Iron rich food is essential for our health but an estimated 33% of us are iron deficient.
And a lack of iron rich food can be a huge problem for kids, vegans and vegetarians, menstruating and perimenopausal women, people recovering from illness and people who struggle to absorb iron.
We think swallowing an iron tablet every day will make it OK.
It won’t. I learned this the hard way.
As an iron popping vegetarian for 30 years I repeatedly suffered from iron deficiency symptoms. I thought I couldn’t be iron deficient because I was taking a daily supplement so I didn’t realise my overwhelming fatigue during periods, persistent anxiety, frequent infections, inflammation and even at one point narcolepsy were anaemia.
So I have put together for you the big guide to iron rich food I wish had devoured as a teenager just starting my periods and making that decision to go vegetarian. And read again when I was exhausted, anxious and repeatedly sick through my twenties and then pregnant, breastfeeding and chasing a small child around 24-7!!
The guide is full of lists of iron rich food for everyone from kids to vegans and vegetarians but it also explains why it is hard to absorb enough iron and how to watch out for the surprising symptoms of iron deficiency that can play havoc with our physical health.
It also covers how low iron affects mental health and contributes to chronic fatigue and why iron rich food is so important when we are recovering from illness.
If you or anyone in your family is considering going vegan or vegetarian please, please read this guide first. It hopefully debunks many of the myths I clung to even when my body was screaming out that I had a problem.
And if you have a tween or teenager daughter, again please read the guide.
A UK government survey showed over 40% of teenage girls are iron deficient!!! Ensuring our daughters get enough iron during puberty is one of the single most important things we can do for their physical and mental wellbeing.
I do hope this guide to iron rich food helps you and your family. Do let me know your thoughts.
PLEASE NOTE: I am not a doctor and this post does not provide qualified medical advice. Iron deficiency and anaemia can have serious medical consequences and can be symptoms of serious medical conditions. You should always seek medical advice for persistent symptoms of ill health.
Iron deficiency is widespread – especially in girls and women – but is often ignored as a possible cause of our health – and especially our mental health – problems because many of us don’t appreciate just how much iron we need or understand how difficult it can be to absorb the different types of iron in our food and the limitations of iron tablets.
Iron Deficiency Symptoms
Iron is essential for a huge range of body functions so iron deficiency can show itself in some very surprising symptoms. Some of the most common iron deficiency symptoms are :
- Drained grey pallor : whatever our underlying skin tone whether pale or dark, we look drained.
- Extreme fatigue : to the point of feeling you can’t get out of bed
- Frequent infections
- Slow healing
- General inflammation
- Poor circulation : cold hands & feet and feeling the cold
- Frizzy hair
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss
- Restless legs
- Inflamed tongue
- Sore mouth & infections
- Dizzy headaches & light headedness
- Racing heart rate
- Feeling short of breath
- Weird cravings to eat soil, plaster etc
Iron deficiency symptoms in children can also include
- Lost or small appetite
- Slow growth
- Slow development
- General failure to thrive
- Behavioural issues
- Lethargy & sleepiness
Iron deficiency symptoms can overlap with magnesium deficiency symptoms so it is also very important to keep an eye on magnesium levels.
Can Low Iron Affect Your Mental Health?
It is not just our physical health that suffers so much from iron deficiency. Research has shown low iron levels can contribute to a range of mental health issues including :
- Poor sleep
- And psychotic disorders.
The affect of low iron levels on the mental health of adolescent girls is particularly high because an estimated 40% of teenage girls are iron deficient. Falling iron levels can be the explanation for sudden changes in mental health and school performance. Teenage girls developing eating disorders are at very high risk of anaemia which as a further trigger for psychotic disorders can be a significant factor in locking girls into body dysphoria.
Low iron levels are also a big risk factor for post natal depression. And there is increasing awareness amongst doctors that mental health symptoms women experience in perimenopause and menopause – including “brain fog”, acute anxiety and anger management issues – may actually be caused by low iron rather than hormone imbalance.
