A diet plan for iron deficiency anemia needs to include a healthy balance of heme and non-heme iron-rich foods, such as meat and poultry, seafood, iron-rich vegetables, nuts and seeds, and beans. It is also crucial to include foods that can improve the body’s absorption of iron and avoid foods that may interfere with this process.

Iron deficiency anemia occurs when your body does not have enough iron to form healthy red blood cells.

Iron deficiency anemia has a number of causes, but is most commonly the result of inadequate dietary intake and/or blood loss.

A person with iron deficiency anemia will typically receive oral iron supplementation or intravenous (IV) iron treatment. People with iron deficiency anemia are also encouraged to increase their dietary intake of iron by prioritizing iron-rich foods.

Anemia can result from many factors, including a lack of iron in the diet and heavy menstruation.

Bleeding in the stomach and intestines can also cause iron deficiency anemia. This type of bleeding is sometimes a side effect of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Or it may result from:

  • ulcers
  • piles
  • swelling in the large intestine or esophagus
  • certain cancers

Certain people are at greater risk for developing iron deficiency anemia. They include pregnant people, those with certain medical conditions such as Crohn’s disease, people who have undergone bariatric surgery, people with heavy menstrual periods, and those who follow a vegan diet.

In these cases, doctors usually advise people to take iron supplements.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron depends on a person’s age and sex. A baby younger than 6 months only requires 0.27 milligrams (mg) of iron a day, while a male aged 19–50 years requires 8 mg a day, and a female in the same age range needs 18 mg of iron a day.

During pregnancy, a person should increase their daily iron intake to 27 mg a day.

People with iron deficiency anemia need a significant boost and require 150–200 mg of iron a day, or 2–5 mg per kilogram of their body weight. However, dosage recommendations vary, as the body does not absorb high doses of iron supplements efficiently. A person should consult with their doctor to decide on a suitable dose of extra iron.

Adding iron-rich foods to the diet can help treat anemia. A healthcare professional can advise about the kinds of foods to choose from and other ways to increase iron absorption.

The best diet for a person with anemia includes plenty of foods rich in iron and other foods that help the body to absorb iron. A person should also be aware of foods that can inhibit iron absorption.

The plan below was developed to show the type of healthy meals a person with anemia might include:

Breakfast

Option 1

Unsweetened oatmeal made with sprouted oats topped with raspberries, hemp seeds, and cacao nibs. Enjoy with a glass of iron-fortified orange juice.

Option 2

Breakfast hash made with chickpeas, chicken sausage, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and spinach.

Tea and coffee inhibit iron absorption, and people should not drink them with meals.

Lunch

Option 1

A bowl of beef chili, or a tuna burger, with a spinach salad.

Option 2

A bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and spinach.

Dinner

Option 1

Lamb chops with boiled potatoes, steamed broccoli, and curly kale.

Option 2

A stew that includes kidney beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, tinned tomatoes, onions, red peppers, and garlic, topped with vegan or dairy-based cheese and a dollop of vegan or dairy-based yogurt.

Many foods contain high levels of iron. A person may find it easy to combine them and make tasty, nutritious meals that help to boost the intake of iron.

Fruits and vegetables

  • watercress
  • curly kale and other varieties
  • spinach
  • collard greens
  • dandelion greens
  • Swiss chard
  • citrus fruits
  • red and yellow peppers
  • broccoli

However, some dark, leafy greens also contain oxalates, which can inhibit iron absorption. Rather than relying solely on vegetables, a person should aim to get iron from a variety of sources.

Nuts and seeds

  • pumpkin seeds
  • cashews
  • pistachios
  • hemp seeds
  • pine nuts
  • sunflower seeds

Meat and fish

  • beef
  • lamb
  • venison
  • liver
  • shellfish
  • oysters
  • shrimp
  • sardines
  • tuna
  • salmon
  • halibut
  • perch
  • haddock

Beans and pulses

  • kidney beans
  • chickpeas
  • soybeans
  • black-eyed peas
  • pinto beans
  • black beans
  • peas
  • lima beans

It may be a good idea to choose iron-fortified cereals, bread products, orange juice, rice, and pasta. Also, fermented and sprouted grains and legumes are a better choice for people with iron deficiency because sprouting and fermenting break down anti-nutrient compounds that negatively impact iron absorption.

The following foods can interfere with iron absorption:

  • tea and coffee
  • milk and some dairy products
  • foods that contain tannins, such as grapes, corn, and sorghum
  • foods that contain phytates or phytic acid, such as brown rice and whole-grain wheat products
  • foods that contain oxalic acid, such as peanuts, parsley, and chocolate

Although adding foods rich in iron to your diet can help raise blood levels of iron, most people with iron deficiency need to take supplemental iron to achieve healthy iron status.

Some people do not absorb iron well and may need to have IV iron treatments. A person’s doctor will advise on the best treatment for their specific needs. However, the following strategies can maximize a person’s iron intake:

  • Refrain from drinking tea or coffee with meals.
  • Avoid eating foods rich in calcium with those rich in iron.
  • Eat iron-rich foods alongside those rich in vitamin C.
  • Cook with a cast-iron skillet.
  • Cook foods for shorter periods.

If a person has tried changing their diet and their iron levels remain low, they should speak with a doctor or dietitian, who may recommend a supplement.

Healthcare professionals often recommend choosing a supplement containing ferrous salts such as ferrous fumarate, ferrous gluconate, or ferrous sulfate. Iron dosage recommendations vary. A person’s doctor will determine the most effective form and dose of iron based on their needs.

People with iron deficiency anemia can benefit from adding iron to their diet. The foods and strategies listed above can help a person to manage the condition.

Eating certain dark, leafy greens, meat, seafood, beans, nuts, and seeds can help a person to boost their iron intake.

It may also be a good idea to use a cast-iron skillet, and cook meals for shorter periods, when possible.

Iron supplements can benefit people who do not receive enough iron from their diets. It is essential to follow dosage instructions carefully.