According to the World Health Organisation, iron is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide, particularly in poorer counties, due to limited access to animal-based foods.
However, other people suffer from hemochromatosis, or iron overload, and need to reduce their iron intake.
In this article, we’ll show you which foods and meals contain the most (and the least) iron using the tools and charts we used by Optimisers in our Micros Masterclass.
- Iron Rich Foods Chart
- Iron Rich Foods (Per Serving)
- Iron Rich Foods (Per Calorie)
- Iron Rich Recipes
- What Does Iron Do for the Body?
- Heme Iron vs Non-Heme Iron
- Factors That Increase Iron Absorption
- Factors That Decrease Iron Absorption
- Factors That Increase Iron Demand
- Can You Get Too Much Iron?
- Symptoms of Iron Overload
- What Foods to Avoid if You Have Hemochromatosis
- What Foods to Eat if You Have Hemochromatosis
- Zinc:Iron ratio
- How Much Iron Do You Require Per Day?
- Iron Fortification
- Availability of Iron in the Food System
- Nutrient Density Starter Pack
- Nutrient Series
Iron Rich Foods Chart
The chart below shows a range of popular foods in terms of iron (per calorie) vs iron (per serve). Foods towards the right will provide more iron per calorie, while the foods towards the top will provide more iron in the serving sizes we typically eat.
For more detail, you can dive into the interactive Tableau version of this chart (on your computer); check out the food lists of popular foods below or download longer lists in our Optimising Nutrition Community here.
Iron Rich Foods (Per Serving)
The popular foods listed below will provide more iron in the typical serving sizes we consume them in.
- ground beef
- beef steak
- dark chocolate (90%)
- chicken thigh
- brussels sprouts
- chicken drumstick
For animal-based foods, the iron content is generally higher in redder meats, which contain haemoglobin which gives the red colour.
Iron Rich Foods (Per Calorie)
The popular foods listed below provide more iron with fewer calories.
- bok choy
- coriander leaf
- mustard greens
- black olives
- green beans
- brussels sprouts
Iron Rich Recipes
The chart below shows our 1400+ NutriBooster recipes that we use in the Micros Masterclass plotted in terms of iron vs protein %. Recipes towards the right will help you boost your iron with fewer calories.
To dive into the detail, you can open the interactive Tableau version of this chart (on your computer). Click on each recipe to learn more about it and view a picture of the recipe.
Some examples of our NutriBooster recipes that contain the most iron are shown below.
What Does Iron Do for the Body?
Iron is an essential micromineral that your body needs in small amounts. Although we don’t need much of it, it has several key roles in the body.
Iron is an essential component of haemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Haemoglobin makes up about two-thirds of your body’s iron stores.
If you don’t have enough iron, your body can’t make enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This means your tissues and muscles won’t get enough oxygen to function optimally.
Along with iodine, iron is required to make thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Thus, inadequate iron can cause hypothyroidism.
Iron is critical to making up many proteins (e.g., haemoglobin, myoglobin, neuroglobin) and enzymes (e.g., cytochromes, peroxidases) in the body that regulate various functions.
We require iron for the synthesis and repair of DNA.
Iron is also considered an antioxidant that protects against damaging substances like heavy metals. However, when you have excess iron, it can become an oxidant or a damaging substance in and of itself.
Iron helps regulate cognition and behaviour and has been shown to play a role in attention and concentration.
Iron is vital for creating energy and transporting electrons through the electron transport chain.
Iron is also critical to maintaining strong bones, detoxifying, regulating immune function, skin and nail formation, and synthesising neurotransmitters in your brain.
Heme Iron vs Non-Heme Iron
There are two forms of iron found in foods: non-heme iron, which is found in plant and animal foods, and heme iron, which is found exclusively in animal foods.
Animal foods containing heme iron have a higher bioavailability and are absorbed more readily, as it does not require cofactors that enhance uptake. Approximately 15-35% of heme iron sources are absorbed.
On the other hand, non-heme iron is less bioavailable and requires different nutrients to ensure absorption. As a result, only around 2% of non-heme iron is absorbed. Hence, you may be at risk of anemia if you are a strict vegan.
However, while some people make a big deal of the bioavailability of iron in plants vs animal products, super high iron absorption is not necessarily a good thing either.
If you consume an omnivorous diet, you are unlikely to have significant issues with low iron levels unless you have digestive problems, consume a lot of grains, or consume minimal amounts of vitamin C.
