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Top 10 Foods High in Iron

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August 26, 2012, last updated March 5, 2015

By AMBER REEVES, Contributing Columnist and Susan Callahan, Health Editor

Iron is an essential mineral found in our blood and organs. In fact, there are few vitamins or minerals more essential than iron. Iron is used by every cell in our bodies. Iron serves many functions in our bodies including delivering oxygen from our lungs to our muscles and aiding in food digestion. Iron is available naturally through many foods as well as commercially in pill form. But despite the easy availability of iron, most of us just aren't getting enough of it. Anemia, the medical condition caused by iron deficiency, is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, according to the World Health Organization.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that anemia affects 7% of toddlers between the ages of 1 and 2 years old.  Among girls and women between 12 and 49 years old, up to 16%  are anemic. Among African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, the news is even worse: up to 22% are anemic. Clearly, we need to carefully watch our iron levels throughout life. What foods are high in iron? And how much iron do we need a day?

Why You Need Iron

Iron is necessary for an overall healthy body. The mineral attaches itself to hemoglobins in the blood to carry oxygen throughout every inch of your body. According to the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, iron is essential for a healthy, functioning  immune system.  Moreover, a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that iron is just as important for mental health. We literally couldn't go anywhere without it!

Everybody's ability to absorb iron is different and controlled by genetics and other external factors. For some, iron balances itself in the body, but for others, an excess or a deficiency can occur. Too much iron in the blood can be just as dangerous as not enough. The Center for Science in the Public Interest explains that because the body does not easily excrete iron, an excess storage of the mineral can cause liver damage, heart palpitations, or diabetes.  The opposite problem -- anemia --  is easier to manage. Becoming aware of the symptoms of anemia and eating a diet rich in iron can help bring the body back to balance.

How to Tell if You're Anemic

Among the symptoms of iron deficiency listed by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are fatigue, slowed mental abilities, body temperature fluctuations, an inflamed tongue, and a lowered immune system . The American Society of Hematology adds shortness of breath, dizziness, pale or yellow skin, and chest pain to the list. If you are pregnant or menstruating or engage in heavy physical activity, or if you have cancer or other organ diseases, you are at a higher risk for anemia. Because these symptoms may point to other issues, it is important to consult a doctor for a blood test to evaluate your iron consumption and absorption before adding more iron to your diet. 

How Much Iron is Recommended?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the recommended daily iron intake for adult men is 8mg and 18mg for adult women.

Women over the age of 50 can lower their intake to 8mg/day while pregnant women need a whopping 27mg/day to accommodate the child.

Iron supplements are available but commonly cause stomach upset. To get your daily iron requirement the natural way, try these top 10 iron-rich foods:

Top Ten Foods Rich in Iron

1.    Shellfish - Clams and oysters, specifically, pack 12g and 5g of iron per 1.5 ounce serving, respectively. That's a big chunk of any adult's daily requirement. Steam clams with fresh herbs, or serve oysters with lemon wedges for an extra healthy seafood snack!

2.    Soybeans - Known for its various health benefits, soy is also a big source of iron. Half a cup of the beans offers 4.4g. Steam the beans in their pods and sprinkle with seasalt, or add the beans themselves to a vegetable stir fry for an iron rich crunch.

3.    Beans - White beans, kidney beans, and lentils, besides being rich in fiber and protein, are also high in iron. Talk about a vegetarian's dream food! Beans carry 2.5-4g of iron per cup, depending on the variety. Mix them up with brown rice for a high iron boost.

4.    Spinach - Spinach is on every list of perfect foods. It really is a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, including iron. Half a cup of fresh spinach contains 3.2g. Replace regular lettuce with spinach on sandwiches and burgers. They'll not only be tastier, but will get you toward your daily iron goal. (Watercress  contains even more iron than spinach, though the taste may not suit as many people as well as spinach. A new green, mache, also has more iron than spinach and has a nutty taste.)

5.    Beef - In moderation, and for those suffering from anemia, beef can be an excellent iron  booster. Three ounces packs an average of 3g of iron, depending on the cut. Throw a steak on the grill and add a spinach salad for a healthy, iron rich dinner.

6.    Sardines - These tiny fish contain loads of omega-3 oils and protein and are high in iron as well. Sautee' three ounces of sardines in a pan and crush into a classic Caesar's dressing for a delicious salad with 2.5g of iron.

7.    Prune juice - Prunes, or dried plums, are high in iron but may be bitter to the taste. Drink cup of prune juice with a splash of selzter water or mixed into a fruit smoothie for a tasty 2.3g of iron.

8.    Duck - This rich meat is extremely flavorful and delivers 2.3g of iron per 3 ounce serving. Roast duck meat with rosemary and potatoes for a comforting, iron packed meal.

9.    Chickpeas - Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are delicious cold in salads, hot with roasted vegetables, or blended with garlic and olive oil to make hummus. Only a cup offers 2.3g of iron.

10.    Tomato puree - Another super food, tomatoes are on par with spinach as some of the most nutrient dense foods. Along with everything else, tomato puree produces 2.2g of iron per cup. Add crushed sardines and roasted vegetables for an iron rich pasta sauce.

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