Embark on a fulfilling journey to master your iron intake.
This extensive guide uncovers a wealth of iron-rich foods and high-iron meals, aiding you in either ramping up your iron intake to ward off deficiency or managing excess. With an engaging iron-rich foods chart, nourishing recipes, and insightful sections, unravel the nutritional tapestry of your meals.
Whether combating iron deficiency anemia or navigating through hemochromatosis, this article is your companion in achieving the iron equilibrium essential for vibrant health. Venture further to explore dietary pathways tailored to your unique nutritional needs, fostering a harmonious iron balance.
- High Iron Foods (Per Serving)
- Iron Rich Foods (Per Calorie)
- Iron Rich Foods Chart
- How Much Iron Do You Need?
- Highest Iron 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
- Iron Fortification
- Availability of Iron in the Food System
- How Can I Calculate if I’m Getting Enough (or Too Much) Iron From My Diet?
High Iron Foods (Per Serving)
If you find yourself falling short of the recommended iron intake, it’s time to focus on foods that pack in more iron per serving.
To help you get started, the infographic below shows the iron provided by popular foods in the average serving sizes consumed by our Optimisers.
Once you’re ready to revitalise your diet with a wider variety of high-iron foods, download our printable list of foods with more iron per serving here.
Iron Rich Foods (Per Calorie)
Once you know you’re getting the minimum amount of iron your body needs, you can zero in on foods that deliver more iron per calorie to increase your satiety and nutrient density. The infographic below shows popular foods that provide more iron per calorie.
For more variety, check out our printable list of iron-rich foods per calorie.
Iron Rich Foods Chart
Curious about how your favourite foods stack up in the iron game? Dive into our dynamic chart showcasing popular foods, comparing iron content per calorie and per serving. For an immersive experience, explore the interactive Tableau version (on your computer).
How Much Iron Do You Need?
The body recycles iron 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 significant amount from the diet.
Our satiety analysis reveals that your body craves at least 12.5 mg of iron per 2000 calories. However, achieving the Optimal Nutrient Intake of 25 mg per 2000 calories from food aligns with an 18% reduction in energy intake.
Highest Iron Recipes
Elevate your culinary game with our chart, showcasing over 1400 NutriBooster recipes used in our Micros Masterclass. We’ve plotted these recipes based on iron content versus protein percentage. The further right you go, the more iron you can enjoy with fewer calories.
Dive into the details with our interactive Tableau chart on your computer. Click on each recipe to uncover the magic behind it and even feast your eyes on mouthwatering pictures!
What Does Iron Do for the Body?
Iron is an essential mineral 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 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 anaemia 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.
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.
You may need more iron in your diet if you:
- are anaemic 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 “anaemic”),
- 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).
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 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 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. However it can be challenging 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 high levels.
In the Micros Masterclass, we use Nutrient Optimiser to prioritise foods and meals that contain your priority nutrients. So, if you already get 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.
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.
Curious about your iron intake? Take our Free 7-Day Nutrient Clarity Challenge and discover if you’re hitting the iron sweet spot in your diet.
You’ll receive a curated list of foods and tantalising NutriBooster recipes that not only fill your iron gaps but also ensure you’re not missing out on critical nutrients.
Ready to unlock your nutrient potential? Join the challenge and embark on a journey towards a brighter, healthier you!
Nutrient Density Starter Pack
Ready to supercharge your nutrition? Get our Nutrient Density Starter Pack – your all-access pass to a healthier, more vibrant you!
In our quest to make Nutritional Optimization a breeze, we’re thrilled to offer you this treasure trove of tools and resources when you join our vibrant Optimising Nutrition Community:
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- Recipes: Download delectable samples from our NutriBooster recipe books, designed to elevate your nutrition while tantalising your taste buds.
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Don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity to transform your nutrition effortlessly. Join our community and unlock your path to a healthier, more vibrant you!
- 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