You don’t need a lot of iron to stay healthy, but even a mild deficiency can cause physical and metal fatigue, irritability and decreased immunity. This is because iron helps deliver oxygen to every cell in your body, which uses oxygen to produce energy. Iron is present in a variety of foods, but not all iron is created equal -- iron from animal tissues is more readily absorbed than the kind found in plant-based foods.
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For men of all ages and women older than 50, the recommended dietary allowance for iron is 8 milligrams a day. Younger women need 18 milligrams a day, while pregnant women require even more.
Meat and Poultry
Beef is typically an excellent source of iron, but the amount you get depends on what you eat. A 3-ounce portion of chuck roast supplies close to 3 milligrams of iron, while a 3-ounce top sirloin steak provides half that amount. Organ meats are among the most iron-rich foods available -- a 3-ounce serving of beef liver delivers just over 5 milligrams of iron. With 11 milligrams per serving, chicken liver is an even better source. When it comes to poultry, darker meat is generally higher in iron. Ounce for ounce, dark meat turkey provides twice as much iron as the light variety.
Many types of seafood are high in iron. Oysters are particularly iron-rich -- a 3-ounce portion of wild eastern oysters supplies 8 milligrams. Mussels, octopus, sardines, clams and crab typically provide anywhere from 2 to 6 milligrams of iron per serving, while most varieties of fish contain less. You’ll get just under 1 milligram of iron per 3-ounce portion of Pacific mackerel, orange roughy or wild-caught Atlantic salmon. Although canned tuna may deliver as much as 2 milligrams of iron per serving, some varieties contain closer to 1/2 milligram.
While many vegetables contain trace amounts of iron, a few provide enough to be considered excellent sources. Most legumes are iron-rich -- a cup of cooked kidney beans provides almost 4 milligrams of iron, while a cup of cooked lentils supplies just over 6.5 milligrams. You’ll also get close to 6.5 milligrams of iron from a cup of cooked spinach. Potatoes are a good source of iron, provided you eat the skin -- that’s where most of it is concentrated. Vitamin C increases the amount of iron your body can absorb from vegetables, which means you’ll get more iron from lentil soup if it contains tomatoes.
Fruit is generally not a significant source of iron, but levels are more concentrated in the dried variety. A small box of raisins has almost 1 milligram of iron, while a 6-ounce glass of prune juice provides more than 2 milligrams. Many whole grains contain iron, but grains that have been enriched or fortified tend to be the best sources. Pasta and bread made from refined, iron-enriched flour supply ample amounts, and iron-fortified cereals tend to be particularly high in iron. Some cereals provide as much as 18 milligrams per serving -- an amount that surpasses the recommended daily intake level for many people.