People with anemia have fewer red blood cells than they need. Iron-deficiency anemia, the most common form of anemia, is caused by too little iron in the diet. Without sufficient iron, your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that makes it possible for them to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. As a result, you may feel weak, tired, and irritable.
About 20% of women, 50% of pregnant women, and 3% of men do not have enough iron in their body. The solution, in many cases, is to consume more foods high in iron.
Iron from meat is heme iron.
Very good sources of heme iron, with 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces of beef or chicken liver
- 3 ounces of clams, mollusks, or mussels
- 3 ounces of oysters
Good sources of heme iron, with 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces of cooked beef
- 3 ounces of canned sardines, canned in oil
- 3 ounces of cooked turkey
Other sources of heme iron, with 0.7 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces of chicken
- 3 ounces of halibut, haddock, perch, salmon, or tuna
- 3 ounces of ham
- 3 ounces of veal
Iron in plant foods such as lentils, beans, and spinach is nonheme iron. This is the form of iron added to iron-enriched and iron-fortified foods. Our bodies are less efficient at absorbing nonheme iron, but most dietary iron is nonheme iron.
Very good sources of nonheme iron, with 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- Breakfast cereals enriched with iron (Cream of Wheat has a lot of iron)
- One cup of cooked beans
- One-half cup of tofu
- 1 ounce of pumpkin, sesame, or squash seeds
Good sources of nonheme iron, with 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- One-half cup of canned lima beans, red kidney beans, chickpeas, or split peas
- One cup of dried apricots
- One medium baked potato
- One medium stalk of broccoli
- One cup of cooked enriched egg noodles
- One-fourth cup of wheat germ
How to Get More Iron From Your Food
To improve your absorption of iron, eat it along with a good source of vitamin C — such as orange juice, broccoli, or strawberries — or eat nonheme iron foods with a food from the meat, fish, and poultry group.
If you have trouble getting enough iron from food sources, you may need an iron supplement. But speak to your health care provider about the proper dosage first and follow his or her instructions carefully. Because very little iron is excreted from the body, iron can accumulate in body tissues and organs when the normal storage sites — the liver, spleen, and bone marrow — are full. Although iron toxicity from food sources is rare, deadly overdoses are possible with supplements.
The Popeye Myth
If you don’t like spinach, don’t worry! It doesn’t really have much iron in it, compared with the foods listed above.