Iron in Your Diet

Time to Read: About 4 minutes

This information describes how to take in the amount of iron your body needs to stay healthy.

Iron is an essential mineral that your body needs to create red blood cells. Red blood cells store and carry oxygen throughout your body. Iron is also part of many proteins and enzymes that help you stay healthy.

Your Daily Intake of Iron

The Institute of Medicine recommends certain amounts of iron based on your age and sex. You can see these recommendations in the following “Recommended Daily Iron Intake” table. Iron is measured in milligrams (mg).

Recommended Daily Iron Intake

Age Males Females
7 to 12 months 11 mg 11 mg
1 to 3 years 7 mg 7 mg
4 to 8 years 10 mg 10 mg
9 to 13 years 8 mg 8 mg
14 to 18 years 11 mg 15 mg
19 to 50 years 8 mg 18 mg
51 years and older 8 mg 8 mg

Iron Deficiency Anemia

If your body is not getting enough iron, you can develop a condition called iron deficiency anemia. This can happen if you:

  • Do not have enough iron in your diet.
  • Have had recent chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
  • Have a chronic (long-lasting) illness.
  • Have lost some of your blood (for example, through heavy menstrual bleeding, through an accident, or during surgery).

Iron supplements

If your iron level is low, your healthcare provider may prescribe iron supplements. Taking iron supplements will help get your iron level to return to normal quickly. The amount of iron your healthcare provider recommends may be higher than what you see in the “Recommended Daily Iron Intake” table.

Taking higher amounts of iron can cause an upset stomach and constipation (having fewer bowel movements than usual). Tell your healthcare provider if you have these or any other problems while you’re taking iron. Do not take any iron supplements without talking with your healthcare provider first.


Reading Nutrition Facts Labels

Figure 1. Iron content on Nutrition Facts labels

Figure 1. Iron content on Nutrition Facts labels

To help keep your iron level healthy, you should eat foods that are high in iron. You can see how much iron a food has by checking the Nutrition Facts label (see Figure 1). On Nutrition Facts labels, the amount of iron is listed as a percent (%) of the daily value. The daily value for iron is 18 mg per day.

  • If the food has 5% or less of the daily value, it is a poor source of iron.
  • If the food has 10% to 19% of the daily value, it is a good source of iron.
  • If the food has 20% or more of the daily value, it is high in iron.

You can figure out exactly how much iron a food has. To do this, multiply the daily value for iron (18 mg) by the % daily value in 1 serving of the food. For example, if a Nutrition Facts label says it provides 50% of the daily value for iron, then multiply 18 mg by 50% (0.5). When you multiply 18 by 0.5, it equals 9. This means 1 serving of that food has 9 mg of iron.

The daily value for iron in the “Recommended Daily Iron Intake” table is only a guideline. You may need more or less iron than the daily value. Talk with your healthcare provider to know how much iron you should be getting each day.

Helping Your Body Absorb Iron

Iron from animal sources, called heme iron, is easiest for your body to absorb (take in). Iron from plant sources, called nonheme iron, is harder for your body to absorb. Most nonheme iron is found in plant foods, such as whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, and leafy greens.

You can help your body absorb more iron by doing the following:

  • Eat foods or supplements that have iron and foods that are high in vitamin C during the same meal. Examples of foods that are high in vitamin C include oranges, other citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, and strawberries.
  • Eat both animal and plant sources of iron. For examples of animal and plant sources of iron, read the “Choosing Foods With Iron” section.
  • Use a cast iron pan to cook foods that are high in iron. Doing this will add more iron into your food.
  • If your healthcare provider prescribes iron supplements, ask if you should take 2 or 3 small doses instead of 1 larger dose. Your body will absorb more of the iron if you take it in smaller doses that are spread out over the day. Make sure to drink 1 (8-ounce) glass of water when you take each dose.

Some things make it harder for your body to absorb iron. Follow these guidelines.

  • If you drink coffee or tea, drink it between your meals, not with them. This includes all types of coffee and tea, including regular and decaffeinated coffee and black and green tea.
  • Do not eat more than 30 grams of fiber a day.
  • Do not eat foods that are high in calcium at the same time as foods that are high in iron. Examples of foods that are high in calcium include dairy products and calcium-fortified juices, such as orange juice.

Choosing Foods With Iron

Use a kitchen scale to measure foods listed in ounces.

Animal Sources of Iron

Source Amount of Iron
Beef, variety meats and byproducts, spleen, 3 ounces 33.5 mg
Chicken liver, 3 ounces 11.6 mg
Cuttlefish, 3 ounces 9.2 mg
Oysters, 3 ounces 7.8 mg
Mussels, 3 ounces 5.7 mg
Liverwurst spread, ¼ cup 4.9 mg
Queen crab, 3 ounces 2.5 mg
Clams, 3 ounces 2.4 mg
Beef (ground), 3 ounces 2.3 mg
Lamb, 3 ounces 1.5 mg
Canned anchovies, 1 ounce 1.3 mg
Chicken, 3 ounces 0.9 mg
Turkey drumstick, 3 ounces 0.9 mg
Pork, 3 ounces 0.8 mg
Egg, 1 large 0.8 mg
Salmon, 3 ounces 0.6 mg
Scallops, 3 ounces 0.5 mg
Turkey breast, 3 ounces 0.5 mg
Shrimp, 3 ounces 0.3 mg

Plant Sources of Iron

Source Amount of Iron
Total cereal, ¾ cup 18 mg
Grape-Nuts® cereal, ½ cup 16.2 mg
Multi Grain Cheerios® cereal, ¾ cup 6.1 mg
Cream of Wheat® cereal, ½ cup 6 mg
Sesame seeds, ¼ cup 5.2 mg
Fiber One cereal, ½ cup 4.5 mg
Raisin spice oatmeal, ¾ cup 4 mg
Dried apricots, ½ cup 3.8 mg
Wheat germ, ½ cup 3.6 mg
Lima beans, ½ cup 2.9 mg
Mixed nuts, ½ cup 2.5 mg
Kidney beans, ½ cup 2.5 mg
Sunflower seeds, ½ cup 2.4 mg
Walnuts, ½ cup 2 mg
Cooked spinach, ½ cup 1.9 mg
Dark chocolate (60-69%), 1 ounce 1.8 mg
Black beans, ½ cup 1.8 mg
Raisins, ½ cup 1.5 mg
Dried figs, ½ cup 1.5 mg
Chickpeas, ½ cup 1.4 mg
Wheat bread, 1 slice 1 mg
Molasses, 1 tablespoon 1 mg

Speak With a Dietitian

If you have any questions or concerns about your diet while you’re in the hospital, ask to see a dietitian. If you have already been discharged (released) from the hospital and have questions about your diet, you can still talk with a dietitian. Call 212-639-7312 to make an appointment with an outpatient clinical dietitian nutritionist. You can reach a staff member Monday through Friday, from to

Last Updated

Monday, February 7, 2022

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