We all need iron. It’s an essential mineral which plays a key role in transporting life-giving oxygen around the body, among other important functions.
However, many people experience low iron levels. In fact, it’s the most common nutritional deficiency in the world.1
Let’s learn all about the best food sources of iron and how you can get enough of it…
- What is iron?
- Iron deficiency symptoms
- Where to find iron
- Iron food sources
- Getting iron if you’re vegetarian or vegan
- Iron-rich snack ideas
- 2 iron-rich vegan recipes
- How much iron do we need?
- Who might have low iron?
- Can you have too much iron?
- The final say
What is iron and why do we need it?
Iron is a key part of the protein haemoglobin, which helps make up our red blood cells.
Haemoglobin is also what gives blood its red colour.2
1) Iron contributes to normal oxygen transport around the body
Haemoglobin acts as a vehicle for oxygen, carrying oxygen particles from the lungs to all the cells in the body.3
When we get sufficient iron through our diet, we make plenty of haemoglobin.
Running low on iron means that your body can’t make as much haemoglobin – and subsequently, can’t carry as much oxygen to your body’s cells.
So, if you’re lacking iron, you might find yourself getting tired and short of breath.
2) Iron contributes to normal energy-yielding metabolism
Iron also helps us in the process of converting food to energy. So, without iron, our bodies can’t produce energy properly.4
3) Iron contributes to normal function of the the immune system
Iron is also involved in our immune response and helps it to function normally.5
Symptoms of low iron and iron deficiency anaemia
The main signs to look out for which might indicate you are low on iron are:6
- Lack of energy
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations (where you can feel your heart beating and it might feel irregular)
- A pale complexion ⁵
A GP can diagnose iron deficiency anaemia with a blood test. Luckily, it’s easily treated by increasing your intake of iron.
This is usually done either through foods or supplementation, which your GP will advise you on.
Handpicked content: Iron: functions, foods, deficiency, and supplements
Where to find iron
Iron is an abundant mineral, found naturally in many foods.
For most people, eating lots of iron-rich foods is the best way to make sure your iron levels stay healthy.
You can also take iron supplements like iron tablets and iron drinks. These are recommended for certain groups of people like pregnant women, menstruating women, vegetarians and vegans, as well as people with other restrictive diets
Food sources of iron
There are plenty of different foods with iron to suit everyone’s tastes and lifestyles.
We’ve put together a list of the best “anaemia treatment foods” to include in your diet alongside your GP’s advice
Fish/meat sources of iron
Some of the most bioavailable food sources of iron come form animal products like meat and seafood: ⁶,⁷
- Meat, particularly beef and chicken liver
- Fish, such as sardines, tuna, and mackerel
- Oysters, clams, and other seafood
Dairy sources of iron
Eggs are another great source of iron, with two fried scrambled eggs containing about 2.3mg. That’s roughly 26% of the recommended daily intake (RDA) for men aged 18-50 and about 15% RDA for women of the same age. ⁸,⁹
Unfortunately, you won’t find much iron in milk. Try swapping to plant alternatives!
Some (like soy milk and oat milk) are natural sources of iron, while others are fortified. Either way, they’ll help you reach your RDA.
Fruit juices, especially prune juice, are also great if you’re looking to drink your iron intake.
Not convinced? Try an iron-rich smoothie instead; there’s plenty of room to get creative with your favourite fruit and veg.
Vegetarian and vegan iron sources
You might have heard that you’re more at risk of iron deficiency if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
But there’s no need to worry! It’s just important that you get to grips with all the plant-based iron sources that will help prevent anaemia.
Vegetarian and vegan foods high in iron include everything from green leafy vegetables and fruits, to seeds, nuts and legumes:.
- Green leafy veg, like spinach, kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- White and oyster mushrooms
- Dried fruits, especially prunes, figs, and apricots
- Soybeans and soy products like tofu and tempeh
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Nuts, like almonds, walnuts, and cashews
- Seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and flaxseeds
- Dark chocolate
- Coconut milk
Handpicked content: Risk of iron deficiency for vegetarians
Are plant sources of iron as good as animal sources?
Our ability to absorb iron from a vegetarian source is less effective than from an animal source. However, absorption can be enhanced by including a source of vitamin C with the iron-rich plant-based food.¹⁰
For example, adding red peppers, tomatoes, or fresh fruit will allow you to get the most out of the sources of iron in food you’re consuming.
It’s important to note that drinking tea or coffee with a meal also inhibits the absorption of iron, so avoid these beverages with meals or snacks. ¹¹
Many people top up their iron supplies with fortified foods. Fortified foods are those which have had iron added to them. These include many breakfast cereals, and in the UK, all white and brown flour is fortified with iron.¹²
Legume sources of iron
Legumes are a group of vegetables including beans, peas and lentils. Some of them are great sources of iron, including:
Vegetable sources of iron
There are plenty of vegetables that contain iron around - here are some of the best iron-rich vegetables:
Seeds and nuts sources of iron
Lots of seeds and nuts are great sources of iron, including:
Wholegrain sources of iron
Certain grains are rich in iron, like:
Other vegan foods with iron
Some potentially surprising sources of vegan iron are:
- Dark chocolate
- Coconut milk
- Dried thyme
Easy, rich snack ideas
Want some iron-rich snack inspo? Try these the next time you’re peckish:
- Hummus and red pepper or carrot sticks
- Handful of almonds with an apple
- A small piece of dark chocolate with a handful of blueberries
- Porridge sprinkled with pumpkin seeds
- A few dried apricots with almonds
- A small bowl of edamame beans with a squeeze of lemon juice
Or, load up your usual smoothie with iron-rich fruit and veg. Spinach is a winner (if you can handle the colour). Beetroot’s another iron-rich (and colourful) option.
