Iron in Your Diet

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 National Academy of Sciences recommends certain amounts of iron based on your age and sex. You can see these recommendations in the “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
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Iron Deficiency Anemia

If your body isn’t getting enough iron, you can develop iron deficiency anemia. This can happen if you:

  • Don’t have enough iron in your diet.
  • Have had chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
  • Have a chronic illness.
  • Have lost some of your blood, such as during surgery or an accident.

Iron supplements

If your iron level is low, your healthcare provider may prescribe an iron supplement to 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 stomach irritation 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. Don’t take iron supplements without checking with your healthcare provider.

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Reading Food Labels

Figure 1. Food label

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 food label (see Figure 1). On food labels, the amount of iron is listed as a percent (%) of the daily value. The daily value for iron is 18 mg.

  • 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.

To calculate exactly how much iron a food has, multiply the daily value for iron (18 mg) by the % daily value in 1 serving of the food. For example, if a food label says it provides 50% of the daily value for iron, then multiply 18 mg by 50%. One serving of that food contains 9 mg of iron.

The daily value for iron is only a guideline. You may need more or less iron than the daily value. Use the chart above and talk with your healthcare provider to know how much iron you should be getting each day.

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Helping Your Body Absorb Iron

Iron from animal sources, called heme iron, is easiest for your body to absorb. Iron from nonanimal foods, called nonheme iron, is harder for your body to absorb.

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 high in vitamin C include oranges, other citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, and strawberries.
  • Eat both animal and nonanimal sources of iron.
  • Use a cast iron pan to cook foods high in iron.
  • 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.
 

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

  • 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 decaf coffee and black and green tea.
  • Don’t eat more than 30 grams of fiber a day.
  • Don’t eat foods high in calcium (such as dairy products or calcium-fortified juices) at the same time as foods high in iron
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Choosing Foods With Iron

Animal Sources of Iron

Source Amount of Iron
Beef, variety meats & 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 ounce 5.7 mg
Liverwurst spread, ¼ cup 4.9 mg
Queen crab, 3 ounces 2.5 mg
Clams, 3 ounces 2.4 mg
Beef chuck, 3 ounces 2.4 mg
Beef (ground), 3 ounces 2.3 mg
Lamb, 3 ounces 1.5 mg
Canned anchovy, 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 ounce 0.5 mg
Shrimp, 3 ounces 0.3 mg

 

Nonanimal Sources of Iron

Source Amount of Iron
Total®, ¾ cup 18 mg
Grapenuts®, ½ cup 16.2 mg
Multigrain Cheerios®, ¾ cup 6.1 mg
Cream of Wheat®, ½ cup 6 mg
Sesame seeds, ¼ cup 5.2 mg
Fiber One®, 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 2.0 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
Chick peas, ½ cup 1.4 mg
Wheat bread, 1 slice 1 mg
Molasses, 1 tablespoon 1 mg
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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 from the hospital and have questions about your diet, call 212-639-7312 to make an appointment with a dietitian.

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