Tired All The Time? Try These 10 Iron-Rich Foods To Fight Fatigue & Anemia

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You hear a lot about the endless vitamins and minerals you need to ensure your body is nourished on a daily basis. Some are important, some are nice-to-haves, and some are essential to your health and can cause serious issues if lacking. You've probably already guessed it: Iron is on that "essential nutrient" list.

Boiling it down to the iron elevator pitch: Your body needs iron to make an important protein called hemoglobin. According to Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, a leading functional medicine expert, "Hemoglobin is the protein located in your red blood cells that is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout your body. When your iron levels are low, it can contribute to anemia and extreme fatigue." This can then cause a whole slew of downstream issues like immune system deficiencies, hair loss, and more.

This all sounds scary. We get it. The good news is that getting enough iron in your diet isn't that difficult as long as you are educated on foods high in iron. And fear not, vegans and vegetarians, there are plenty of iron-rich foods for you, too. Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of non-heme (or plant) sources of iron. Still unsure what this all means? We'll iron out the details for you.

The importance of iron in your diet.

Iron deficiency leads to anemia, which is quite common in adults. The most common symptom of anemia is extreme fatigue. Beyond that, low iron can lead to headaches, dizziness, hair loss, shortness of breath, and even heart palpitations. Not surprisingly, iron is extremely important for all healthy brain function and especially for the developing brain. A lack of oxygen to the brain can have serious consequences. Iron intake is also especially important during pregnancy, as low iron can increase the risk of miscarriage.

Both heme (animal-based) and non-heme (plant-based) iron sources can help you meet your daily iron needs. The iron from plant sources, however, is not as bioavailable, meaning we don't absorb and use it as efficiently. That said, vitamin C can increase the absorption factor of plant-based non-heme iron. So, in order to take advantage of the iron content of dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and grains, it's smart to consume these foods along with a source of vitamin C if they don't already contain it.

Foods high in iron.

OK, so hopefully you get it now: Iron is important. Cutting to the chase, what are the iron-rich foods that you should be ensuring make it into your daily diet? There are many options, from heme iron (found in meat, poultry, fish, etc.) to non-heme iron (plant sources) to iron supplements.

When it comes to cooking iron-rich foods, you really can't go wrong. "Since iron is heat-stable, cooking iron-rich foods shouldn't alter their iron content," says Cole. "In fact, if you cook your food in cast-iron cookware, it can actually help increase your food's iron content.”

Read on for a full list of foods high in iron:

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1. Spinach

Spinach is a healthy and versatile green that is high in iron and also high in vitamin C, which helps the body with iron absorption. Stir a handful of spinach into your scrambled eggs, toss together your favorite ingredients into a simple spinach salad, or crank up the blender and sip on a green smoothie.

  • One cup of raw spinach has 0.8 mg of iron, which is 5 percent of your daily recommended value. One cup of cooked spinach, on the other hand, has a whopping 6.4 mg of iron, or 36 percent of your daily value.

2. Shellfish

Pretty much all types of shellfish are particularly good sources of iron. So if you care about your iron intake, consider one of the following:

  • Three raw oysters of medium size have 1.9 mg of iron, which is 10 percent of your daily recommended value.
  • Three ounces of large, cooked clams has 2.4 mg of iron, which is 13 percent of your daily recommended value.
  • Three ounces of cooked mussels has 5.7 mg of iron, which is 32 percent of your daily recommended value.
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3. Dark chocolate

Yes, you can definitely eat that nightly square or two of dark chocolate without any guilt. Dark chocolate is loaded with health benefits, thanks in large part to its antioxidant and iron content.

  • One ounce of 70 percent dark chocolate has 3.4 mg of iron, which is 22 percent of your daily recommended value.

4. Cashews

Snacking on nuts and seeds is a great way to boost the overall iron content of your diet. The nuts that clock in the highest? Cashews!

  • One ounce of raw, unsalted cashews contains 1.9 mg of iron, which is 10 percent of your recommended daily value.
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5. Organ meats

Organ meats like liver, kidney, heart, and brain are all considered iron-rich foods. Cook them at home if you're an adventurous chef, or splurge next time you see organ meats on the menu.

  • One slice (100 g) of beef liver has 6.2 mg of iron, which is 34 percent of your daily recommended value.

6. Beans

Organ meats not your thing? Fear not. The magical fruit leads the pack when it comes to iron-rich plant foods.

  • One cup of black beans has 3.6 mg of iron, which is 20 percent of your daily recommended value.
  • One cup of lentils has 6.6 mg of iron, which is 37 percent of your daily recommended value.

Image by Melanie DeFazio / Stocksy

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7. Quinoa

Quinoa has officially made its mark on the healthy food scene, and we're so glad it's here to stay. Try it out in a delicious veggie-loaded grain bowl.

  • One cup of cooked quinoa has 2.8 mg of iron, which is 15 percent of your daily recommended value.

8. Red meat

You might be surprised to hear that red meat isn't sky high in iron. It's still high compared to many other foods, and it contains bioavailable heme iron, but it's certainly not your only option.

  • One-quarter pound of grass-fed ground beef has 2.7 mg of iron, which is 15 percent of your daily recommended value.
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Related Class

9. Broccoli

This little tree of a vegetable might seem like it doesn't measure up to the previous items on this list, but it's a great addition to an iron-rich diet. Bonus: It's a member of the cruciferous veggie family, which have powerful anti-cancer properties.

  • One cup of raw broccoli has 0.7 mg of iron, which is 4 percent of your daily recommended value.

10. Iron-fortified breakfast cereals

Cereals aren't our go-to pick for iron-rich foods, but in a pinch, they can be a good option for kids, vegetarians, or the busiest among us. Just be sure to pick a low-sugar cereal and consider pairing it with full-fat plain yogurt and some berries to keep your blood sugar balanced.

  • One cup of plain Cheerios has 8.9 mg of iron, which is 49 percent of your daily recommended value.
  • One cup of cornflakes has 5.4 mg of iron, which is 30 percent of your daily recommended value.

How much iron do you need in a day?

Use the following information from the National Institutes of Health as a guide to make sure you and your family are meeting your daily iron intake recommendations.

Women

  • 11-18 years old: 15 mg
  • 19-50 years old: 18 mg (pregnancy: 27 mg, lactation: 9mg)
  • 51+ years old: 8 mg

Men

  • 11-18 years old: 11 mg
  • 19-50 years old: 8 mg
  • 51+ years old: 8 mg

What about iron supplements?

Always try to hit your iron quota from food sources first. If you are experiencing any of the iron deficiency symptoms mentioned above (extreme fatigue, headaches, dizziness, hair loss, shortness of breath, and even heart palpitations), it's important to get blood work done before deciding to treat yourself with iron supplements. Supplements can sometimes lead to constipation, upset stomach, and nausea—so you don't necessarily want to take them unless you have to. You'll also want to rule out more serious health conditions that could be causing these symptoms.

Want to know if you should you go Keto? Paleo? Whole 30? Deciding what to eat to feel your best shouldn’t be complicated. We’ve removed the guesswork to give you all the best nutrition tips & tools, all in one place. Ready to kickstart your health journey? We’re here to guide you.

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