Poor Absorption Of Iron
Not eating enough iron rich food is a major cause of iron deficiency.
But there is another problem.
We only absorb at most 30% of the iron listed on food ingredients and some of us will absorb less than 10% of the iron listed on some foods. So some of us end up iron deficient because we don’t absorb the iron we are eating.
There are things we can do to our food to increase absorption. Eating iron rich food with vitamin C and vitamin A rich food for example, can increase iron absorption by over 60%.
But it is critical to remember we will not absorb most of the iron listed and that some food and medicines are iron blockers.
What Foods Are Iron Blockers?
Some foods actually block our ability to absorb iron. So if you are iron deficient keep an eye on these :
- Coffee & tea
- Milk & dairy
- Tannin rich food e.g. grapes
If you are taking iron supplements don’t take them within a couple of hours of these. For example, take an iron supplement at lunch so it’s not being digested with your morning coffee.
Heartburn, Anti Acids & Iron Deficiency
Antacids should not be taken within 2 hours of eating iron rich food or taking an iron supplement. There is an obvious problem there as antacids are designed to be taken with food but that is one of the big issues with antacids as long term medication. If you want an alternative to antacids read these tips on instant heartburn relief naturally.
The Two Different Types Of Iron
There are basically two types of iron in our food: heme & non-heme.
Heme iron is found in meat, fish & eggs whilst non-heme iron is also found in plants.
Plants don’t have heme iron and that’s really important to understand because we can absorb 3 times more heme iron than we can non-heme. So even if some meat and some plant food contained the same amount of iron, we would get much more iron from the meat.
Interestingly, we absorb more non-heme iron from plants when we eat them with meat.
Daily Iron Requirements
Our daily iron requirement is often given as a single figure. This makes no sense as menstruating teenage girls need almost 3 times as much iron as adult men. Daily iron requirements do vary by country but fall within these ranges :
- Kids from 7 months to 13 : 7-11 mg varying during growth spurts
- Teenage boys : 11 mg
- Adult men : 8-9 mg
- Menstruating women : 15 – 19 mg
- Menstruating teenage girls : 15 – 21.5 mg
- Pregnant women : 27 mg
- Post menopausal women : 8 -9 mg but many women enter menopause iron deficient or anaemic due to long term deficiency or heavier periods during perimenopause so it makes sense to test for iron deficiency and catch up as you complete menopause.
It is a really good idea to get tested for iron deficiency if you have long, heavy or frequent periods as you may need more and as you move through different stages of your life.
Side Effects Of Iron Supplements
Iron tablets can contribute to our daily iron requirement but they are not always well absorbed and there are a large number of side effects of iron supplements which you will need to compensate for including :
Do Iron Supplements Work?
Prescribed iron supplements can quickly increase iron levels if we have anaemia but bog standard iron supplements do not always work to sustain our iron levels. Iron supplements did not work for me and I was repeatedly iron deficient or anaemic. In the end eating plenty of iron rich food worked better for me than supplements.
If you can’t get enough iron through iron rich food these tips can increase iron absorption from your supplement :
- Take a separate iron tablet not a multi-vitamin or mineral
- Drink vitamin C rich juice with your iron supplement
- Take the supplement on an empty stomach unless this upsets your stomach
- Don’t take the supplement within 2 hours of :
- Milk or other dairy
- Antacids for heartburn
- A calcium supplement
Iron supplements do work for some people but don’t assume they will. If you are vegan or vegetarian, a teenage girl or have heavy or frequent periods get your iron levels tested annually and straight away if you have any iron deficiency symptoms including new mental health issues.
Iron Rich Diets
Iron rich diets are essential for all of us but making sure we eat enough high iron food is critically important for certain lifestyles and for girls and women at certain times of our life.
Use this section of the guide to find easy tips on how to enjoy an iron rich diet that matches your lifestyle and time of life.
