no affiliation with the company, I simply love their product and what they are doing), the links contained in this article are Amazon affiliate links. That means while your cost is the same as it would be if you went to Amazon.com directly, NutritionSheila.com receives affiliate compensation which in turn is used to spread nutrition, health and wellness information to even more people. Thank you kindly.
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