Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, the protein in your red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen. Without enough iron, your blood won't contain adequate oxygen, and you may develop iron-deficiency anemia, a condition characterized by tiredness, shortness of breath, headaches, hair loss, pale or yellowish skin and an abnormally fast heartbeat. If you're a vegan or a strict vegetarian and don't consume iron-rich animal products like red meat, you may be more likely to become deficient in iron. However, red meat isn't the only -- or necessarily best -- way to meet your iron requirement.
Amount of Iron in Red Meat
An average 3-ounce serving of cooked red meat such as beef contains approximately 2.32 milligrams of iron. A man between 19 and 50 years old should have 8 milligrams of iron per day, and this amount would fulfill 29 percent of his requirement. A woman of the same age needs 18 milligrams daily, and a 3-ounce serving of beef would supply almost 13 percent of that recommendation. Pork, which is also considered a red meat, contains less iron, with 0.9 milligrams per 3-ounce serving.
Problems With Red Meat
While including red meats like beef in your diet might help you avoid iron deficiency, eating too much of it may not be good for your overall health. In 2012, the "Archives of Internal Medicine" published the results of a study that followed over 37,000 men and more than 83,000 women for almost three decades. The researchers found the more red meat you eat, the more likely you are to develop -- and die from -- chronic medical problems like cancer and heart disease. The study prompted the Harvard School of Public Health to urge people to consume no more than two 3-ounce servings of red meat weekly.
Other Sources of Iron
Consuming red meat isn't the only way to have a diet rich in iron. Canned clams contain 23.8 milligrams of the mineral in each 3-ounce serving, more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance for men and women. Oysters, shrimp and dark chicken meat are also good sources. Plant-based foods like beans and dark leafy greens such as spinach contain non-heme iron, a form not as easily absorbed as the heme iron in animal products. You can increase the amount of iron you retain from plant foods by eating them with a small amount of meat or a rich source of vitamin C.
Healthiest Red Meat Cuts
If you decide you still want to include red meat as an iron source in your diet, choose cuts that conform to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's guidelines for lean cuts. These are cuts that have less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol, no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat and fewer than 10 grams of total fat in a 3.5-ounce serving. Some include top sirloin steak, flank steak, 93 percent lean ground beef, pork tenderloin and pork sirloin chops. Use low-fat cooking methods such as grilling, roasting or broiling.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Iron and Iron Deficiency
- American Society of Hematology: Iron-Deficiency Anemia
- Linus Pauling Institute: Iron
- Harvard University Health Services: Iron Content of Common Foods
- Archives of Internal Medicine: Red Meat Consumption and Mortality - Results from 2 Prospective Cohort Studies
- Harvard School of Public Health: Protein -- Moving Closer to Center Stage
- National Institutes of Health: Iron
- Beefnutrition.org: Many of America's Favorite Cuts Are Lean