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How can I get enough iron?

Created: ; Last Update: March 22, 2018; Next update: 2021.

The human body needs iron for a lot of reasons. Most of the iron in our body is found in our blood. It is part of the red pigment in blood and helps the blood to carry oxygen. As a result, more severe cases of iron deficiency are often associated with tiredness and exhaustion. People who eat a balanced diet can normally get enough iron that way. Most foods have (usually very small amounts of) iron in them, contributing to our overall iron intake.

The recommended daily iron intake for women is generally 15 milligrams (mg). Men need less iron: Their recommended daily iron intake is 10 mg. Women need more iron because they lose iron during their monthly period.

According to the German Nutrition Society (DGE, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung), pregnant women need 30 mg of iron per day in order to provide for their baby. After the baby is born, they need about 20 mg of iron per day to refill the iron stores that were depleted during pregnancy and childbirth.

Which foods have iron in them?

Meat is a good source of iron because it has the red pigment hemoglobin in it too. The iron found in hemoglobin is easily absorbed by our bodies. Iron in plant-based foods is generally more difficult to absorb and use. So it may be difficult for vegetarians to get the recommended double amount of iron during pregnancy only though the foods that they eat.

The amount of iron you get also depends on your diet as a whole. This is because different kinds of food influence each other. Our bodies also adapt depending on how much iron we currently need: If our iron stores are empty, our bodies can get a lot more iron out of the food we eat.

The uptake of iron from plant-based foods can be reduced by other substances in food. These substances bind to iron in the bowel, preventing the body from absorbing it. They include things like tannins (e.g. in red wine or black and green tea), oxalic acid (e.g. in spinach, beetroot, rhubarb and cocoa), phytate (e.g. in cereals) and phosphate (e.g. in processed cheese slices and spreads). Wheat bran, dairy products, soy products and coffee also contain substances that reduce iron uptake.

People who eat a lot of plant-based foods, or only eat plant-based foods, can increase their iron uptake by combining different plant-based foods in specific ways. For instance, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) increases iron absorption. Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, orange juice, broccoli and red peppers. Meat, fish and poultry also increase the amount of iron absorbed from plant-based foods.

Illustration: Iron-rich foods – as described in the article

Iron-rich foods

The following table provides a rough idea of how much iron different foods have in them. The foods listed in the table are mainly foods that have particularly high amounts of iron in them.

Meat

Food product Typical portion size Iron in mg/portion
Pork liver, cooked 125 g 24.4
Veal liver, cooked 125 g 11.3
Beef liver, cooked 125 g 9.7
Venison, cooked 150 g 5.1
Beef, cooked 150 g 4.9
Pork, cooked 150 g 3.9
Mutton, cooked 150 g 3.3
Veal, cooked 150 g 3.1
Traditional blood sausage/black pudding 30 g 2.3
Liver pâté, fine 30 g 2.2
Cooked ham (pork) 30 g 0.7
Salami 30 g 0.5

Fish

Food product Typical portion size Iron in mg/portion
Mussels, cooked 100 g 3.8
Shrimps 100 g 1.8
Tuna, cooked 130 g 1.3
Herring fillet, Matjes style 90 g 1.1
Smoked eel 75 g 0.5
Salmon 150 g 0.4

Bread, muesli

Food product Typical portion size Iron in mg/portion
Spelt bread 1 and 50 g. 2.1
Soy bread 1 slice (45 g). 2
Whole grain buckwheat bread 1 slice (60 g). 1.7
Whole grain oat bread 1 slice (50 g) 1.4
Whole grain bread with sesame seeds 1 slice (50 g) 1.3
Whole grain bread 1 slice (50 g) 1
Rye bread 1 slice (45 g) 0.6
Oats 60 g 2.7
Muesli 50 g 1.7
Cereal flakes 2 to 3 tbsp. (20 g) 0.8

Lettuce, Vegetables, Herbs

Food product Typical portion size Iron in mg/portion
Chanterelle mushrooms, steamed 200 g 11.6
Black salsify, steamed 250 g 5.5
Spinach, steamed 150 g 4.6
Swiss chard, steamed 150 g 3.6
Canned chickpeas 150 g 3.3
White beans (dry), cooked 150 g 3.3
Green peas, steamed 250 g 2.5
Lamb's lettuce 100 g 2
Green cabbage, as traditionally prepared at home 200 g 1.9
Brussel sprouts, steamed 250 g 1.7
Leeks, steamed 250 g 1.3
Asparagus, steamed 200 g 1.3
Beetroot, cooked 150 g 1.2
Thyme, fresh 5 g 1
Parsley 15 g 0.5
Garden cress 15 g 0.4

Nuts, fruit

Food product Typical portion size Iron in mg/portion
Pistachios 60 g 4.4
Cashews 60 g 3.8
Sesame seeds 20 g 2
Strawberries 250 g 1.6
Blackcurrants 125 g 1.6
Raspberries 125 g 1.3
Dried apricots 25 g 1.1
Kiwis 125 g 1
Dried figs 25 g 0.8
Yeast flakes 5 g 0.8
Rhubarb, cooked 150 g 0.6
Nectarines 125 g 0.6

Side dishes

Food product Typical portion size Iron in mg/portion
Tofu 100 g 2.8
Whole grain rice, boiled 180 g 2.2
Millet, cooked 80 g 2.1
Whole grain pasta with soy   protein, cooked 125 g 2
Parboiled rice, boiled 180 g 1.9
Whole grain pasta, boiled 125 g 1.6
Pasta (with eggs), boiled 125 g 1
Chicken egg 60 g 1
Pasta (without eggs), boiled 200 g 0.9
White rice (milled), boiled 180 g 0.5

Sources

  • Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung (BfR). Fragen und Antworten zu Eisen in Lebensmitteln. December 01, 2008.
  • Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft (BMEL). Bundeslebensmittelschlüssel. July 05, 2017.
  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung (DGE), Österreichische Gesellschaft für Ernährung (ÖGE), Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Ernährungsforschung (SGE), Schweizerische Vereinigung für Ernährung (SVE). Referenzwerte für die Nährstoffzufuhr. Bonn: DGE; 2017.
  • IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

    Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. We do not offer individual consultations.

    Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

© IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care)
Bookshelf ID: NBK279618

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