Ensuring a balanced diet these days can feel confusing. Is dairy good or bad? Is gluten in or out? Diet fads aside, so much of our bodies’ day-to-day functions depend on the basic nutrients that we consume. Let’s take a look at one particular dietary component: iron. Iron rich foods are essential to a healthy diet and body. And foods high in iron are incredibly accessible. All you have to do is choose the right ones.
Why Do You Need Iron?
Iron is a micronutrient, which most people refer to as vitamins and minerals. Iron is an essential mineral because it plays many roles in the body’s functions and growth. First, iron is critical to the production of red blood cells because it is an important building block of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein that carries oxygen from your lungs to your blood and throughout your body. Without iron, hemoglobin cannot do its job. Secondly, this mineral is an essential building block of proteins for metabolism. It plays a role in brain development in infants and children, and helps to maintain cognitive functioning in adults. Not to mention, on a beauty and wellness standpoint, appropriate levels of iron maintain strong hair and nails, and promote healthy, youthful skin.
Symptoms Of Low Levels Of Iron
People with unhealthily low levels of iron may feel abnormally tired, cold, weak, dizzy, or short of breath. One of the most concerning results of an iron deficiency is anemia. Anemia is a disorder where the body either does not produce enough hemoglobin, or the hemoglobin is not functioning well. As a result, red blood cell count drops. To prevent this iron deficiency, it’s important to ensure that you’re including enough iron rich foods in your diet. How much is the right amount? There are more factors that determine how much of this mineral you really need.
Although anemia can be caused by other micronutrient deficiencies, this condition (as well as other symptoms of low levels of iron) more commonly affects women and children. So, whereas it’s recommended that adult men consume 8 mg of iron each day, adult women should consume 18 mg, and children, about 10 mg. Pregnant women need even more, at upwards of 27 milligrams. So if you’re pregnant or experiencing symptoms of low levels of iron, talk to your doctor about adjusting your diet and possibly adding a supplement.
Side Effects Of An Excess of Iron
On the other hand, consuming an excess of iron presents two major risks. Iron Toxicity can result from taking too many iron supplements over a longer period of time. This can lead to stomach pains and nausea, or even liver and brain damage in the long run.
Another major risk factor of an excess of iron is Hemochromatosis. This can be hereditary. So if you have this condition, your body absorbs too much iron from the foods you eat—even if you aren’t consuming an excessive amount. If you’re concerned about either Hemochromatosis or Iron Toxicity, it’s important to talk to your doctor. Keep an eye out for the side effects of an excess of iron. These two conditions can lead to even more serious diagnoses, included arthritis and diabetes.
The Best Iron Rich Foods
What foods have iron? Luckily, there are many healthy, good sources of iron in foods for vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike. That’s because there are two types of this essential mineral. Heme iron is the one found in animal products. Think: red meat, poultry, and fish, for starters. Non-heme iron is what vegans and vegetarians will look for. This type of iron is found in animal products and plant-based foods. The key for vegans and vegetarians to remember is that non-heme iron should be paired with a source of vitamin C to retain all of the benefits of iron.
Good Sources Of Iron For Meat And Fish Eaters
Although red meat is often the first category to come to mind when we think of iron rich foods, there are much better alternatives. In fact, seafood and poultry can offer higher iron contents than the easy go-to beef dish. Some seafood are also considered good sources of potassium rich foods. The following sources of heme iron are easy to integrate into your diet for healthy doses of natural iron rich foods.
Chicken liver and beef liver can be healthy iron rich foods, especially when compared to their meat counterparts. Of course, organ meats don’t need to be your everyday source of this mineral. Instead, a serving of organ meat every now and then can offer variety to your diet. Liver in particular stores many vitamins along with the minerals iron and copper. Beef liver offers about 5 milligrams in a 3-ounce serving. Compare this to the content in ground beef, which only reaches about 2 mg, and you may change your mind about organ meats. What’s more, chicken liver more than doubles the iron content found on beef liver, with 11 mg in the same sized serving.
Oysters and clams
When considering a serving of shellfish, oysters and clams are the ones you want to single out. About 5 oysters can give you 3 mg of iron. And one small serving of clams can contain a whopping 25 mg of iron, or more. Of course, it all depends on the clam supply, because this micronutrient content can vary. So the best way to estimate is to buy canned or package clams with nutrition labels.
In the poultry section, a single 3.5-ounce serving of turkey has more than 2 mg of this mineral. But make sure to select dark meat turkey over white meat turkey because white mean turkey is lower in iron content. Turkey is high in protein, too, which makes it a very filling and healthy meat option.
Sardines may be small, but this seafood option offers more than 2 mg of this mineral in a single 3-ounce serving. Look for sardines that are canned in olive oil for a healthier product. Sardines are an easy addition to salads, Caesar salad dressing, and pizzas when you’re looking to up your iron intake just a bit.
Vegetarian and Vegan Foods That Contain Iron
Perhaps the best way to ensure that iron is a part of your balanced diet is to reach for vegan foods. These non-heme good sources of iron are low in calories, heart-healthy, and so versatile when it comes to preparing them at home. Incorporate these foods into your daily meal plan as much as possible, and you won’t have to worry about your iron levels at all.
Many cereals are fortified, meaning manufacturers add essential micronutrients to the mix. Total cereal is particularly rich in iron. However, avoid cereals packed with excess sugar. Check the nutrition label to find a cereal with a 100% daily value of iron. Then, start your day with a fortified iron-rich bowl.
White beans (also known as navy beans) have a higher iron content than their relatives at more than 4 mg per 1 cup when cooked. But kidney beans, black beans, and garbanzo beans also offer good sources of iron. Be sure to buy them dried, and then rehydrate them at home. Canned beans are still valuable, but the manufacturing process strips them of some nutrients. Basically, the industrial cooking methods diminish the original protein and nutrient count. Not to mention, preservatives and exposure to BPA (bisphenol-A), a chemical used in the metal container, are also a concern.
Soybeans, tofu, and tempeh (fermented soybeans) are all iron rich foods. When cooked, one cup of soybeans has about 4.5 milligrams. A single 4-ounce serving of tofu offers 6.4 mg of iron, and one cup of prepared tempeh provides 4.5 mg of iron. Soy is available in so many forms, so you can benefit from the iron contents of soymilk, soy yogurts, and other soy dairy alternatives, as well.
Similar to many types of beans like white beans and soybeans, lentils are a good source of iron. You can prepare them quickly, and 1 full cup of cooked lentils contains more than 6mg of iron. They are an easy addition to soups and salads, making them especially accessible.
Dark leafy greens
Spinach, kale, collard greens, and Swiss chard are all healthy sources of iron. The general rule is, if it’s dark green and leafy, it’s vitamin-rich. Dark leafy greens are perfect examples of iron rich food. A half-cup serving of any of these greens packs about 3 milligrams.
Dark chocolate is a particularly delicious food high in iron. One serving of dark chocolate (and only the dark variety) can supply your body with more than 4 milligrams. Be sure that the chocolate’s cacao percentage is high, ideally 80% (but upwards of 60% is ok, too). Add dark chocolate to a vibrant serving of fruit to naturally complement the iron content with vitamin C. Strawberries or orange slices with dark chocolate make for a genius dessert pairing.
Now, you can make conscious decisions about singling out these foods. With a varied diet, anyone can ensure that their iron levels are healthy, and then truly receive all of the benefits of iron.