12 Foods That Are Higher in Iron Than Spinach
This mineral keeps your body and mind performing at their peak, but many people just don't get enough.
Make foods high in iron a priority in your diet
Extreme fatigue, a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and difficulty focusing sound like symptoms that would send most people running to their doctor’s office. But they can also be signs of a very common mineral deficiency—the most common nutritional disorder in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
“Iron carries oxygen through our blood to our muscles and brain, making it crucial for both mental and physical health and performance,” says dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition. The mineral is also essential for helping maintain a healthy immune system, regulating body temperature, and digestion and absorption of other nutrients—which explains why a lack of it, known as iron-deficiency anemia, can lead to the symptoms described above.
Pumping up your iron
We have to get iron from outside sources like foods and/or supplements, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of Better Than Dieting. And that might sound easy until you consider that a cup of raw spinach—despite what Popeye cartoons might lead you to believe—has less than 1 milligram per cup. Government nutrition experts recommend that adult men get a minimum of eight mg daily, and adult pre-menopausal women, thanks to menstrual cycles, need 18 mg a day; pregnant women need 27 mg.
Some of the top dietary sources of iron come from animals—red meat, liver, shellfish—so the growing popularity of plant-based diets have left us more iron-starved than ever. Read on for your ultimate iron-pumping grocery list, and other tips for keeping your levels of this vital mineral healthy.
Most people think of red meat when they think of iron, and with good reason. A four-oz beef patty has nearly three mg of iron, as well as vitamin B-12, zinc, and selenium, says Taub-Dix. And though red meat gets a bad rap when it comes to fat, many cuts are fairly lean, including sirloin and a roast. If you love to use a slow cooker, try our hearty beef chili recipe.
Poultry has half as much iron as beef, but you can still get 1.3 mg in a 4-oz serving. And more importantly, it’s the type of iron that’s most easily absorbed by your body (heme iron), compared to the kind you get from plant-based sources (non-heme), says Taub-Dix. If you want to maximize your intake of the mineral, opt for dark meat, such as thighs, which will have a little bit more iron than white meat, like breasts. Try our go-to recipe for Dutch-oven chicken.
There are plenty of great reasons to eat shellfish: They’re rich in protein, low in calories, and a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. And most pack plenty of iron, too, says Taub-Dix. Three ounces of raw oysters deliver 4.5 mg of the mineral, plus you get zinc, which is good for your immune system and may offer men a fertility boost since it aids in the production of testosterone—which is why oysters make our list of natural libido-boosters.
Half a cup of the dried fruit delivers nearly two mg of the muscle-building mineral, for just under 160 calories. This can be a great way for vegetarians to help meet their iron needs, says Taub-Dix, especially since apricots also contain a decent amount of vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron. Find more vitamin C-rich foods to stock up on.
As far as vegetarian sources of iron go, members of the pulse family rank near the top. Cooked lentils have more than three mg per half cup, and are a great source of protein, too. Plus, says Zeitlin, their high fibre content helps promote gut health, which in turn promotes absorption of all the minerals we get from food, including iron. Learn more on why you should increase your fibre intake.
Whole grains are often a good source of minerals, and amaranth is no exception. In addition to loads of iron—five mg per cooked cup—it contains magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. It comes in many forms, from flour to flakes, is naturally gluten-free, and can even be popped for a crunchy salad topper or snack.
These shelled edible seeds of the hemp plant (a relative of marijuana that doesn’t have psychoactive effects) are another iron option for vegans—they give you 2 mg in a quarter-cup. You can eat these sprinkled over a salad, smoothie, or cereal, enabling you to easily boost the iron content of every meal, along with getting more healthy fats (including omega-6s and omega-3s). They are calorie-dense, but unlike these other high-calorie foods, they’re worth it. They also pack protein, fibre, and all nine essential amino acids.
Though often championed for their omega-3 fats, these tiny seeds pack quite a bit of iron: two mg in a quarter-cup. They deliver fibre, protein, and other valuable minerals like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. They’ll also absorb moisture so mixing them with liquid will give you a pudding-like consistency for a healthy, iron-filled dessert or snack, like our fig chia pudding.
Nuts, in general, are full of good-for-you fats and a decent amount of protein; cashews—in addition to being the first nut picked out of trail mix—have the distinction of being highest in iron, with 2 mg per quarter-cup. Toss back a handful as a snack or try blending them into cashew butter for a creamy, protein-rich spread.
(Related: Foods That Lower Your Cholesterol Naturally)
Canadians generally don’t eat enough legumes: Beans have fibre and folate (a B vitamin) galore. Depending on the specific variety, you’ll get anywhere from 2 to 4 mg of iron per half cup. White beans rank near the top; garbanzos and black beans are about average. Try our aromatic beans and green side dish.
The seed with the most iron is technically sesame, but it’s tough to eat enough of them. Pumpkin seeds, however, make a great snack, are full of calcium, protein, and zinc, and a quarter cup has 4.5 mg of iron. Try our turkey burger with pumpkin seed pesto.
Surprised? Cocoa comes from a bean, and like other beans, it’s fairly high in iron. An ounce of the dark stuff (look for a cacao percentage around 60 or 70) contains more than three mg. Just don’t overdo it—the calories add up quickly. Here are some more benefits of eating dark chocolate.
Even if you’re bulking your diet up with these foods, you could be falling short of your RDA if you don’t take into account how the rest of your diet can interfere with iron. Certain foods inhibit iron absorption, points out Zeitlin, including caffeine, the tannins in tea, and phosphates in carbonated beverages. Cutting back on those foods will increase the amount of the mineral your body can use.
Likewise, some nutrients boost your body’s ability to absorb iron, says Taub-Dix. Vitamin C, in particular, helps you get more from plant-based sources of iron, which can be useful for people who avoid meat. Pairing C-rich foods such as 100 percent orange juice, bell pepper, or strawberries with iron-rich plant foods can help boost your stores of this all-important mineral.
Next, check out these so-called “healthy” foods nutritionists never eat.