Eating for Iron Health: 101

Anita Vincent, RD, CSO, LDN

Iron is a mineral needed for optimal health. It’s important for healing and the immune system. It is also a part of hemoglobin, a protein in blood that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.  Low iron levels can cause you to feel tired, short of breath, and to be more susceptible to infection. Iron deficiency anemia can be related to low iron in your diet, poor absorption of iron in your body, or due to a medication or disease.

There are 2 kinds of iron – heme and non-heme.  Heme iron is absorbed more easily by the body.  It is found in animal products like red meat, fish and poultry. Heme iron helps the body absorb non-heme iron more easily.  Non-heme iron is found in plant foods like spinach and in iron fortified foods. 

Adult men need 8 mg of iron daily, as do women over age 50. Women ages 19-50 need 18 mg of iron daily. Vegetarians and vegans of all ages need twice as much iron in their diet as people who eat animal products.

When you are deficient in iron your body absorbs more of the iron you eat. You can have iron deficiency anemia even if you eat a diet rich in iron. The development of iron deficiency anemia, despite a diet rich in iron, can be due to poor absorption of iron, excess blood loss or due to a medication or disease like cancer.

Some cancers may lead to anemia due to blood loss or malabsorption (poor absorption in the intestines). Many treatments for cancer may lead to anemia. This is often due to the inability of the bone marrow to make enough red blood cells. You may need more iron than usual if you are rebuilding red blood cells or losing blood. People may have iron deficiency anemia unrelated to their cancer but find it difficult to eat enough iron containing food to increase their iron stores. This may occur with other diseases, as well – not just for patients with cancer.

To increase the iron in your body, people should eat foods high in heme iron (i.e., animal foods) along with foods high in non-heme iron (i.e., plant foods, such as grains and vegetables). This will increase the iron the body absorbs. If you are not a “meat eater,” you can increase the amount of foods you eat that contain non-heme iron.

If you have been diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, you should talk to your health care provider before taking any iron supplements. Try to eat a food high in iron at each meal. The following are good sources of iron and ways to increase your iron absorption. 

Excellent sources of iron include:

  • Enriched cereals
  • Oysters, shrimp, clams
  • Beef or chicken liver
  • Lean beef, sardines
  • Beans and peas like navy/red/kidney/black/white/pinto/lima beans, lentils, soybeans, split peas
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Instant or quick cooking grits, cream of wheat, oatmeal
  • Dried fruit – apricots, raisins, figs, prunes
  • Pumpkin/sesame seeds

Good sources of iron include:

  • Chicken, fish, pork,  egg yolks
  • Dark green leafy vegetables – spinach, turnip greens, kale
  • Tomato and prune juice
  • Potatoes, enriched pasta and flour products
  • Nuts, wheat germ

Ways to try to increase iron absorption include:

  • Eat a food high in Vitamin C with your iron rich food.
    • Foods high in Vitamin C include strawberries, cantaloupe, oranges and orange juice, broccoli, bell peppers and potatoes.
  • Eat grains and vegetables with meat.
  • Avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals. These decrease absorption of iron.
  • Avoid taking iron with foods high in calcium like dairy products.
  • Cook in a cast iron skillet.

These are some of the drugs/supplements that decrease iron absorption:

  • Antacids, bicarbonate/baking soda
  • Cholestyramine
  • Aspirin
  • Calcium

You should check with your health care professional before starting or stopping any over-the-counter of prescription medicines.

The information in this article is for informational purposes only and not intended to provide medical advice. You should direct all questions about your health to your health care provider.         

Anita Vincent, RD, CSO, LDN is an Oncology Nutrition Specialist at the West Clinic in Memphis, Tennessee and specializes in iron deficiency anemia.