Since we were kids, we've been told time and time again to eat our fruits and vegetables. And this statement rings so incredibly true—especially in our adult lives. To maintain energy, healthy bodies, glowing skin, thick and long locks, nice nails, and more, we must eat nutrition-rich food on a regular basis. This is why high iron foods are at the top of the list.
Contrary to the popular belief that red meat is the only iron-rich food, we consulted top dieticians, nutritionists, and health experts to share other valuable options that offer up the daily dose of iron you need to feel your best.
Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, who is the founder and director of Real Nutrition based in NYC, echoes this statement. "Many people think that you can only get iron from red meat," says Shapiro. "Truth be told there are many plant-based foods high in iron, too. However, our body absorbs animal sources better than plants, but you can still meet your needs through both varieties. Getting adequate iron helps with energy levels, muscle function, brain function, and pregnancy."
Urvashi Singh, a nutritionist and expert in plant-based skincare science and founder of Aphorism, brings up the glaring fact that women are more likely than men to be iron-deficient. "Iron is essential to our existence as it is needed for hemoglobin, which is how we transport oxygen to our cells," says Singh.
Iron’s importance in our health is felt more through its absence and deficiency than abundance. On its own and in tandem with zinc, selenium, and folate, it's an essential nutrient for good skin, hair, and nails. A lack of iron can result in hair loss, sallow skin, and unexplained bruising. It also means our cells are not getting enough oxygen to produce energy and cause fatigue and shortness of breath. Women are more likely to be iron-deficient than men as they lose blood every month during their period and need significantly more during their pregnancy and breastfeeding phases of life.
Now that it's no question iron-packed foods are a necessary part of your diet, here are all the foods and delicious recipes health gurus love.
1. Leafy Green Vegetables
"Dark leafy green vegetables like spinach, collard greens, and kale are a rich source of iron," explains Jessica Rosen, certified holistic health coach and co-founder of Raw Generation. "They also provide a multitude of other nutrients that promote healthy skin, hair, and nails including amino acids, folate, and beta-carotene. One of the best ways to easily get your daily dose of iron is to drink cold-pressed green juices like Raw Generation’s Energy & Endurance. Leafy green vegetables are the absolute optimal food for healing your body, brightening your skin, and strengthening your immune system."
Shapiro is also a proponent of leafy greens. "As a nutritionist, I inherently love any type of leafy green, but spinach is so easy to eat and just 1/2 a cup provides almost 20% of your daily iron needs," says Shapiro. "With its mild flavor, it is easy to eat in so many ways: smoothie, in omelets, on its own in a salad or side dish, raw, cooked in soup, etc."
"One cup of cooked spinach has 36% DRV of iron," says Singh. "Spinach is also a good source of vitamin A (105% DRV), vitamin K ( 980% DRV), and folate (66% DRV), and vitamin C (25% DRV). Raw spinach is less—3 ounces has 15% DRV of iron. Spinach sautéed with olive oil and a dash of garlic salt is a two-minute recipe that complements any meal. I frankly use spinach for everything, breakfast, soup, and dinner."
If you're looking for a fun spinach recipe, the Care/of scientific advisory team full of leading doctors, scientists, and nutrition experts recommend this:
Spinach Cobb Salad: "Filled with the makings of a well-balanced, hearty meal, I love this cobb salad because it’s so rich in iron—spinach, eggs, and chicken are all natural sources of iron. It’s also filled with fiber, protein, and healthy fats to keep you full. Follow with some orange slices for dessert. Vitamin C can help your body absorb iron more efficiently.
Ingredients (serving four people):
- 3 medium eggs
- 11 ounces of spinach (1 bag)
- 2 cups chopped grilled chicken
- 1 cup halved cherry or grape tomatoes
- 2 avocados, peeled and chopped
- ⅓ cup crumbled feta (optional)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- Salt + pepper to taste
In a small pot, bring water to a boil and add the 3 eggs. Reduce heat to low and cover for 13 minutes. Drain water and rinse eggs in cold water. Peel the eggshells, chop eggs into small pieces, and set aside.