Iron Rich Diet For Vegans
The big challenge of an iron rich diet for vegans is you are only eating non-heme iron. Only 2 to 20 % of non-heme iron in food is absorbed which means no single food can give us quite the hit of iron to be got from the most iron rich meat.
Be careful reading articles on high iron vegan food that tell you how much iron is in a portion of some super food or another but do make clear how much of that you will actually absorb. Too many of these articles make it look easy to hit our daily iron requirement as a vegan when for many women it is not.
So the key to an iron rich diet for vegans is to eat a wide range of food from each of these food groups every day :
- Iron rich vegetables
- Iron rich beans, pulses & grains
- Iron rich nuts & seeds
- Iron rich dried fruit
- Iron rich spices & herbs
And to use these tips to increase iron absorption :
- Avoid coffee / tea with meals
- Eat plenty of vitamin C in each meal
- Cook in cast iron pans
- Try to get iron in each meal including snacks
- Meal plan so you don’t kid yourself you’re getting enough iron because you are so committed to being vegan!!!
If you are about to go vegan it really makes sense to get your iron levels tested before you start and again after the first couple of months so you can be sure you are getting enough. Don’t swallow the myth that an iron supplement will work long term.
It is also essential to be honest with ourselves about what our body is telling us.
For many of us being vegan or vegetarian is effectively a religion that we cling to with unquestioning faith the more people challenge us. But that faith can blind us to the harsh reality of serious iron deficiency symptoms.
Looking back I cannot believe I ignored my iron deficiency symptoms for decades because I did not want to admit that my meat free diet was making me ill. That isn’t me saying don’t be vegan but do listen to your body, especially when it is screaming loud and clear that it is sick!!
Iron Rich Diet For Vegetarians
An iron rich diet for vegetarians can seem easier than a vegan diet because you can eat eggs. A couple of eggs can be 25% of a man’s daily iron requirement but remember that is only 10% of a teenage girls.
And there is another iron problem for vegetarians.
Lots of vegetarians over rely on dairy for protein – I certainly did. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s comforting.
But calcium can reduce absorption of both heme and non heme iron.
So to keep your iron levels up as a vegetarian you need like vegans to be trying to eat a wide range of all of these iron rich food groups every day :
- Iron rich vegetables
- Iron rich beans, pulses & grains
- Iron rich nuts & seeds
- Iron rich dried fruit
- Iron rich spices & herbs
And you need to do some serious meal planning so you are not reducing your iron absorption by drowning everything in thick calcium heavy cheesy sauces. In fact meal planning full stop is essential.
Don’t think you can wing it and survive on pasta & tomato sauce – as I did – week after week. You can’t. Especially if you are a menstruating girl or woman or pregnant.
You don’t have to obsess about the exact mg of iron in every bit of food – obsessive diets are a mental health disaster for most women!! – but you do want a big tick by each of the five iron rich food groups in most meals and to get in some iron rich snacks.
You also need to plan on some extra high iron meals before and during your period.
Iron Rich Diet For Your Period
Many menstruating girls and women suffer from extreme fatigue during their period. We are not talking about being a bit tired and sleepy but being utterly wiped out and struggling to get out of bed.
The main cause of this is iron deficiency.
Other symptoms of iron deficiency during periods can include :
- Light headedness
- Bizarre out of control crying at small things
- Anxiety attacks
- Very drained pallor
- Restless legs
- Weird food cravings
- “The shakes”
- Desire to binge on food – iron deficiency has a complicated vicious relationship with body dysphoria.
So plan to increase your iron intake in the week before your period and during your period :
- Eat the most iron rich meat you can e.g. black pudding or liver not chicken!!
- Make your own trail mix of iron rich nuts & seeds with iron rich dried fruit to snack on.
- Blend up iron rich beans & pulses with iron rich herbs & spices plus olive oil & lemon juice to make your own dips for more iron rich snacks.
