Foods to eat if you have low iron

Updated July 19, 2017

You need iron to produce red blood cells with haemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout your body. If your iron is insufficient, you can develop iron-deficiency anaemia and may be weak, tired and pale. Iron deficiency usually results from bleeding (such as internal bleeding or heavy periods), poor nutrition (lack of adequate meat or vegetable sources of iron) or disease (Crohn's, ulcerative colitis, coeliac disease) that prevents adequate absorption of iron from the intestines into the blood. If you have low iron, you need a diet high in iron-rich foods.

Eat Meat or Fish

Animal protein contains 40 per cent heme iron and 60 per cent non-heme iron, so eating meat, poultry, or fish is the most efficient way to increase iron intake as heme iron occurs only in animal protein and is absorbed more readily than non-heme iron. Lean red meats, such as beef and lamb, and organ meats, such as liver, are very good sources of iron. Dark poultry meat is higher in iron than white meat. Fish, especially shellfish (mussels, shrimp, oysters, clams), salmon, and tuna contain good amounts of iron. Egg yolks are another good source. Tofu and tempeh, also high in iron, may be used as meat substitutes if you are a vegetarian.

Eat Legumes and Green Leafy Vegetables

Dried legumes, such as soybeans, lima beans, lentils and kidney beans, are high in non-heme iron. Because non-heme iron is not absorbed as well as heme iron, if you are vegetarian or vegan, you need to increase your iron intake to compensate. Green leafy vegetables are another good source of iron. These include spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, beet greens, and brussels sprouts. Vitamin C markedly increases absorption of non-heme, so you should be sure to include vitamin C in your meal if you do not eat meat. Broccoli and bok choy are high in both iron and vitamin C, so they are good choices.

Eat Nuts and Whole Grains

Nuts, such as cashews and almonds, are high in non-heme iron and other nutrients, but they are also high in fat, so they are good to include in the diet in small amounts. Whole grains, especially quinoa, and fortified cereals, such as oatmeal and Cream of Wheat, are good sources of iron. You should always check the label when buying cereal to make sure it is fortified with iron.

Avoid Coffee, Tea, Cola, and Calcium Supplements

Some chemicals (phytic acid, tannic acid) found in coffee, tea, and cola as well as calcium bind to iron and prevent its absorption; so you should avoid drinking these liquids with your meal and avoid taking calcium supplements within an hour of meals. Tannic acid is also found in chocolate, and phytic acid is found in rye bread and some other grains.

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About the Author

Wanda Lockwood has an R.N., a B.A. in humanities, and M.A.s in TESOL from Monterey Institute of International studies and humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills. She has worked as a medical writer for six years, writing more than 100 continuing education courses for nurses and writing and editing medical study materials.