Factors That Increase Iron Absorption
Your gut will absorb more iron in your intestines if you need more of it. On the contrary, your body will let it pass through if you have adequate amounts in your system.
To increase the bioavailability of non-heme iron, there are certain compounds in other foods that act as ‘enhancers’ to absorption.
Vitamin C, fructose, and sodium increase the absorption of dietary iron. Therefore, if you are getting less vitamin C, sodium, or fructose, you may not be absorbing as much iron as you otherwise would. Iron supplements often include vitamin C for this reason.
MFP Factor is a peptide found in meat, fish, and poultry. It has been shown to increase the absorption of non-heme iron by almost threefold.
Factors That Decrease Iron Absorption
Phytates are plant compounds found in grains, vegetable protein, legumes and green leafy vegetables known as ‘antinutrients’. These are known to decrease the absorption of iron.
Similarly, plant compounds like lectins and polyphenols like tannins are known to inhibit the uptake of iron in the body’s digestive tract.
Oxalate, or oxalic acid, is known to decrease iron absorption from non-heme foods. Many plant foods like kale and spinach are high in oxalate and also high in iron.
Consuming large amounts of calcium and (or) copper in the diet alongside iron-rich foods decreases iron absorption.
Factors That Increase Iron Demand
You may need more iron in your diet if you:
- are anemic and have low blood levels of ferritin,
- consume excess calcium (e.g. from a lot of dairy products),
- consume high amounts of copper,
- consume large amounts of phytates (i.e., from grains, green vegetables and legumes),
- eat large amounts of oxalate as a vegetarian or vegan (i.e., from grains, nuts, seeds, greens, and root vegetables),
- experience heavy menstrual periods,
- suffer from a GI condition that hinders nutrient absorption, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD),
- donate blood regularly,
- are particularly cold-sensitive,
- suffer constipation,
- have pale skin (i.e. you look “anemic”),
- are experiencing slow growth,
- have a poor appetite, or
- are pregnant.
If you are female and have low energy levels, check for low ferritin levels on your standard blood tests.
Practical steps you can take to increase your iron levels include:
- modifying your diet to improve your iron intake,
- taking iron supplements,
- minimising calcium and copper intake around high-iron foods,
- consume more heme iron vs non-heme,
- ensuring you are getting adequate vitamin C (which assists iron absorption), and
- reducing phytates, oxalates, and lectins (e.g., grains and legumes).
Can You Get Too Much Iron?
Iron is one nutrient that menstruating women require significantly more of. However, men who tend not to bleed as frequently in the modern day are more prone to accumulating excessive amounts of iron. This condition is known as haemochromatosis or iron overload, and it affects around one in three hundred people.
While adequate iron helps you manage oxidation, excess iron can bind to proteins and act as a pro-oxidant. Here, it causes your tissues to oxidise (or rust).
If left untreated, the excess iron can increase your risk of diabetes, liver cirrhosis, heart disease, neurodegeneration, and a host of other chronic diseases.
Symptoms of Iron Overload
Symptoms of iron overload include:
- pain in the joints, chest, or abdomen,
- sexual and menstrual problems,
- low sex drive,
- hyperpigmentation of the skin,
- high cholesterol, and
Although men seem to have a greater risk of developing haemochromatosis, you should watch for elevated ferritin levels, regardless of whether you are male or female. If they are high, consider regular blood donations. Blood donation is not just good for you. It could be a matter of life or death for someone in need.
What Foods to Avoid if You Have Hemochromatosis
- Iron toxicity and its symptoms can be improved by ensuring you are getting a nutrient-dense diet overall, particularly adequate niacin, tryptophan, zinc, manganese, copper, and lipoic acid.
- To support your body against hemochromatosis, it can be helpful to decrease your intake of high-iron foods like red meat and organ meats.
- Avoiding the consumption of vitamin C alongside iron-rich meals can decrease the amount of iron you’ll absorb.
- Reducing your intake of bread, cakes, cereals, and cookies fortified with iron can remove a considerable amount of iron from the diet.
If you have high ferritin levels, you can flag this in your settings Nutrient Optimiser to de-emphasise dietary iron. But in reality, it can be difficult to significantly reduce iron in your diet without compromising many other nutrients, so you should only de-prioritise a nutrient if you have test results showing your levels are high.
In the Micros Masterclass, we use Nutrient Optimiser to prioritise foods and meals that contain your priority nutrients. So, if you are already getting plenty of iron, the foods and meals prioritised for you will contain less iron.
