Iron is an essential mineral your body needs to function properly.

Thus, it’s vitally important to consume adequate amounts of it through your daily diet.

Interestingly, the foods you eat influence not only how much iron you consume but also how well it’s absorbed into your body (1).

Once your body absorbs iron, it’s used as a building block for hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that helps shuttle oxygen around your body.

Iron is also a component of myoglobin, an oxygen storage protein found in your muscles. This oxygen is used when you use your muscles.

The recommended iron intake range is 7–18 milligrams (mg) per day for the general population and up to 27 grams for pregnant women (2).

You may have heard that you can get iron from red meat, but there are many other foods that naturally contain iron.

In foods, iron is present in two forms: heme and non-heme.

Sources of heme iron

Heme iron is found in animal foods that contain hemoglobin, such as meat, fish, and poultry.

Heme iron is the best form of iron, as your body readily absorbs up to 40% of it (3).

Good food sources of heme iron include:

  • beef
  • pork
  • chicken
  • veal
  • fish such as halibut, haddock, perch, salmon, or tuna
  • shellfish such as clams, oysters, and mussels

Red meat and organ meat like liver are particularly good sources of iron.

Sources of non-heme iron

Non-heme iron primarily comes from plant sources and is present in grains, vegetables, and fortified foods.

This is the form added to iron-enriched or iron-fortified foods, as well as many supplements.

It’s estimated that 85–90% of total dietary iron intake in Western populations comes from the non-heme form, while 10–15% comes from the heme form (3). Up to 40% of iron that the body absorbs comes from the heme form. (3)

In terms of its bioavailability, non-heme iron is absorbed much less efficiently than heme iron.

Good sources of non-heme iron include:

  • fortified cereals, rice, wheat, and oats
  • dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale
  • dried fruits like raisins and apricots
  • beans like lentils and soybeans
Summary

Heme iron is found in animal foods, while non-heme iron comes from plant sources. Your body can better absorb heme iron than the non-heme form.

Iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia, which affects about 25% of the world’s population (4, 5).

A person who is iron deficient may have various symptoms, including fatigue, dizziness, headaches, sensitivity to cold, and shortness of breath when doing simple tasks. (6)

Moreover, iron deficiency can result in poorer attention span and mental function. In fact, iron deficiency in early childhood has been linked to learning challenges (2).

Children, adolescents, and women of reproductive age, particularly during pregnancy, are most at risk of iron deficiency. This is because their iron intake typically does not meet their body’s high demand for it (2).

Additionally, it’s commonly thought that vegetarians and vegans are more prone to iron deficiency. But there are conflicting studies on this point.

A 2018 research review found that vegetarians are more likely to have low iron stores than non-vegetarians. The authors of the analysis nonetheless recommended that people eat more plants and less meat given that high iron stores are a risk factor for some noncommunicable diseases (7).

Meanwhile, a 2021 study found that after inflammation was eliminated as a factor, vegetarians had the same prevalence of iron deficiency as those following an omnivore (meat-and-plant) diet. (8)

It’s generally recommended that vegetarians multiply their recommended iron intake by 1.8 to compensate for the reduced absorption of non-heme iron (2).

Summary

Iron deficiency is very common. Those who are most at risk include children, adolescents, women of reproductive age, pregnant women, vegetarians, and vegans.

While not all dietary iron is absorbed equally, some foods can enhance your body’s ability to absorb it.

Foods rich in vitamin C

Vitamin C has been shown to enhance iron absorption. It captures non-heme iron and stores it in a form that your body can absorb more easily (1).

Foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, bell peppers, melons, and strawberries.

Hence, drinking citrus juice or eating other foods rich in vitamin C while you’re eating high-iron foods can increase your body’s absorption.

In vegetarian and vegan diets, iron absorption may be optimized by including vitamin C–containing vegetables during meals (1).

Foods with vitamin A and beta-carotene

Vitamin A plays a critical role in maintaining healthy vision, bone growth, and your immune system.

Beta-carotene is a red-orange pigment found in plants and fruits. It can be turned into vitamin A in your body.

Good food sources of beta-carotene and vitamin A include carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, squash, red peppers, cantaloupe, apricots, oranges, and peaches.

Vitamin A helps to release iron that the body stores. Therefore, adequate vitamin A plays an important role in preventing iron deficiency anemia (9).