Wash, spin and dry spinach. Toss with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Add the chicken, tomatoes, eggs, and avocados. Toss again and serve with crumbled feta on top.
"Spirulina is arguably the number one superfood on the planet and is easily added to one’s smoothies, etc.," suggests Singh. "Four tablespoons give 40% of one’s daily dietary requirement of iron. In addition to iron, it is considered a natural supplement that helps with every form of wellness imaginable."
3. Grass-Fed Meat
Shapiro doesn't mind having red meat sparingly. "I'll have it once a month. When this happens, I make sure I am buying well-sourced meats that are local, organic and 100% grass-fed," she says. "Loaded with iron, a 6-ounce serving of beef provides 30% of your daily needs of heme iron, which is the more absorbable form."
Singh also swears by grass-fed meat for a good dose of iron. "For omnivores, grass-fed, pasture-raised red meat is good for you—a 4 ounce serving provides 20% DRV of iron. Notable among other nutrients provided by grass-fed beef is vitamin B-3, which is critical for energy production and is a powerful antioxidant of omega-3 fats. Omega-3s benefits your mood, gut health, and cardiovascular health. Grass-fed beef also contains a lot of vitamin B-12, which is required for DNA function as well as brain and cardiovascular health. Because it is heme iron, the bio-availability of iron is higher than vegetarian sources."
Singh's winning beef stew recipe is below:
- 1.5 lb grass-fed beef stew meat cut into 2-inch cubes
- 1 cup of red wine
- 2 cups of stock (any stock is fine)
- 1/2 packet/200g of mirepoix
- 200g(1/2 lb) string beans trimmed or cut to any length between 4 to 6 inches
- 3 medium-big carrots cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces
- Olive oil or coconut oil or ghee
Use a broad base thick pot and use enough oil to cover the base. The broad base aids the browning process. Heat oil to medium-high and add stew meat cubes. Sauté on high heat until all the cubes are nicely browned—should take five minutes. This helps seal in all the juices within the cubes of meat.
Add mirepoix and sauce another minute. Add wine, stock, and bring to boil. Lower to simmer and cover. Cook on simmer for 1.5 hours. Check occasionally to stir and make sure there is enough liquid.
Add green beans and carrots and put lid on for another 10 minutes until vegetables are cooked but still maintain their shape and texture. There is no salt as stock has salt. Adjust salt and pepper to taste at end. Serve with potatoes or cauliflower rice.
4. Dark Chocolate
There's a catch, though. Shapiro recommends making sure that the dark chocolate is 70% cacao. "One ounce of dark chocolate provides almost 20% of your daily need, and believe me that is easy to do," she says. "Imagine that, cure your sweet tooth and increase your iron levels—perfect for us ladies during that time of month."
According to Singh, 1.5 ounces (typically half a bar) of 75% to 85% dark chocolate has 33% of the RDA for iron. "In addition to being a great source of iron, dark chocolate is considered to be among the best anti-oxidant foods out there," confirms Singh. "The high fiber content helps with cardiovascular and GI health, and trace minerals like zinc, magnesium, and phosphorus are necessary for enzymatic and cellular processes across the body to be optimally healthy." She loves buying dark chocolate from Alter Eco and Endangered Species. Singh also loves supplementing iron-rich foods with berries. "I have found berries as dessert to be a great way to get vitamin C in with any and every iron-filled meal," says Singh.
The Care/of team agrees that chocolate has so many nutritional benefits. "It's a natural source of antioxidants, it supports heart health, and is rich in iron," says the team. "Having just a small square of dark chocolate after a meal contributes to almost a quarter of the iron recommended each day. Adding iron-rich foods, both as the main dish or as a snack on the side, can really make a difference when it comes to energy levels and cognitive function."
Rosen points out how consuming the proper amount of dark chocolate helps slow down the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines while promoting healthy skin. "Pure chocolate is not only iron-rich but also is a source of antioxidants called flavonoids, which fight aging and promote healthy skin," explains Rosen. "Dark chocolate is much better for you than milk chocolate, with a higher concentration of nutrition. However, the absolute best way to get your chocolate fix is in the form of raw cacao powder. Blend it into a smoothie or make your own healthy hot chocolate."
