17 March 11 Are You Getting Enough Iron?

How ironic that one of the most abundant minerals on earth, iron, also happens to be the mineral most likely to be too low in the human body. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world and it affects both children and adults. This is primarily because heme iron, the kind that is most easily absorbed into our blood, is concentrated in certain foods that not everyone has consistent access to, can afford, or is willing to eat. Heme iron comes from animal sources, with the highest concentration in mollusks, liver, kidneys and red meat/poultry.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron (from heme and non-heme sources) for men of all ages and women over 50 years is 8 mg/day. Women up to age 50 years need 18 mg. Women who are pregnant need a whopping 27 mg; whereas those who are breastfeeding need only 9 mg.

Heme Iron

See the list below for particularly good sources of heme iron. The iron value displayed is for the plain, cooked versions of these foods, typically braised or simmered. Iron values were obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Nutrient Data Laboratory. MyNetDiary expresses iron as a percentage of your RDA in logs and reports.

3 oz cooked portion (85 grams): Iron (mg)
Mollusks: Clams: 23.7 mg (note that canned clams are a lot lower in iron, only 2.3 mg)
Mollusks: Cuttlefish: 9.2 mg
Mollusks: Octopus: 8.1 mg
Mollusks: Oysters: 6.6 mg
Mollusks: Mussels: 5.7 mg
Liver: Pork: 15.2 mg
Liver: Chicken: 9.9 mg
Liver: Beef: 5.6 mg
Liver: Veal: 4.3 mg
Kidneys: Lamb: 10.5 mg
Kidneys: Beef: 4.9 mg
Kidneys: Pork: 4.5 mg
Duck: Peking and Wild: 3.8 mg
Duck: All others: 2.3 mg
Beef: Trimmed, lean cuts: 2.5 – 3 mg
Turkey: Dark Meat Only: 2 mg
Chicken: Dark Meat Only: 1.1 mg
Pork: Most Cuts: < 1 mg

Non-Heme Iron

What if you are vegetarian, allergic to seafood or hate organ meats? Can you meet your need for iron from plants and fortified foods? Probably, yes.

Best plant sources of iron include fortified breakfast cereals and grains (e.g. 3/4 cup of Kellogg's bran flakes = 18 mg), mature soybeans (1 cup cooked= 8.8 mg), lentils (1 cup cooked = 6.6 mg), average of other cooked dried beans (1 cup = 4.3 mg), sesame seeds (3 tbsp or 1 oz = 4.2 mg), cooked spinach (1/2 cup = 3.2 mg), tofu (1/2 cup firm = 2 – 3.4 mg), and poppy seeds (3 tbsp or 1 oz = 2.7 mg).

Although plants can be quite high in iron, they contain the non-heme type which is more poorly absorbed than heme iron. Non-heme iron can get bound up (chelated) with other food components found in plants, such as phytate (e.g. found in legumes, whole grains, and spinach) and calcium. As well, polyphenols found in tea, coffee and cocoa can also decrease absorption of non-heme iron. Key cooking strategies to enhance or improve absorption of non-heme iron from plant sources include:

  • Cook with foods high in vitamin C or other acidic foods (e.g. peppers, tomatoes, citrus fruit, etc)
  • Cook in a cast iron skillet
  • Soak and sprout beans, grains, and seeds before using
Both vegetarians and omnivores can achieve a healthy iron status if their diets contain a variety of iron-containing foods. If you are concerned that you are not getting enough iron or that you might be iron deficient, then please talk with your doctor before starting an iron supplement.
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RD
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.



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