Tired All The Time? Try These 9 Iron-Rich Foods To Fight Fatigue & Anemia

mbg Contributor By Elsbeth Riley
mbg Contributor
Elsbeth Riley is a writer and editor living in Oakland, California. She is an ACE-certified personal trainer and holds a B.A. in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Expert review by Megan Fahey, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.

Megan Fahey, MS, RD, CDN is a Registered Dietitian, Functional Medicine Nutritionist and Registered Yoga Teacher. She holds her Masters of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from Bastyr University, where she was trained to artfully blend eastern and western healing modalities.

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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.While all play their own important role, some are particularly 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.

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 anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide.. Symptoms include: fatigue, headaches, dizziness, hair loss, shortness of breath, and even heart palpitations. Due to its role in oxygen transport, iron is extremely important for healthy brain function, especially in the developing brain. It follows that iron intake is also important during pregnancy, with studies showing that low iron can even increase the risk of miscarriage.

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Types of dietary iron.

There are two types of iron: heme iron, which is found in animal foods and non-heme iron, which is found in plant foods. When consumed in adequate quantities, both sources will help you meet your daily iron needs. It is important to note that plant-based, non-heme iron is not as bioavailable, meaning that the body does not absorb and utilize this source as efficiently as heme iron. That said, vitamin C can increase the absorption factor of 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.

Foods high in iron.

Cutting to the chase, what are the iron-rich foods that should be incorporated into your daily diet? Here, we will review some of the best 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 reference list of foods high in iron:

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Animal sources (heme iron)

1. 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 approximately 10 percent of your daily recommended value.
  • Three ounces of large, cooked clams has 2.4 mg of iron, which is approximately 13 percent of your daily recommended value.
  • Three ounces of cooked mussels has 5.7 mg of iron, which is approximately 32 percent of your daily recommended value.
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2. 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 approximately 34 percent of your daily recommended value.

3. 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 approximately 15 percent of your daily recommended value.
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Plant sources (non-heme iron)

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 approximately 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 around 36 percent of your daily value.
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2. 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 approximately 22 percent of your daily recommended value.

3. 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 approximately 10 percent of your recommended daily value.

4. Beans

Organ meats not your thing? Fear not. Beans lead the pack when it comes to iron-rich plant foods.

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

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5. 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 approximately 15 percent of your daily recommended value.

6. 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 approximately 4 percent of your daily recommended value.

7. 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 approximately 49 percent of your daily recommended value.
  • One cup of cornflakes has 5.4 mg of iron, which is approximately 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 recommended by your healthcare provider.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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