If you have low iron levels in your blood, you may have iron-deficiency anemia or borderline anemia, a condition that can ultimately result in a shortage of oxygen in the body. Red meat is often at the top of the list of iron-rich foods but many other foods contain this essential mineral. To improve your iron levels, it is important to eat not only foods that are rich in iron but also foods that are high in vitamin C, which helps your body absorb iron from other foods.
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Meat, Poultry and Seafood
Beef, pork, lamb, dark-meat poultry and seafood are all significant sources of iron. Beef livers, chicken livers and other organ meats are especially high in iron. Fish such as sardines, anchovies, shellfish such as clams, mussels and oysters are high in iron. Meat, poultry and fish are good foods to eat if you are low in iron because the iron in animal foods, known as heme iron, is the type of iron that is best absorbed by the body.
Lima beans, kidney beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, baked beans and other legumes, such as lentils and split peas, are all good sources of iron. However, the iron in these plant foods, known as non-heme iron, is not as well absorbed by the body as heme iron. How much iron is absorbed from legumes depends on the types of foods served with them. Combining legumes and meat sources of heme iron at the same meal will enhance the absorption of iron from the legumes.
In general, fruit does not contain a significant amount of iron, but the vitamin C in citrus and other types of fruit helps your body absorb non-heme iron from plant sources, especially when these foods are eaten together at the same meal. Dried apricots, dates and raisins do contain significant amounts of iron because nutrients are concentrated in dehydrated fruits.
Several green vegetables such as broccoli, green peas, kale, collard greens and spinach contain significant amounts of iron but, like other plant foods, the iron is in non-heme form, which is not easily absorbed into the body. Serving vegetables with a source of heme iron, such as a steak or chicken thigh, or another vegetable or fruit that is especially high in vitamin C, such as sweet peppers, tomatoes or mango slices, will increase the amount of iron available from the green vegetables.
Breads, cereals, rice and pastas are among the types of food that are fortified with iron. That means supplemental iron is added to the product as it is being processed. The types of iron used in the fortification program vary in bioavailability, which means some are better absorbed--and therefore more useful for improving low iron levels--than others. These products, like other plant-based foods, are best served with heme sources of iron or good sources of vitamin C to ensure the best absorption of iron.