10 Natural Sources of Iron in a Daily Diet

Dietary heme iron comes from the red blood cells in animals.
Dietary heme iron comes from the red blood cells in animals. | Source

Copyright 2012 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D. .


Iron comes from a number of different sources in your diet. It occurs naturally in many animal and plant foods, but it's also added to the processed foods we eat.

The addition of iron to fortify and enrich processed foods is a practice that has been done for decades to combat iron deficiencies, especially in children or adults with poor diets.

However, with proper diet and a focus on eating a well-rounded group of natural and whole foods, sufficient amounts of iron can be obtained without the need to supplement.


Heme and Non-heme Iron


Our dietary iron comes in two forms:

  • Heme
  • Non-heme

Heme iron comes from hemoglobin -- a protein in red blood cells that is responsible for delivering oxygen to cells. Heme iron is found in animal meat that originally contained hemoglobin, such as red meat, fish, and poultry.

Non-heme iron comes from plant foods. This form can also be added to food to enrich and fortify foods.

According to the National Institutes of Health, most dietary iron comes from plant sources but, it should be noted that it is absorbed better from heme sources compared to non-heme sources.


Beans are a great source of non-heme iron.
Beans are a great source of non-heme iron. | Source

Best Natural Sources of Iron


You can obtain iron in your diet through a number of good natural sources. Here are ten notable ones:

1. Clams

2. Oysters

3. Organ meats (e.g. liver)

4. Soybeans

5. White beans

6. Kidney beans

7. Lentils

8. Spinach

9. Roasted pumpkin and squash seeds

10. Black strap molasses

Of this list, clams, oysters and organ meats have the highest levels of iron. Other foods like mussels, fish eggs, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and sun-dried tomatoes are also great sources.

This is not an exhaustive list -- for a more inclusive list, visit the National Institutes of Health: Iron Fact Sheet.



Symptoms of Low Iron Levels


If you have a deficiency in iron, it can lead to anemia -- resulting in a decrease in the amount of oxygen delivered to cells throughout your body.

Typically a blood test is used to confirm whether or not you have anemia. However, there are a number of iron deficiency symptoms that should be considered as potential warning signs:

  • lack of energy or tiredness
  • fatigue
  • feeling weak
  • feeling lightheaded
  • headaches
  • rapid heartbeat
  • a drop in blood pressure when changing from sitting to standing
  • finger nails that become thin and brittle
  • a tongue that becomes white and may be sore, smooth and/or reddened
  • decreased appetite
  • shortness of breath during exercise
  • brittle hair
  • reduction in immunity and increased vulnerability to infection
  • a weird desire to eat non-foods such as ice, paint or dirt (a condition called "Pica")
  • disturbed sleep
  • abdominal pain

When anemia goes unchecked, it results in fatigue and decreased immunity.


Oysters:  a great source of iron
Oysters: a great source of iron

3 Ways to Increase Iron Absorption


If you are concerned about low iron levels, there are a couple of ways to increase your dietary absorption of this mineral:

  • Eat a good source of vitamin C (e.g., citrus, tomatoes, broccoli or strawberries) with foods containing non-heme iron
  • Eat foods that contain heme iron and non-heme iron together
  • Cook foods in an iron pot, such as a cast iron skillet


Other factors that can affect your iron absorption:

  • Large amounts of tea or coffee consumed with a meal will decrease iron absorption. The polyphenols in these drinks bind the iron and prevent absorption.
  • A significant excess of high fiber in the diet can decrease absorption. It is the phytates (and phytic acid) in high fiber foods like bran that can inhibit absorption.
  • High intake of calcium while eating foods with iron. Research suggests that taking an calcium supplement at a different time from an iron supplement will prevent a decrease in iron absorption.


Iron Toxicity or Poisoning Symptoms


While iron deficiencies are a concern and can be corrected with diet, too much iron in the body can also be a serious health problem.

Those eating iron-rich foods and taking iron supplements should be mindful of this and consult with a doctor as needed.

