A juicy burger is one delicious way to beef up on iron, an essential nutrient that carries oxygen from the lungs to every cell in the body. For healthy adults, avoiding an iron deficiency can be as simple as eating a balanced diet that includes iron-rich foods.
The National Institutes of Health recommends a daily allowance of just 8 milligrams of iron for men and 18 milligrams for women, ages 19 through 50.
"We think of women being at the highest risk of deficiency because any time you're losing blood, you're losing iron, and women who are menstruating have a higher risk of deficiency," explains Megan Stoutz, MS, RD, a New York-based dietitian.
People with a mild iron deficiency may have no symptoms. If your iron stores are too low, however, you run the risk of becoming anemic, which can lead to a variety of symptoms, including extreme fatigue, brittle nails, cold sensitivity and shortness of breath, according to the NIH. If you suspect you may have an iron deficiency, talk with your doctor.
In cases of iron deficiency anemia, a physician may recommend iron supplements, but such serious deficiencies are uncommon in men and postmenopausal women, according to the NIH. Most of us can get all the iron we need from the food we eat.
There are two kinds of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from animal products, like that juicy burger or steak, Stoutz says. Non-heme iron comes from plant sources. Heme iron is the best source of iron in terms of bioavailability — how easily your body can access the mineral — she adds. But that doesn't mean you can't meet your daily needs with non-heme sources.
Stoutz points out that people following a vegetarian or vegan diet, however, will need 1.8 times as much as someone who eats animal products. In other words, vegan and vegetarian women would need nearly 36 milligrams of iron every day.
Here are some of the best sources of iron — animal- and plant-based — that are readily available at your grocery store, and that you'll love to eat.
Among the red meats, beef and lamb offer the highest amount of iron per serving. Three ounces can add a whopping 25 and 26 milligrams, respectively.
"In general, red meat is going to be your best source of iron over white meat or eggs, but it's a lot higher in saturated fat," Stoutz says.
The American Heart Association recommends that only 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories (about 13 grams) come from saturated fats. A 3-ounce serving of beef has 5 grams of saturated fat, and that same serving of lamb has 8 grams.
Dark Leafy Greens
Yet another reason to swap your iceberg lettuce for kale, spinach or even seaweed (really!). Seaweed outranks kale and spinach when it comes to iron content: A cup has nearly 32 milligrams of non-heme iron compared to spinach's 6 milligrams.
Leafy greens are a good way to get more calcium in your diet, too, but calcium inhibits the absorption of iron, Stoutz says. She recommends spacing out your iron- and calcium-rich eats as much as possible and pairing high-iron foods with vitamin C, which increases iron absorption.
All legumes — beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and soybeans — are low-calorie foods that provide high levels of important nutrients, including iron, protein and fiber, Stoutz says. A cup of peas, for example, has 2 milligrams of iron.
As a whole, beans are a great way to eat more iron. Kidney beans are slightly higher in iron than other beans, like navy, Stoutz says, but mixing up your bean intake will help you reach your iron needs. A cup of kidney beans, for example, has about 17 milligrams of iron. Drizzle your beans with a little vitamin C-rich lemon juice for added iron absorption.
Seeds and Nuts
These small but mighty snacks pack a punch when it comes to nutrition, including fiber. According to the USDA, 1 ounce of pumpkins seeds has about 1 milligram of iron, and sesame seeds have about double that.
Nuts and seeds also provide healthy fat, fiber and a little protein, Stoutz says. And because they're high in fat, you only need to snack on a handful to feel full.
Fortified Cereals and Breads
What's not to love about cereal and bread? Grains that are fortified with nutrients are a good source of non-heme iron as well, Stoutz says. A half cup of oats has nearly 20 milligrams of iron. Plus, oatmeal is a good source of filling fiber. Top with peanut butter for healthy fat and a little protein.
But before you go heavy on the breakfast cereal, check the labels for added sugars, Stoutz says. Dietitians generally recommend cereals with fewer than 5 or 6 grams of sugar per serving, but low-sugar cereals often have even less, such as Cheerios, which only have 1 to 2 grams of sugar per cup.
If you're keen on organ meats, you can hit nearly 30 milligrams of iron per serving. Liver also is high in vital nutrients, including vitamin B12, which helps the metabolism function properly and keeps blood cells and nerves healthy; vitamin A, which supports eye health; and choline, which supports brain function. But consume organ meats in moderation: They also are high in saturated fats.
While technically a red meat, pork is much lower in iron than beef and lamb, with about 19 milligrams per 3-ounce serving. It has slightly less saturated fat than its counterparts, too, with about 4.5 milligrams per serving. But that doesn't mean to go, er, hog wild on the bacon. The saturated fat in bacon can offset the nutritional benefit you're getting from its iron.
- National Institutes of Health: "Iron"
- United States Department of Agriculture: "Nutrients List"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- USDA: "Food Data Central: Lamb"
- USDA: "Food Data Central: Beef"
- USDA: "Food Data Central: Sesame Seeds"
- USDA: "Food Data Central: Pork"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Iron-Deficiency Anemia"