- Increase your intake of iron rich vegetables with green soup and green juices or a
Perimenopause & Iron Deficiency
Many of us women don’t realise we actually start hitting perimenopause in our late 30s and that our periods will typically get much heavier and more frequent before they finally decline in menopause around 50.
It is not uncommon to have periods every 2 or 3 weeks during perimenopause.
As a result iron deficiency is very common in women in their forties and especially in late mothers who have taken a hit on their iron stores in pregnancy and breastfeeding.
It is a good idea for all women hitting 40 to get checked for iron deficiency and to keep getting checked through our forties but especially if we have any of these symptoms :
- Extreme fatigue
- Chronic anxiety
- “Brain fog”
- Out of control emotions
- Inability to exercise without breathlessness
- Poor immunity & big infections
As a society we have gone from not talking about these symptoms to pronouncing loudly and proudly “it’s perimenopause” before diving down rabbit holes in a hunt for ever more expensive hormone solutions.
But very often it is just iron deficiency!!
And we can restore our iron levels with an iron rich diet for perimenopause.
For many women – including me – that means eating iron rich red meat again.
That is hard for vegans and vegetarians but endless feverish infections, constantly swollen glands throughout my body, shingles and overwhelming anxiety as I hit 40 with a small child were the final shocks that destroyed my faith in my religion of vegetarianism.
I could not care for myself or my child without eating meat.
For a long term vegetarian friend it was pneumonia that opened her eyes to what she was doing to her body. The hospital nurses told her they kept seeing vegetarian women in their forties who really shouldn’t be there hospitalised with infectious diseases. We do all have to make our own choices about what we will eat but if you are suffering with iron deficiency symptoms in your forties please do at least step back and think about it.
An Iron Rich Diet For Perimenopause
The iron rich diet for perimenopause that has worked for me includes :
- Iron rich meat e.g. black pudding, lean beef, liver several times a week
- Iron rich seafood several times a week
- Loads of iron rich leafy greens every single day in e.g. quick green soup
- Plenty of eggs
- A good tablespoon of iron rich nuts & seeds daily
- Flavouring every meal with iron rich spices & herbs
- Eating a good helping of iron rich beans & pulses on any day I don’t eat meat or fish.
You may not be familiar with black pudding but it can be the most fantastic iron medicine during perimenopause because it has high levels of iron that are easy to absorb. My ex vegetarian friend who got pneumonia was actually prescribed it by her doctor. If you haven’t tried it do check out black pudding as iron medicine.
For more help flourishing through perimenopause read these posts :
Iron Rich Food For Kids
Iron rich food for kids is super important especially when they are going through a growth spurt.
The difficulty of course is that children can be horribly picky eaters. So the secret to making sure kids get enough iron rich food is to get sneaky and smuggle it in. And yes of course we want our kids to be adventurous, healthy eaters but we can’t hold our breath whilst we’re waiting for them to nibble one bit of spinach. They need iron now.
Use these tricks to sneak loads more iron rich food into your kids :
- Slow cook a stew with liver cut up small so its soft & easy to chew
- Try them on black pudding with a fried egg on top. It can be brilliant iron medicine but is soft to chew.
- Buy good quality low fat ground beef or lamb – it can be as iron rich as meat from a joint but many kids will eat more.
- Blend iron rich but not bitter spinach, collard greens & leafy tops of brussels into :
- any sauce they will eat
- cream soups
- smoothies – spinach is good in a berry smoothie
- Blend iron rich beans into cream soups – white beans work best
- Give them iron rich dried fruit as snacks
- Fine grind iron rich nuts & seeds – if no allergies – and :
- Blend into smoothies & sauces
- Sprinkle on top of bakes
- Find an easy iron rich oat bar or energy bar recipe they love. The one below is super rich in iron rich nuts & seeds. If your kids don’t do “bits” finely grind up the nuts and seeds before adding to your recipe …
Iron Rich Diet For Convalescence
Iron rich food is super important when we are convalescing. Our immune system needs the iron to keep fighting infection and iron is essential for repairing and growing new cells.