What Foods to Eat if You Have Hemochromatosis
While ‘antinutrients’ are often seen as ‘bad’ for health, this is where incorporating more oxalate, lectin, and phytate-containing foods (if you tolerate them) can actually be helpful to manage hemochromatosis as they are known to inhibit iron absorption.
- Consuming foods higher in calcium and copper can also help decrease iron levels and its uptake.
- Coffee and tea contain tannins which help to inhibit the absorption of iron.
- Consuming more fish, white meat (as in chicken), and plant proteins can decrease your dietary iron while still supplying you with ample, bioavailable protein.
- Proteins found in eggs are known to inhibit the absorption of iron, which can be helpful for someone looking to reduce their iron levels.
- Because the liver is in charge of recycling this micromineral, supporting the liver is often essential to regulating iron stores. So, working to have great overall health and excellent liver function is a crucial part of making sure your body can get rid of the iron it doesn’t require.
Excess iron intake can affect zinc absorption. If your dietary ratio of iron:zinc is greater than 2:1, your zinc absorption will be reduced. For this reason, look to prioritise foods with favourable zinc: iron ratios or ensure your intake of zinc is sufficient. This is especially important for vegans and vegetarians.
How Much Iron Do You Require Per Day?
Iron is recycled by the body and is thus conserved. Thus, repurposing iron from red blood cells and old proteins supplies the body with a generous amount of iron. However, we still need a fair amount from the diet.
Our satiety analysis of people using Nutrient Optimiser shows a moderate satiety response when people consume more iron. People consuming more iron food tend to eat around 28% fewer calories than those who consume less iron-rich foods.
The median iron intake of Optimisers is 16 mg/2000 calories, with an 85th percentile intake of 28 mg per 2000 calories. This is considerably more than the Estimated Average Requirement for iron of 6 mg and the Recommended Daily Intake for iron of 8 mg/day. However, this is still far less than the Upper Limit of 45 mg/day, which is set to prevent gastrointestinal issues from supplementation.
Based on our satiety analysis, we have set an Optimal Nutrient Intake for iron at 30 mg/2000 calories. For more details, see:
Because we crave iron in food, consuming high amounts of food products fortified with iron, but otherwise nutrient-poor with a low satiety value (like flours and breakfast cereals), may lead to overconsuming these foods. Furthermore, we may also see a lack of cravings for foods that naturally contain iron, like meat and vegetables. Therefore, if you are suffering from haemochromatosis, your first step should be to avoid foods fortified with iron.
Availability of Iron in the Food System
As shown in the chart below, dietary iron availability increased with the introduction of iron-enriched foods like breakfast cereals to combat anaemia in the 1940s.
Ironically, iron absorption is also negatively affected by phytates in the grains that cereals are made from. In addition, the form of iron used in fortification is also not ideal. It is known to cause constipation, feeds pathogenic gut flora, and contribute to oxidative stress that damages the intestines.
So, if you are worried about your iron intake and the ferritin levels in your blood, be sure to avoid processed foods fortified with iron (e.g., breakfast cereals, pasta and rice) as your highest priority.
Nutrient Density Starter Pack
We’re eager to make the process of Nutritional Optimisation as simple as possible. To help you increase your intake of all the essential nutrients, including iron. When you join our free Optimising Nutrition Community, you’ll get a starter pack that includes:
- Food Lists – optimised for each essential nutrient, goals, preferences and conditions.
- The Healthiest Meal Plan in the World – see what a week of nutrient-dense eating looks like.
- Recipes – check out samples of each of our NutriBosoter recipe books.
- 7-Day Nutrient Clarity Challenge – identify your priority nutrients and the foods and meals that contain them.
- Biotin (B7)
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin E
- Thiamine (B1)
- Riboflavin (B2)
- Niacin (B3)
- Pantothenic acid (B5)
- Vitamin B6
- Folate (B9)
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K1
- Vitamin K2
2 thoughts on “Iron Rich Foods and Meals”
A further comment: with the advent of COVID i think more of us are using home delivery from supermarkets. What my wife and i have noted is that specials on the shopping list are almost invariably from the ultra/processed category.
We object strongly to this blatant attempt to push people, especially those under financial strain, into purchasing fake and unhealthy food.
We just bought some seafood – super nutritious but not cheap! My dream is that they shift the subsidies from the ingredients in UPF to nutritious foods that regenerate human and planetary health!