Rosen's favorite healthy hot chocolate recipe:
- 1 cup plant-based milk
- Raw cacao powder
- 2 tsp. of raw honey
Heat and stir ingredients together on your stovetop and serve.
This is a vegan source of protein that's loaded with nutrients and doesn’t cost much. "A 1/2 cup of lentils provides 20% of your daily needs for iron and that is easy to eat at any meal," says Shapiro. "Add it to salad or quinoa, make a soup or even a veggie burger. Lentils are a great source of protein and iron for those who are vegan and vegetarian."
Singh is also a fan of Lentils: "One cup of cooked lentils provides nearly 40% of the DRV of iron. It also provides 90% of the DRV of folate—folate is a necessary nutrient for hair and nail health and a nutrient during early pregnancy to prevent fetal spine abnormalities. Women are recommended to increase their folate uptake before pregnancy to avoid complications since so many people are folate-deficient. Lentils also provide 67% of the DRV of fiber." Try Singh's favorite lentil soup recipe.
"Low in fat and calories, one serving of energy-dense quinoa provides 15% of your recommended daily iron intake and is one of the most nutritious foods that exists, providing B vitamins and other essential minerals like magnesium and calcium," explains Rosen. "In addition to its rich iron content, quinoa offers a complete amino acid profile, which is just what your body needs to be able to repair itself and have healthy hair, skin, and nails. With an abundance of antioxidants, quinoa helps destroy free radicals, delaying the onset of fine lines and wrinkles. Quinoa is gluten-free, and avoiding gluten can also work wonders for beautifying your skin."
Rosen's go-to recipe for an iron-rich quinoa bowl:
- 1 cup quinoa, cooked
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup spinach, chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro or parsley
- 1/2 a small red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup raisins
- Freshly squeezed juice of one lime
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 avocado, sliced
Fold all ingredients together in a large bowl, top with avocado slices, and serve.
7. Pumpkin Seeds and Chia Seeds
According to the Care/of scientific advisory team, pumpkin seeds are an easy way to ensure that you’re getting a healthy dose of iron: "An ounce of pumpkin seeds gives you a quarter of your recommended daily intake. Not only are pumpkin seeds an efficient way to get the iron you need, they’re also high in protein and omega-6s."
Singh agrees and reinstates that pumpkin seeds are a great source with 1/4 cup (four tbsp) obtaining nearly 50% of the daily requirement. "They are another superfood as they are also great source of manganese, phosphorus magnesium, and copper," Singh explains. "They are also a decent source of protein. They are powerful antioxidants and easy to sprinkle on almost anything from morning granola to soup and dessert."
In the same seed family, Shapiro suggests chia seeds. "These tiny seeds pack a nutrient-rich punch with 2 milligrams of iron per serving—they'll not only help to keep you full, they’ll keep you going."
"Oysters are one of the hidden gems of iron-rich foods," says the Care/of team. "Whether you consume them raw or cooked, one serving of oysters has about 4.5 milligrams of iron, which is 25% of the recommended daily value of iron for women, and more than half of that required for men."
Shapiro is also a regular at raw bars when it comes to supplementing her iron servings. "Oysters are not just an aphrodisiac; they are also high in iron. So next time you are out to dinner, order the raw bar," says Shapiro.
The Care/of team dubbs chickpeas as one of the most versatile players when it comes to healthy foods and a natural source of iron. "About half a cup gives you a third of the daily recommended intake of iron," says the team. "Whether it’s a spicy chickpea stew or a side of hummus, chickpeas are also great sources of lean protein. Additionally, chickpeas contain high amounts of both soluble fiber, which promotes healthy digestion, and insoluble fiber, which helps regulate blood sugar levels."
"Good-quality organic, non-GMO tofu provides just as much iron as greens," explains Shapiro. "It's also a wonderful plant-based source of protein."
"Remember when you were a kid and you ate raisins instead of candy? Not a bad idea to go back to that habit," suggests Shapiro. "A serving gets you 10% of your daily needs of iron, so add them to your salad, snack on them plain, or top your yogurt or oats with them and feel energized."