But we lose our appetite when we’re sick and so need iron rich food we can digest easily.
These traditional convalescent foods can help build up iron supplies :
- Liver pates
- Bone broth
- Beef tea
- Bone broth jelly
- Oxtail soup
- Black pudding
For more tips on what to eat when convalescing read this post on how to get energy back after sickness.
Iron Rich Food For Anaemia
Iron supplements are essential when our iron levels fall so low that we have iron deficiency anaemia (IDA).
But we can help to rapidly increase our iron levels through eating more of the iron rich food from which we can most easily absorb iron. That basically means red meat and in particular organ meats or as it also known offal.
The most iron rich offal includes liver, kidneys, heart, spleen, stomach, tripe and sweetbreads from the pancreas.
Obviously, we have totally got out of the habit of eating these but if you are looking for iron rich food for anaemia then it is worth a finding a butcher who sells it and learning some simple recipes.
But if you are not ready for offal try eating black pudding as iron medicine.
Black Pudding As Iron Medicine
Black pudding is basically a blood sausage you can cut into slices and grill, bake or fry.
A single helping of black pudding has 3 or 4 times more absorbable iron than the same helping of steak. And it is much quicker and easier to cook than iron rich offal such as liver and kidneys.
Good quality black pudding is also cheap. Typically it is half the price of good quality fat free ground meat.
It is also pretty easy to digest if you are recovering from illness and you may even be able to get fussy eating kids to eat it. My daughter is not the most adventurous eater but she does eat black pudding.
So try serving up black pudding with poached eggs, plenty of curly kale or spinach and a glass of orange juice for a super quick and easy high iron meal.
Food Highest In Iron
We have seen in the previous section how different people can enjoy an iron rich diet at different times of their lives. We are now going to look at the specific food highest in iron in each food category so we can make sure we includ plenty of these in our meal planning and make easy swaps for higher iron food where we can.
The Most Iron Rich Meat
Iron rich meat is very valuable for children, menstruating girls and women and people convalescing.
But iron rich meat can also be very valuable if we want to cut our meat intake for environmental reasons without becoming iron deficient. Non-menstruating women and men may only need a few portions of very iron rich meat to keep iron levels healthy. There is a growing tribe of black pudding vegans who are 90% vegan but eat organic organ meat.
The key thing to remember is that most beef has at least three times as much iron as white meat and some iron rich red meat will have five or six times as much iron as white. So we can eat much less red meat without being iron deficient.
The most iron rich meat and meat products are :
- Black pudding or blood sausage
- Liver pate including chicken liver
- Faggots – if butcher made
- Beef of all sorts – good quality lean ground or minced beef is just about as iron rich as a steak
Many of these have become unfashionable but look for them in traditional nose to tail butchers.
Some of them can actually be quite cheap and eating these forgotten meats can reduce the environmental impact of eating meat even further.
Iron Rich Seafood
If you are an iron deficient vegetarian, who can’t bring themselves to eat meat but could manage fish, some seafood – not all – can be a super valuable source of iron. These are the most iron rich seafoods :
- Fresh sardines
Iron Rich Vegetables
Green leafy veg are the most iron rich vegetables and a really important part of a healthy diet as they are rich in a wide range of vitamins and minerals including magnesium.
The most iron rich vegetables are :
But we need to be careful not to delude ourselves about how much iron we can actually absorb from even the most iron rich vegetables.
If we look up spinach – Popeye’s favourite – for example in a nutrition database it says just one helping contains 36% of our daily iron requirement. But their one helping is 4oz – that’s more than a bag of spinach. And remember we only typically absorb around 10% of non-heme iron in plant food. So even if we actually eat the whole bag of spinach we are only getting 4 to 5 % of our daily iron intake!!