Meat, fish, and poultry

Meat, fish, and poultry not only provide well-absorbed heme iron, but they can also stimulate the absorption of the non-heme form. Eating a meal that combines heme iron with non-heme iron can help increase the amount of non-heme iron the body absorbs (10).

Summary

Eating foods high in vitamin C, vitamin A, or beta-carotene can enhance your body’s absorption of iron from meals. Eating meat, fish, or poultry with other foods can also help.

Just as some foods can improve iron absorption, others can hinder it.

Foods containing phytate

Phytate, or phytic acid, is found in foods like whole grains, cereals, soy, nuts, and legumes (3). It’s important to note that proper soaking can remove phytic acid from beans and lentils.

Even a small amount of phytate can significantly decrease iron absorption (1).

Nonetheless, the negative effect of phytate can be counteracted by consuming foods that enhance non-heme iron absorption, such as vitamin C or meat.

Calcium-rich foods

Calcium is an essential mineral for bone health.

But some evidence shows that it hinders the absorption of heme and non-heme iron (1).

A 2021 research review found that calcium had a negative effect on the short-term absorption of iron, but the effect was low. (11)

To maximize absorption, calcium-rich foods should not be eaten with meals that provide most of your dietary iron.

Regarding supplements, calcium and iron supplements should be taken at different times of the day if possible.

Foods containing polyphenols

Polyphenols are found in various amounts in plant foods and beverages, including vegetables, fruits, some cereals and legumes, tea, coffee, and wine.

Coffee and tea, both of which are widely consumed around meals, have a high content of polyphenols, and they have been shown to inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron (3).

A 2019 review of studies found that polyphenols did not interfere with iron bioavailability. But the review’s authors noted the limitations of the research and recommended further study (12).

To counteract the negative effect of polyphenols, be sure to leave a couple of hours between your iron-rich meal and your afternoon tea or coffee.

Summary

Foods containing phytates, calcium, and polyphenols can significantly reduce iron absorption.

Iron toxicity from food sources is rare. Once it’s consumed, your body has its own balancing system to make certain that it gets just enough.

But fatal overdoses and adverse health effects are possible with excessive intake of iron supplements (2).

Excessive iron levels can also occur in some people with a condition called hemochromatosis. This is usually caused by a gene that enhances absorption (13).

Other causes of iron overload include repeated blood transfusions, massive doses from the diet, and rare metabolic disorders.

Additionally, consuming too much iron over time may cause large deposits of the mineral to form in the liver and other tissues.

It can be helpful to talk with a healthcare professional if you’re considering taking an iron supplement.

Summary

Consuming too much iron can have health risks. Because of this risk, supplements are not recommended for most people.

The tips below can help you maximize your dietary iron intake:

  • Eat lean red meat: This is the best source of easily absorbed heme iron. Eating it several times per week can help if you’re deficient.
  • Eat chicken and fish: These are also good sources of heme iron. Eat a variety of them.
  • Consume vitamin C-rich foods: Eat vitamin C-rich foods during meals to help increase the absorption of non-heme iron. For example, drizzling lemon juice over leafy greens increases the amount of iron you absorb.
  • Avoid coffee, tea, or milk near meals that contain iron-rich foods: Have your coffee or tea between meals instead.
  • Choose foods rich in non-heme iron: If you don’t eat meat and fish, include plenty of iron-rich plant foods in your diet.
Summary

To maximize your iron intake, try to include meat, fish, poultry, and iron-rich plant foods in your diet, as well as vitamin C-rich foods during your meals. Also, spread out your tea, coffee, and dairy intake between meals.

Iron is a vital mineral that’s essential for your body to function well. Two types of it are found in food — heme and non-heme.

Meat, fish, and poultry contain the heme form, which your body easily absorbs.

Non-heme iron is mainly found in plant foods, but your body has a harder time absorbing it. You can improve your body’s absorption by eating foods containing vitamin C, vitamin A, along with meat, fish, and poultry during your meals.

On the other hand, foods containing phytates (cereals and grains), calcium (milk and dairy), and polyphenols (tea and coffee) can hinder iron absorption.

By carefully selecting the foods you eat and knowing how certain foods can enhance or inhibit absorption, you can make sure you’re getting the iron you need.