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Health benefits of iron and the best food sources

by Caroline Fontein

Maybe you pumped some iron today. But did any get in your diet? Or does hearing the word iron just make you think of those wrinkled shirts still lingering on your To Do list?

Unlike some of the more “well-known” vitamins and nutrients (we’re looking at you vitamin C), iron doesn’t always get the spotlight it deserves. However, iron is essential to your overall health and something that must come from your diet.

But when’s the last time you thought about making sure you and your family are eating enough iron? What foods even contain iron? How does this essential nutrient benefit your health?

We’re here to help you iron out all the details.

First, let’s start with the basics:

Is iron a vitamin or a mineral?

Iron is an essential mineral that’s naturally present in many foods. You can also find iron fortified-foods. In addition to that, this essential mineral is available as a dietary supplement to help people maintain normal iron levels.

What are the health benefits of iron?

You know how they say blood is thicker than water. This literally might be why.

Iron helps your body form red blood cells and helps in their proper function.* For pregnant women, iron also supports normal fetal development.*

Why is iron important?

Iron is an essential part of your hemoglobin and the reason why blood is red. Hemoglobin is the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to your organs and tissues and transports carbon dioxide from your organs and tissues back to your lungs.

Hemoglobin also plays an important role in the shape of your red blood cells. Typically, red blood cells are round with narrow centers, like donuts without the holes.

If the hemoglobin structure becomes abnormal it can hinder how your red blood cells function and flow through blood vessels.

Iron is also a part of myoglobin, another protein that transports oxygen to the muscle cells. As a result, iron also supports muscle metabolism and healthy connective tissue, and it’s necessary for physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning and the synthesis of some hormones.

For this reason, it’s important for people to maintain normal levels of hemoglobin and making sure you’re getting enough iron in your diet can help.

How do you test your levels of hemoglobin?

Hemoglobin tests are available and something that a medical care provider can recommend. If a test reveals that levels are lower than normal, it means you have a low red blood cell count, called anemia. There are many different things that can cause anemia including bleeding and chronic diseases.

How much iron do I need? What are the different kinds of iron?

The amount of iron you need varies by your age and sex. We included recommendations from the Institutes of Health below.

It’s also important to understand that there are two different types of iron and how your body can use and absorb them is not the same.

The first is heme iron found in animal food sources including meat, poultry and fish. This form of iron is easier for your body to absorb compared to the second form, nonheme iron found in plant-based foods.

According to the National Institutes of Health, vegetarians should get almost twice as much iron from their diet as the average daily recommended intake because the body doesn’t absorb nonheme iron in plant foods as well as heme iron in animal food sources.

However, the presence of vitamin C helps nonheme iron absorption. Luckily, many plant-based sources of this essential mineral are usually also a good source of vitamin C.

The recommended amount of iron you should get in your diet also changes for women and teens (14 - 18 years old) who are pregnant and lactating.

These are the amounts that the National Institutes of Health recommends:

  • 0 to 6 months: 0.27mg
  • 6-12 months: 11 mg
  • 1 - 3 years: 7 mg
  • 4 - 8 years: 10 mg
  • 9 - 13 years: 8 mg
  • 14 - 18 years Teen boys: 11 mg
  • 14 - 18 years Teen girls: 15 mg
  • 19 - 50 years Adult men: 8 mg
  • 19 - 50 years Adult women: 18 mg
  • 51+ Adult men and women: 8 mg
  • Pregnant teens: 27 mg
  • Pregnant women: 27 mg
  • Breastfeeding teens: 10 mg
  • Breastfeeding women: 9 mg

What foods are high in iron?

Here are some animal and non-animal foods that are high in iron. Along with being a source of iron, we selected the foods below because they also contain many other beneficial nutrients:

  1. Shellfish
    Time to mussel up. Clams, oysters and mussels are excellent sources of iron, and they contain other important nutrients too.

    A 3.5 ounce serving of clams can contain up to 28 mg of iron and 26 grams of protein. They’re also high in vitamin C and B12.

    While these mighty mollusks pack a punch when it comes to iron they can also contain trace amounts of mercury. For most people, the risk of mercury from eating shellfish is not a health concern, but you may want to consult with your doctor before eating them if you’re thinking about becoming pregnant, are pregnant or are lactating.

  2. Beef Liver
    Organ meat might not be the most popular thing on the menu. But this one can help beef up your iron intake. Just 1 ounce (about 28 grams) contains 5 mg of iron (28 percent of the daily recommended value).

    Beef liver is also a good source of protein, vitamin A, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin B12, pantothenic acid, phosphorous, copper and selenium. Beef liver is also a source of CoQ10, an important nutrient for heart health.*

  3. Canned tuna
    Go fish! One can of tuna contains 2.5 mg of iron (14 percent of the daily recommended value). It’s also contains omega-3 fatty acids and is a good source of vitamin B6, phosphorous, protein, niacin, vitamin B12 and selenium.

    We recommend going with a no salt or low-sodium option. Tuna is not thought to contain low levels or mercury. However, as mentioned above, you may want to consult with your doctor before eating them if you’re thinking about becoming pregnant, are pregnant or are lactating.

  4. Raw kale
    What doesn’t kale you makes you stronger, and here’s how. About one cup of raw chopped kale has 1.1 mg of iron (6 percent of the daily recommended value).

    While not very high in iron compared to the animal-based options on this list, this leafy green is also packed with other healthy nutrients. It’s also a good source of vitamin C (which helps with nonheme iron absorption) protein, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin B6, calcium, potassium, copper and manganese. Kale is also a source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.

  5. Turkey
    Yet one more thing to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. About a cup of turkey contains 2 mg of iron (11 percent of the daily recommended intake). It’s not as high as offal (organ meat), but turkey is also a good source of niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorous, protein and selenium.

    Turkey always gets the spotlight once November rolls around, but it’s actually a leaner poultry option than chicken. Just another reason to make this bird a regular part of your diet.

  6. Kidney beans
    One of the most commonly consumed legumes, kidney beans contain iron and several other important nutrients.

    One cup of canned kidney beans contains 3 mg of iron (17 percent of the daily recommended intake). They’re also a good source of protein, folate, phosphorous and dietary fiber.

    Looking to up your omega-3 fatty acids? Kidney beans are also a good plant-based source of these healthy fats.

  7. Tofu
    Bean curd, or tofu, is well-known as being a good source of vegetarian and vegan-friendly protein. It’s also a good source of iron.

    About a quarter of a block of tofu (122g) contains 3.4 mg of iron (19 percent of the daily recommended intake). Tofu is also a good source of phosphorous, copper, selenium, calcium and manganese.

  8. Peanut butter
    Don’t spread yourself too thin. Because peanut butter is packed with protein, healthy fats and is a good source of iron. One cup of plain, smoothe peanut butter contains 4.8 mg of iron (27 percent of the daily recommended intake).

    We recommend looking for an all-natural version of this popular nut butter that doesn’t contain salt or added sugars.

Where can I find an iron supplement?

Making sure you get enough iron in your diet can be a challenge, especially if you eat primarily plant-based foods. A supplement can help.

You can look for an iron supplement or a multivitamin supplement that contains iron, like our PhD Formulas.

At SmartyPants we include iron in our PhD vegan Women’s multivitamin formula and vegan Prenatal multivitamin formula capsule supplements to help fill those nutritional gaps and help offer a number of additional health benefits too.*

Our PhD Formulas include a full multivitamin plus more than 25 premium nutrients to support brain, heart and eye health and more - all in two easy-to-swallow capsules.*

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.

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Caroline Fontein