Early warning signs and symptoms of iron toxicity or poisoning include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Those that suspect they may have ingested too much iron should have their blood checked and consult a doctor.


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Comments 12 comments

cactusbythesea profile image

cactusbythesea 4 years ago from Seattle

Great article. This information is especially useful for women as they are often at a higher risk for low iron levels. Thanks for putting this hub together.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Kris...this is the best and most informative hub I've seen on foods and nutrition. I am especially interested in learning as much as possible about iron. I seem to always have lower levels than recommended and it never surprises me because I have the classic fatigue, weak nails and rapid heart beat.

You provided great lists here. When I get to feeling like my iron is low, I'll have a spinach salad and I always keep sunflower seeds around.

This is also a great example of reminding your readers to pay attention and listen to our bodies......most often, when we think we are sick, it's as simple as replenishing the body with the appropriate nutrient!! UP+++


Kris Heeter profile image

Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana Author

@fpherj48 - thanks for sharing you tip on having sunflower seeds on hand! You are so right about just paying attention and listening to our bodies. Simple foods can be the best medicine!

@cactusbythesea - thanks for the feedback. Your feedback reminds me that I should go back here at some point and add the iron requirements for women pre- and post- menopause are different. I'll have to add that in soon:)


Amber Killinger profile image

Amber Killinger 4 years ago

This is a great article. I'm currently pregnant and my recent blood test showed low hemoglobin (anemia). The baby is taking it all! Normally my hemoglobin levels are normal to slightly low, but with the pregnancy they've dropped quite a bit. Again, great article with useful information!


Kris Heeter profile image

Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana Author

@Amber - I'm glad you found this article useful. I hope all goes well with the rest of your pregnancy!


Peter Geekie profile image

Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

Dear Kris

Thank you for a well researched and informative article.

Voted up and interesting

Kind regards peter


BlissfulWriter profile image

BlissfulWriter 4 years ago

Just as a note, men and post-menopausal (non-menstruating) women should not take iron supplements unless there is a true deficiency as tested by a doctor. This is because the body has no way to rid excess iron except in blood loss (as in menstruating). I learned this while doing research for my Hub on multivitamins. Men multivitamins should not contain iron.

However, iron from foods are fine. I like to get my iron from pasture-raised red meats such as beef and lamb.


Kris Heeter profile image

Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana Author

One additional point to add to @BlissfulWriter's comment -

There is a second way that iron is lost from the body and that is from sweat.

With prolonged sweat during a physical activity, both iron and zinc are lost through sweating. Factors like duration and heat while exercising have some additional small affects. However, the amount of iron and zinc lost is typically less than 10% of the iron and zinc RDA intake.

For those interested - here's a starting reference: Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2002 Dec;12(4):428-37.


healthylife2 profile image

healthylife2 4 years ago from Connecticut, USA

I found this so helpful because now that I've changed my diet I'm never sure if I'm getting enough iron. Do you think it's possible to get enough without eating meat?


Kris Heeter profile image

Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana Author

@healthylife2 - Great questions! I think it is possible to get enough meat with out eating meat. However, each person is a little different in terms of their genetic makeup (that factors into iron metabolism) and I have found that those on a vegetarian diet all eat differently so some who are not eating meat and may not be eating those legumes and veggies that have higher iron may need consider iron supplements. I highly recommend that you try to get your levels tested periodically just to be sure you are in the right range.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

That was very interesting Kris! You have given me food for thought as I continue to find a balance for my life that I am happy with. Years ago I gave no thought to any of this; now I find it is necessary if I'm to live a lot longer. Thank you for the info!


the rawspirit profile image

the rawspirit 18 months ago from Hutchinson Island, FL - Aruba - Carlsbad, CA - Myrtle Beach, SC - Gilbert, AZ

Good article Kris, I have found that those of us on a vegetarian diet all may not be eating enough legumes and veggies that have higher iron may need consider using blackstrap molasses to boost our iron levels. Thanks. You can see my article on iron, if you care too

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