The mineral is an essential part of our red blood cells' functioning, says Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, an Atlanta-based dietitian. "Without enough iron, often we might feel fatigued because the body has a harder time getting oxygen to where it needs," she says. This is more common in women, because we regularly lose blood during our periods (making us more likely to be deficient).
Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDE, says iron also helps convert beta carotene to vitamin A, aids in collagen production, helps support a healthy immune system, and aids in brain development. Get you a mineral that can do the most.
Women aged 19-50 should get 18 milligrams of iron per day, and a bit more when they're breastfeeding. There are always iron supplements (with the okay of your doc, of course), but it's actually pretty easy to reach your iron RDA with food. That's why Moore and Sheth helped us compile a list of foods rich in iron for your easy reference.
What are the top animal-based foods rich in iron?
Iron that comes from animals is called heme iron, which Sheth says is more easily-absorbed by our body. Most animal products like chicken, fish, and even eggs have some amount of heme iron. However, certain animal foods pack more of an iron punch than others, including:
1. Beef liver
Iron content: 7 mg per three-ounce serving
We all know that red meat is a good source of iron, but the liver is really where the iron lives. Though it might not be your top pick, Moore says organ meat is the best place to get iron.
Iron content: 5 mg per three-ounce serving
Just three ounces of oysters can provide nearly half of your recommended daily intake of iron, Sheth says. "They're especially a good option because they provide protein and iron at a lower calorie bang compared to some of the others," she adds. (They're an aphrodisiac too, so...have fun eating them!)
Iron content: 4 mg per cup serving
These salty little critters are a surprisingly good source of iron. They're also rich in vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which support better mental and brain health.
Iron content: 3 mg per three-ounce serving
Finally, beef. Based on all the articles your mom sends you, you'd probably think this was the top source of iron. But a three-ounce serving gives you about 11 percent of the amount you need daily. Not shabby, but definitely not as high as the other animal-based options on the list.
Here's why an RD says iron is one of the most important supplements for women:
What about plant-based iron foods?
Although you can absolutely get hit your iron needs with a plant-based diet, Sheth explains that only 2 to 20 percent of non-heme iron (the kind plants produce) gets absorbed. That's why experts generally recommend that vegetarians and vegans eat nearly twice the recommended amount of iron per day to ensure they get enough (which shakes out to about 32 milligrams per day for women between ages 18-50). Tip: If you pair that plant-based iron food with a source of vitamin C like bell peppers or citrus, Sheth says you can up absorption by up to 300 percent.
1. White beans
Iron content: 8 mg per cup serving
White beans are one of the highest unfortified sources of non-heme iron. (Sorry, chickpeas!) Consider using them in hummus or adding them to your salad for an added protein/iron booster.
Iron content: 7 mg per cup serving
Lentils are a great source of plant-based protein while also providing 21 percent of your daily iron quotas—along with fiber, folate, and other important nutrients. Impressed, much?
Iron content: 6 mg per cup serving (boiled)
"Spinach is a good source of another plant-based source of iron," says Moore. Popeye knew his stuff. She says boiled spinach in particular has more iron than raw, "because it's going to be a little more concentrated."
4. Dark chocolate
Iron content: 3 mg per one-ounce serving
As if you needed another reason to enjoy dark chocolate—just one serving counts for about 9 percent of your daily recommended intake if you're a plant-based eater. It also has magnesium, making it a great sleep-promoting bedtime snack.
Iron content: 3 mg per half-cup (firm)
Tofu is one of the best plant-based iron foods, says Moore—just a half-cup offers up about 9 percent of your daily recommended intake if you're a vegetarian. And often people eat closer to a cup in a sitting if diced, she says, bringing your iron count up to six milligrams.
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