So yes iron rich vegetables are an important iron rich food for vegans and vegetarians but you are going to need to eat big helpings at every meal and get iron from other sources as well.
Vegetables also lose nutrition after they have been picked so growing super simple leafy greens like spinach and collard greens – they will do fine in containers on a balcony – can increase iron absorption.
Iron Rich Beans, Pulses & Grains
Iron rich beans and pulses are another essential source of iron for vegans and vegetarians but can also be valuable source of iron – and magnesium – in other diets as they are cheap and rich in fibre so help overall gut health & prevent constipation which can be an issue if we eat too much meat.
All of these beans, pulses and grains are rich sources of iron :
- Black beans
- Black eye peas
- Kidney beans
- Butter or lima beans
- Pinto beans
- Soya beans
A helping of some of these beans can contain over 40% of our daily iron requirement but again please remember this is non heme iron and we won’t absorb most of it.
Iron absorption is typically increased by soaking beans, pulses and grains over night before cooking them.
The high ratio of arginine to lysine in beans can cause issues with cold sores for vegans and vegetarians but beans and pulses are critical for these diets and should not be avoided. There are lots of other things you can do to prevent cold sores.
Iron Rich Nuts & Seeds
A wide range of nuts and seeds are rich in non heme iron and other health benefits.
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Pine nuts
- Sesame seeds
- Chia seeds
We don’t typically eat enough for them to be a reliable single source of iron but there are many ways we can include iron rich nuts and seeds in all sorts of food. We can obviously add them easily to porridge oats and DIY trail mixes but we can also chuck a good tablespoon or so into :
- Quick cream soups
- Stir fries
- Vegetable tray bakes
- Toppings for savoury bakes & cakes
- Oat bars, flapjacks & cookies
Nuts and seeds are super valuable for meat eaters as well as vegans and vegetarians as they are rich in magnesium and support the essential fatty acids that are critical for balancing our hormones.
Iron Rich Dried Fruit
- Goji berries
We often read that there is iron in everything from bananas to water melon but it’s barely half a milligram of non-meme iron so even if we absorb 20% of that – the very top of the non-heme absorption range – we’ll only be getting 0.1 mg of iron from it. That’s barely 1% of a man’s daily iron requirement and less than 0.3% of a pregnant woman’s.
It’s not helpful. The bottom line is fresh fruit does not have enough iron in it to make a difference. We should be eating it for all its other benefits including helping iron absorption.
Iron Rich Spices & Herbs
A number of spices and herbs are surprisingly rich in iron. Typically we don’t eat them in high enough quantities to make a big difference but adding a couple of teaspoons to every meal may give us another 5% or so of our daily requirement.
Try adding a good range of these spices and herbs into your diet :
- Celery seed
A number of them are also natural antibiotics that can help see off the bacteria that cause gastritis and cystitis so we really can get big benefits from building them into our diet. But as with almost everything, moderation is key. We can consume too much and we can’t just chuck huge table spoons around to up our iron without serious side effects.
More Iron Rich Food
There are a number of other iron rich foods that are really useful for topping up our iron levels. Some of them are obvious like eggs but surprising ingredients like molasses and cacao powder can be a great way to up kids’ iron levels :
- Cacao powder
- Morel mushrooms
And there you go. A huge guide to iron rich food that will hopefully help you understand :
- Surprising iron deficiency symptoms including mental health issues
- Why we don’t absorb as much iron from plant based foods
- Limitations of iron supplements
- And all the smart ways we can eat different iron rich foods to make sure the whole family gets the iron they need every day so they can really thrive.
I really do hope the guide helps you increase your iron levels.
If you found it helpful please do bookmark and share. And I would love to hear about your feedback.
For more simple practical health tips do check out my natural remedy guides including :
- Magnesium Rich Foods
- Natural Remedies For Gut Health
- Natural Remedies For Menstrual Cycle
- Getting Energy Back After Sickness
- Immune System Boosts
- Natural Headache Relief