Why Having Enough Iron in the Diet is Important

Ever feel tired and sluggish, but you don’t understand why?

You may not be getting enough iron in your diet, or, your body may not be able to absorb the iron that you do consume. Iron is a mineral that you need to carry oxygen through the body. Without enough iron you can become very tired, pale-looking and irritable. Women, young children, pregnant and pre-menopausal women, some athletes, vegetarians and many older adults are at risk for not getting enough iron in their diet. The following are guidelines on how to increase iron in the diet.

Heme and Non-Heme Iron

Food contains iron in two forms: “heme” and “non-heme”. Heme iron is better used by your body than non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in meat, fish and poultry. Non-heme iron is found in dried beans (such as kidney beans), enriched and whole grains, nuts and some fruits and vegetables. Non-heme iron can be better used by your body when you eat foods that contain heme iron at the same time. It is important to eat or drink foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits and juices, cantaloupe, strawberries, broccoli, peppers and tomatoes. These foods will also help your body use non-heme iron.

Steps You Can Take

  • Include at least one iron-rich food and one food rich in vitamin C at each meal.
  • Add cooked dried beans or lentils to soups, stews or casseroles.
  • Choose breakfast cereals and flour that are fortified/enriched with iron. Read the Nutrition Facts box on packaged foods and choose those foods that are high in iron.
  • Choose dark green and orange vegetables and fruits more often. For example, choose spinach instead of lettuce for your salad.
  • Have spaghetti with tomato meat sauce rather than cream sauce.
  • Choose dried fruit as a snack more often.
  • Add raisins or other dried fruit to cereal or in your favourite cookie/muffin recipe.
  • Have a glass of orange juice with your cereal at breakfast.
  • Coffee or tea with meals may decrease iron absorption so have these beverages after meals.

Reading Food Labels for Iron

You will find the Nutrition Facts box on most packaged food products. Look for the Percent Daily Value (%DV) that tells you whether a food has a little or a lot of a given nutrient.

How much Iron Should I Aim For?

Age in Years Aim for an intake of *milligrams  (mg)/day    Stay below*mg/day
Men 19 and older 8 45
Women 19-50 18 45
Women 51 and older 8 45
Pregnant women 19-50 27 45
Breastfeeding women 19-50 9 45

*This includes sources of iron from food and supplements.
Vegetarians need almost twice the daily recommended amount of iron compared with non-vegetarians.  Iron from plant-based foods is not absorbed as well by our bodies as animal food sources.

Iron Content of Some Common Foods

You can find iron in both animal and plant foods.

  • Animal sources (called “heme iron”) include meat, fish and poultry.  Our bodies easily absorb this type of iron.
  • Plant sources (called “non-heme iron”) include dried beans, peas and lentils and some fruits and vegetables.
  • In Canada, grain products like flour, pasta and breakfast cereals are fortified with iron.  Our bodies better absorb this type of iron when taken along with meat/chicken/fish or a source of vitamin C.  Vitamin C rich foods include citrus fruits and juices, cantaloupe, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes and peppers.

The following table will show you which foods are sources of iron:

