Pumping Up Your Iron Intake Without Supplements

When it comes to health, balance is essential. A balanced diet is critical because food provides us with our primary source of vitamins and nutrients – the pillars of good health. Iron is vital, which is why we owe it to ourselves to take a moment to understand some of the basics when it comes to getting iron into our diet.

What is iron, and why do we need it?

Iron is an essential element; this means that we always need a certain amount to function optimally. Our bodies have an incredible capacity to tightly regulate the amount of iron we have at any given moment and most adults consume enough iron from the foods they eat regularly.

Iron has many essential roles in our bodies. One of the most important roles iron plays is that it helps transport oxygen throughout our bodies. Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin and in the cells of muscles, called myoglobin. Iron-rich cells are involved in the transportation and transference of oxygen from the lungs to tissue throughout the body. Hemoglobin accounts for about two-thirds of our body’s iron stores. If we don’t have enough iron, we cannot make these red blood cells, and the amount of oxygen we can carry around our body is lowered.

When our iron stores become depleted, anemia can develop. Iron-deficiency anemia can range from mild to severe symptoms and include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath, fast heartbeat, or chest pain
  • Pale skin
  • Headache, dizziness, or lightheadedness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Brittle nails
  • Irritability
  • Poor appetite

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out to your medical team to determine if you are iron deficient. A simple blood draw can tell if you have iron-deficiency anemia.

How much iron do I need to consume daily? 

The Recommended Dietary Allowance or RDA for all age groups of male-bodied individuals is 8 mg/day. Female-bodied individuals’ needs vary throughout their lifespan. Females of childbearing age need 18 mg/day since they bleed once a month on average and experience iron losses through their menstrual cycle. Pregnant female bodies need 27 mg/day. Postmenopausal female bodies, who have gone through menopause and no longer bleed each month, need 8 mg/day. There is an upper limit to the amount of iron a person should consume, approximately 45 mg/day, which is when a person may experience stomach upset.

What are the different types of iron? 

There are two types of iron: heme iron and nonheme iron. Heme iron comes from hemoglobin and myoglobin and is easily absorbed by the body, and mostly comes from animal products such as meat, fish, and poultry. Nonheme iron is found primarily in plant foods such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Nonheme iron is not as readily absorbed by the body, which we cover in more depth below.

In addition to iron found naturally in foods, some foods have iron added to them, commercially known as “fortified foods.” For example, everyday foods that have been fortified with iron are bread, pasta, cereals, and some types of flour.

Food First – Excellent sources of iron in the diet

Heme Iron
Food Source Amount Iron (mg)
Beef 3.5 ounces 2.3
Lamb 3.5 ounces 1.6
Chicken 3.5 ounces 0.9
Turkey 3.5 ounces 1.1
Fish (salmon) 3.5 ounces 0.3
Non-Heme Iron
Food Source Amount Iron (mg)
Soybeans 1 cup 8.8
Lentils 1 cup 6.6
Spinach 1 cup 6.4
Sesame Seeds ¼ cup 5.2
Garbanzo beans 1 cup 4.7
Olives ½ cup 2.2
Navy beans 1 cup 4.3
Swiss chard 1 cup 4
Kidney beans 1 cup 4
Black beans 1 cup 3.6
Pinto beans 1 cup 3.5
Pumpkin seeds ¼ cup 2.8
Green peas 1 cup 2
Brussels sprouts 1 cup 1.8
Asparagus 1 cup 1.6
Beets 1 cup 1.3
Kale 1 cup 1.1
Broccoli 1 cup 1
Cabbage 1 cup 1
Iron fortified foods
Breakfast cereal 1 cup 3.4
Bread 2 slices 2.2
Pasta 2 ounces 0.6

Enhancers of non heme iron absorption

The term “bioavailability” describes the amount of a substance our body can absorb when consumed. In relation to iron, heme sources of iron from foods are more easily absorbed, while nonheme iron is harder for our bodies to absorb.

  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) has been shown to enhance the absorption of nonheme iron from foods. Examples of foods with vitamin C are citrus fruits, strawberries, sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, kiwis, and broccoli.
  • Other organic acids such as citric acid, lactic acid, and malic acid may increase absorption of nonheme iron.
  • Meat, poultry & fish contain both heme and nonheme iron – consuming animal foods increases the amount of nonheme iron absorbed. How this happens is not well understood.
  • When it comes to preparing foods like spinach, studies have shown that cooked spinach, compared to uncooked, has greater amounts of bioavailable iron.
  • Cooking with a cast iron skillet has also been shown to improve iron intake since small amounts of iron from the skillet make their way into our food are actually bioavailable to us.

Inhibitors of iron absorption

  • Dairy and calcium: It is also important to note that dairy products and other calcium-rich foods have been found to inhibit the amount of iron absorption. So, if you’re trying to increase your iron levels, avoid consuming dairy products at the same time you are eating your iron-rich foods.
  • Antiacids – overconsumption can decrease the acidity in your stomach thus reducing the ability of iron absorption.

Some of our favorite iron-rich foods include spinach, legumes, seafood, and quinoa.

If you’re looking for a way to include spinach in your diet, try starting your day with our Spinach and Cheese Omelet. This quick and easy meal is sure to give you the energy boost you need to begin your day. As a fun summery option, our Quinoa Stuffed Tomatoes are a must-try option. Tomatoes which are rich in Vitamin C  which is known to help increase the absorption of nonheme iron from plant foods.

For those looking for something to satisfy a little later in the day, we recommend trying our famous Matelote de Poissons – French Seafood Stew. For an excellent iron packed salad, be sure to try our Black &  White Bean Salad.

Red meat is also a well-known source of iron, but it is important to moderate your red meat consumption as many studies link it to higher rates of cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests consuming no more than 12 to 18 ounces of cooked red meat per week. For perspective, 3 ounces is a serving and is roughly the size of an adult palm, which allows for 4-6 servings of red meat per week.

Is a supplement right for you?

Taking an iron supplement should be a decision you make with your health care team. There is no need to supplement with iron without a confirmed lab result that indicates low iron status. Iron supplementation can have negative consequences if a person is not iron deficient, namely if you are going through cancer treatment, some chemotherapy regimens can cause iron overload so a person must be careful of the amount of iron they consume in a supplemental form. Many providers will recommend a multivitamin without iron.

Are there side effects from taking an iron supplement?

Yes! People can experience side effects from taking an iron supplement. Some common ones to look out for are stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and even constipation. Iron can also interfere with certain medications such as antibiotics and those used in the treatment of osteoporosis (severe bone loss) and hypothyroidism.

Our recommendation is to meet your daily iron needs through whole food sources first. If you are experiencing signs and symptoms of iron deficiency, make sure you check with your health care provider before adding an iron supplement.

Registered Dietitian Approved

Our recipes, articles, and videos are reviewed by our oncology-trained dietitians to ensure that each is backed with scientific evidence and follows the guidelines set by the Oncology Nutrition for Clinical Practice, 2nd Ed., published by the Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, a professional interest group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society

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