To sweeten things up, add some banana: each one contains about 0.3mg of iron.
2 iron-rich recipes for vegans
You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy these crowd pleasers! We've got 2 delicious recipes for you to try out to up your iron intake.
Spinach and chickpea dahl
The vitamin C from the lemon juice and tomatoes helps your body absorb the iron from the chickpeas in this delicious dinner dish.
Superfood spinach is rich in both iron and vitamin C, meaning that this recipe is a high-quality source of absorbable iron.
- 2 cans of chickpeas (480g drained weight)
- 3 tbsp balti curry paste
- 1 large diced onion
- 200g leaf spinach (frozen is fine if you don’t have fresh)
- ½ tsp cumin
- 3tbsp fresh coriander
- 20ml lemon juice
- 400g chopped tomatoes
- Salt and pepper
1. Heat the onion and curry paste in a pan with a small amount of vegetable oil.
2. Cook for about 6 minutes until the onion becomes translucent.
3. Once the onion is soft, add the chopped tomatoes, cumin, coriander, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Keep a few coriander leaves back to use as a garnish.
4. Simmer for 5 minutes. Then, add the chickpeas and spinach and stir until the spinach has wilted.
5. Add the tin of chickpeas and spinach and stir until spinach has wilted.
6. Garnish with coriander and serve.
Sweet chili, broccoli, and bean stir fry
Broccoli, edamame beans and sesame seeds are some of the best vegetarian sources of iron around.
Get them all in one meal with this healthy, takeaway-inspired dinner.
- 1 head of broccoli (400g)
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds
- 150g edamame beans
- 50ml soy sauce/tamari
- 3tbsp sesame oil (or vegetable oil)
- 1 diced large onion
- 1tbsp fresh ginger
- 1 clove garlic
- 100ml sweet chilli sauce
- 300g rice noodles
1. Sauté the onion in the sesame oil for 5 minutes until soft.
2. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté for a further 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Add the sweet chilli sauce and soy sauce, stirring gently to form a glossy mixture.
4. Add the broccoli and edamame beans and cook for around 5 minutes.
5. Stir in the rice noodles and coat in the sauce. Cook for about 3 minutes - the broccoli should be sufficiently soft but not overcooked.
6. Stir in the rice noodles and coat in the sauce. Cook for 3 minutes.
7. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.
How much iron do we need?
The NHS recommends: ¹³,¹⁴
- 0-3 months – 1.7 mg
- 4-6 months – 4.3 mg
- 7-12 months – 7.8 mg
- 1-3 years – 6.9 mg
- 4-6 years – 6.1 mg
- 7-10 years – 8.7 mg
- Males 11-18 years – 11.2 mg
- Females 11-18 years – 14.5 mg
- Males over 18 years - 8.7mg
- Females aged 19 to 50 – 14.8mg
- Females over 50 – 8.7mg
Infants up to the age of 1 should get all their iron from either breast milk or infant formula.
In the UK, all infant breast-milk substitutes are fortified with iron to a typical level of 6–7 mg per litre. ¹⁵
Who might be low on iron?
Iron deficiency – known as iron deficiency anaemia – is very common. It’s thought to affect around 25% of the world’s population.
People in developed countries such as the UK tend to be less likely to have low iron levels due to greater access to nutritious foods. ¹⁶
However, it’s still relatively common in the UK.
Reasons why someone might become deficient in iron include:
- Vegan or vegetarian – many vegan and vegetarian sources of iron are available, but iron from plant sources tends to be lower in amount and is less easily absorbed than meat sources.
- Highly restricted diet – extreme weight loss diets or fasts can result in low iron levels and are not recommended generally.
- Pregnancy – iron requirements are naturally higher during pregnancy as iron is needed for the developing foetus. ¹⁷ Therefore, pregnant women can run low on iron unless they up their intake.
- Menstruation – losing blood through a monthly period can cause low iron levels, especially if they’re heavy.
- Age and gender – according to the British Nutrition Foundation, 48% of girls aged 11 – 18 have low iron levels. ¹⁸
Handpicked content: Why is iron so important for women?
Is it possible to get too much iron?
Yes. As vital iron is to the functioning of the body, we only need it in small amounts.
If we get too much iron, it can be bad for us. 20mg per day is considered too high a dose to have regularly. ¹⁹
It’s unlikely that someone would get too much iron through their diet, unless you’re regularly eating large amounts of red meat.
More commonly, iron overload is caused by ingesting too much via iron supplements.
If you’re not vegan, pregnant, menstruating or have a condition such as IBD and are eating a balanced diet including iron-rich foods, you’re unlikely to need an iron supplement.
Symptoms of too much iron include: ¹⁴
- Stomach pains
These symptoms should stop quickly once you reduce your iron intake below 20mg.
The final say
- We need iron to form red blood cells, transport oxygen, create energy and keep our immune system healthy
- Iron deficiency is common and can cause symptoms like tiredness, a pale complexion and heart palpitations
- You’re more at risk if you’re pregnant, menstruating, vegetarian/vegan, or on a restrictive diet
- Our bodies find iron from animal sources easier to absorb compared to plant-sources. However, making sure you have enough vitamin C can enhance iron absorption from vegan/vegetarian sources
- There are many sources of iron from both animal and plant sources – so, whatever your diet, you can get plenty every day.
- Meat, fish, legumes, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and even dark chocolate are popular sources of iron.
If you’re still concerned about your iron intake, or you think you might be anaemic, speak to your GP who might recommend some iron supplements to help you along.
Last updated: 9 September 2022