Food Serving size Iron (mg)
Vegetables and Fruits
Spinach, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 2.0-3.4
Tomato puree 125 mL (½ cup) 2.4
Edamame/baby soybeans, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 1.9-2.4
Lima beans, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 2.2
Asparagus, raw 6 spears 2.1
Hearts of palm, canned 125 mL (½ cup) 2.0
Potato, with skin, cooked 1 medium 1.3-1.9
Snow peas, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 1.7
Turnip or beet greens, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 1.5-1.7
Prune juice 125 mL (½ cup) 1.6
Apricots, dried 60 mL (¼ cup) 1.6
Beets, canned 125 mL (½ cup) 1.6
Kale, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 1.3
Green peas, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 1.3
Tomato sauce 125 mL (½ cup) 1.3
Grains Products
Oatmeal, instant , cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 4.5-6.6
Cream of wheat, all types, cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 5.7-5.8
Cereal, dry, all types 30 g 4.0-4.3
Granola bar, oat, fruits and nut 1 bar (32 g) 1.2-2.7
Cracker, soda 6 crackers 1.5-2.3
Oat bran cereal, cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 2.0
Pasta, egg noodles, enriched, cooked 125 mL (½ cup) 1.3
Milk and Alternatives
Yogurt, soy 175 mL (¾ cup) 2.0
Meats and Alternatives
Meat and Poultry
Duck, cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 1.8- 7.4
Moose or venison, cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 2.5-3.8
Beef, various cuts, cooked  75 g (2 ½ oz) 1.4-3.3
Ground meat (beef, lamb), cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 1.3-2.2
Lamb, various cuts, cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 1.3-2.1
Chicken, various cuts, cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 0.4-2.0
Pork, various cuts, cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 0.5-1.5
Ground meat (turkey, chicken, pork), cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 0.8-1.2
Turkey, various cuts, cooked 75 g (2 ½  oz) 0.3-0.8
Organ Meats
Liver, pork ,cooked* 75 g (2 ½ oz) 13.4
Liver (chicken, turkey, lamb), cooked* 75 g (2 ½ oz) 6.2-9.7
Kidney, lamb, cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 9.3
Liver, beef ,cooked* 75 g (2 ½ oz) 4.9
Kidney (beef, veal, pork), cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 2.3-4.4
Fish and Seafood
Octopus, cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 7.2
Oysters, cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 3.3-9.0
Seafood (shrimp, scallops, crab), cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 2.2-2.3
Sardines, canned 75 g (2 ½ oz) 1.7-2.2
Clams, canned 75 g (2 ½ oz) 2.0
Fish (mackerel, trout, bass), cooked 75 g (2 ½ oz) 1.4-1.7
Tuna, light, canned in water 75 g (2 ½ oz) 1.2
 Meat Alternatives
Tofu, cooked 150 g (¾ cup) 2.4-8.0
Soybeans, mature, cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 6.5
Lentils, cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 4.1-4.9
Beans (white, kidney, navy, pinto, black, roman/cranberry, adzuki), cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 2.6-4.9
Pumpkin or squash seeds, roasted 60 mL (¼ cup) 1.4-4.7
Peas (chickpeas/garbanzo, black-eyed, split), cooked 175 mL (¾ cup) 1.9-3.5
Tempeh/fermented soy product, cooked 150 g (3/4 cup) 3.2
Meatless (sausage, chicken, meatballs, fish sticks), cooked 75 g (2.5 oz) 1.5-2.8
Baked beans, canned 175 mL (¾ cup) 2.2
Nuts (cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, pistachio nuts), without shell 60 ml (¼ cup) 1.3-2.2
Eggs, cooked 2 large 1.2-1.8
Sesame seeds, roasted 15 mL (1 Tbsp) 1.4
Meatless, luncheon slices 75 g (2.5 oz) 1.4
Hummus 60 mL (¼ cup) 1.4
Almond butter 30 mL (2 Tbsp) 1.2
Blackstrap molasses 15 mL (1 Tbsp) 3.6
Yeast extract spread (marmite or vegemite) 30 mL (2 Tbsp) 1.4

*Pregnant women should limit intake of liver to one serving every two weeks.

Source: “Canadian Nutrient File 2010”
Felicia Newell, BScAHN, MScAHN(c), RD(c)
Official NEM Nutritionist
For the past several years, Felicia has been working at a university research centre with a focus on food security (Food Action Research Centre), and has taught university level nutrition courses. She is almost complete her final internship required to become a Registered Dietitian. Her passion lies in working toward a future where everyone has access to enough affordable, healthy, safe and culturally appropriate food, that is produced, processed and distributed in socially, economically and ecologically sustainable ways. Felicia has published a paper in the Canadian Journal of Public Health titled, ‘Is the Minimum Enough: Affordability of a Nutritious Diet for Minimum Wage Earners in Nova Scotia’.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FeliciaNewellNutrition
Instagram: @felicianewellnutrition