Iron is a mineral that is vital for human survival. It is an essential component of hemoglobin, a protein that transports oxygen in red blood cells.

A shortage of iron can lead to dizziness, tiredness, and even anemia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend adult males get 8 milligrams (mg) per day, and women up to the age of 50 years who are not pregnant or breastfeeding consume 18 mg of iron per day. Amounts vary from person to person.

There are many ways to meet daily iron requirements, boost iron levels, and still eat a varied, tasty, and nutritious diet.

This article looks at 10 sources of iron in the diet, the amount of iron each contains, and the percentage of daily value (DV) this represents. The DV describes the amount of a nutrient the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers healthy.

Foods that provide 20% or more of a nutrient per serving are good sources, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). However, foods containing lower amounts may also be useful as part of a balanced diet.

The most digestible form of iron comes from animal products, but iron from plant-based foods is also useful.

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Breakfast cereals can be a useful source of iron, but it is essential to choose the right types.

The key is to look for a fortified cereal that contains 100% of the daily value of iron.

Heading straight for the colorful, sugar-heavy cereals is not the best way to boost dietary iron.

A one-cup serving of fortified cereal contains 18 mg of iron, or 100% of a person’s DV.

A seafood choice that is rich in iron is oysters.

A 3-ounce (oz) serving of cooked oysters contains 8 mg of iron or 44% of a person’s DV.

Raw oysters contain a wide variety of nutrients, but cooked oysters are safer to eat.

Check here before buying oysters and other seafoods to make sure they come from a safe and sustainable source.

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White beans have the richest iron content of any bean. A one-cup serving contains 5.08 mg.

Canned white beans are also an excellent source of iron for people who do not have the time to sort and soak raw beans, providing 4 mg per half cup, or 22% of DV. Keep an eye on the sodium content, as manufacturers often add it to canned goods as a preservative.

Enjoy white beans by themselves in a salad, or add them to stews, soups, and pasta dishes.

What are the health benefits of beans?

Some types of chocolate are high in sugar and fat, but dark chocolate containing at least 45% of cacao solids can provide iron.

One ounce of dark chocolate contains about 2 mg of iron, or 11% of DV.

Some research has suggested that dark chocolate may have other health benefits because of its flavonol content. The American Heart Association says the levels of flavonols a person can eat daily in dark chocolate are not likely to make a difference. In addition, flavonoids can inhibit the absorption of iron, which means the body may not absorb the iron in chocolate effectively.

They do not recommend eating chocolate for its health benefits but to eat it in moderation because people enjoy it.

Does dark chocolate have health benefits?

While people often overlook organ meats, they are a great source of vital nutrients, including iron.

The exact amount depends on the type of organ and its source.

Beef liver, for example, has 5 mg of iron per a regular 3-oz serving, or 28% of DV.

In the same serving, pork liver sausage has 5.44 mg, and chicken liver contains 7.62 mg of iron.

Are organ meats good for you?

These types of pulses are similar to beans and also contain iron.

A half-cup serving contains 3 mg of iron, or 17% of DV.

However, lentils contain phytates, which can reduce the body’s ability to absorb iron.

Use lentils in soups and dhals or add them to dishes containing ground meat to make the meat go further.

What are the health benefits of lentils?

Spinach provides iron and is a good source of vitamin A and other essential nutrients.

A half-cup of boiled, drained spinach contains 3 mg of iron, or 17% of DV.

Spinach also contains vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron, making it more available for use.

What are the health benefits of spinach?

Another staple of the vegetarian diet is tofu.

Tofu contains 3 mg of iron in a half-cup serving, or 17% of DV.

Sourcing iron from plant-based foods is particularly important for people who follow a plant-based diet, as iron is most abundant in animal products.

Eating soy-based products such as tofu and soybeans can ensure that a vegetarian or vegan diet provides enough iron to meet daily requirements.

Tofu is available in various forms. Depending on the form, people can eat it as a snack, in stir-fries, and salads.

How can tofu benefit health?

Scaly fish are excellent sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids and also contain iron.

3 oz of sardines provides 2 mg of iron or 11% of DV.

Eat sardines on their own as a snack or as part of a more substantial meal.

Are sardines good for you?

Soybeans provide protein and are useful for people following a vegan or vegetarian diet. They also contain a range of other nutrients, including iron.

A half-cup serving contains 1.8 mg of iron or 10% of DV.

It is worth noting, however, that proteins in soybeans — as well as those in dairy products and eggs — can prevent the body from absorbing iron effectively.

Learn more about how soybeans and other soy products can affect a person’s health.

Other foods that provide iron include:

  • chickpeas
  • tomatoes
  • braised beef
  • baked potato
  • cashew nuts
  • green peas
  • fortified foods, such as rice

If a doctor finds that a person has low iron levels, they may recommend iron supplements.

Are all high-iron foods the same?

It is worth noting that the body is not able to use iron from all sources in the same way.

The most digestible form of iron, heme iron, comes from animal products, specifically meat, fish, poultry, and eggs.

While useful plant-based foods contain non-heme iron, which the body cannot absorb and use as effectively.

Other nutrients can affect how the body absorbs iron.

Ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, increases the body’s ability to absorb iron. For this reason, foods such as spinach are useful, as they contain both iron and vitamin C.

The following nutrients may lower absorption:

  • iron phytate, present in lentils, soybeans, nuts, and other foods
  • flavonoids and other polyphenols, beneficial antioxidants that are present in plant-based foods
  • calcium, for example, in supplements
  • proteins such as albumin, casein and whey, found in eggs, soybeans, milk, and some supplements

People who are planning to use supplements should speak first with a doctor to ensure they will not impact the intake of other nutrients.

Low iron levels can lead to iron deficiency anemia.

Symptoms include:

  • weakness and fatigue
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • difficulty thinking or focusing
  • problems with the immune response
  • reduced ability to work or exercise
  • fluctuations in body temperature

People may have low iron levels if they:

  • are pregnant
  • are infants, especially if they were born preterm or with a low birth weight
  • have heavy menstrual bleeding
  • have heart failure
  • have cancer or are receiving treatment for cancer
  • have certain gastrointestinal disorders
  • have had gastric or intestinal surgery
  • have certain chronic inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • have lost a lot of blood

Iron requirements vary by age, sex, and health status. Most people can get enough iron from their diet, but some will need supplements.

The ODS recommends the following intakes of iron each day for adults:

  • 8 mg for those aged 18 and above
  • 27 mg during pregnancy
  • 9–10 mg while breastfeeding

Most adults should not consume more than 40 mg per day of iron, or 45 mg for those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Who needs iron supplements?

The body needs iron to function properly. Most people can obtain enough iron from food. Food that are good sources of iron include the following:

  • fortified cereals
  • oysters
  • white beans
  • beef liver

These foods provide 20% or more of a person’s daily iron needs in one serving. Many other foods contain less iron but are also good sources.

If tests show a person’s iron levels are low, a doctor may recommend a supplement. Signs of low iron levels include fatigue and weakness.