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
Learn all about the best food sources iron and how you can get enough of it here.
What is iron and why do we need it?
Iron makes up a key part of the protein haemoglobin, which helps make up our red blood cells.
Haemoglobin is also what gives blood its red colour and is made from two main components – one of which is iron.2
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 are able to 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.
Iron contributes to 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
Iron contributes to the normal function of the immune system
Iron is also involved in our immune response and helps it to function normally.5
- Iron helps make up our red blood cells and makes our blood red
- It helps to transport oxygen around the body
- It helps us to extract and produce energy from our diet
- Iron supports our immune system
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
- Tiredness and lack of energy
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations (where you can feel your heart beating and it might feel irregular)
- A pale complexion
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.
- Feeling tired, shortness of breath, a pale complexion and heart palpitations are the main symptoms of an iron deficiency
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, and this is recommended for certain groups of people like pregnant women, menstruating women, vegetarians and vegans, and 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 sources of iron you can include in your diet.
Fish/meat sources of iron
Some of the most bioavailable food sources of iron come from animal products like meat and seafood:7,8
- Meat – the most plentiful and easily absorbed source of iron found in nature is in meat such as beef and chicken liver
- Fish such as sardines
- Oysters, clams and other seafood
Vegetarian/vegan iron sources
Vegetarian and vegan foods high in iron include everything from green leafy vegetables and fruits, to seeds, nuts and legumes.
Here are some of the best vegetarian and vegan sources of iron.
Fruit sources of iron
Yes, some fruits contain iron, too! Some of the best iron rich fruits include:
- Prunes, especially prune juice
- Olives (technically a fruit!)
- Dried apricots
- Dried prunes
- Dried figs
Legume sources of iron
Legumes are a group of vegetables including beans, peas and lentils. Some of them are great sources of iron, including:
- Soy products such as tofu, tempeh and natto
- White beans
- Red kidney beans
- Butter beans
- Black-eyed beans
Vegetable sources of iron
There are plenty of vegetables that contain iron around - here are some of the best iron-rich vegetables:
- Swiss chard
- Brussels sprouts
- Other leafy green vegetables
- Tomato paste
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- White mushroom
- Oyster mushrooms
- Palm hearts
Seeds and nuts sources of iron
Lots of seeds and nuts are great sources of iron, including:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Pine nuts
- Macadamia nuts
- Tahini (sesame seed paste)
- Hummus (chickpeas and tahini)
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
Other vegetarian sources of iron
Eggs are a great source of iron, with about 100g fried egg containing 2.3mg of iron.
Easy iron-rich snack ideas
Want some iron-rich snack inspo? Try these the next time your 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
- Sprinkle pumpkin seeds over porridge
- A few dried apricots with almonds
- A small bowl of edamame beans with a squeeze of lemon juice
- There are many sources of iron from both animal and plant sources
- Meat, fish, legumes, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and even dark chocolate are popular sources of iron
Incorporating iron-rich food into your vegan and vegetarian diet
Those on a vegetarian and vegan diet can find good sources of iron in chickpeas.
Chickpeas are a wonderful source of protein and fibre and are also known as garbanzo beans.
These tasty legumes originated in the Mediterranean and the Middle East but are now a common feature in dishes all over the globe.
Included in a variety of foods from hummus to curries, chickpeas are a great way to boost your diet with protein and iron.
What are the health benefits of chickpeas?
Chickpeas are a source of plant-based protein.
With 9g of protein in every 100g, cooked chickpeas are a valuable addition to a meat-free diet.
Protein is known as the building block of our bodies. We need protein from our diets to maintain and repair our muscles and body tissues.
Studies have shown that a diet that is high in protein can keep hunger at bay as well as helping us to build muscle and control our weight.
Chickpeas are full of iron
Prized for their high vitamin and mineral content, chickpeas a vegan-friendly source of iron. Eating enough iron is essential for keeping our blood healthy and producing red blood cells.
This is particularly important for women, who need higher amounts of iron due to their menstrual cycles.
Eating enough iron is also essential for vegans and vegetarians as most iron-rich foods are sourced from animals.
Chickpeas are rich in Vitamin B
A form of folic acid, vitamin B or folate plays a key role in forming new cells which makes it essential for pregnant women.
Not having enough folate before or during pregnancy has been linked to birth defects in unborn babies.
Just one tin of chickpeas will provide you with most of your recommended daily allowance of this vital nutrient.
Chickpeas are full of fibre
According to current NHS guidelines, most of us should aim for at least 30g of fibre a day.
While most of us fall short, 100g of boiled chickpeas contains 8g of fibre.
Research shows that the fibre and other nutrients found in chickpeas are so important because they could help lower the risk of developing conditions like heart disease.
How to eat chickpeas and some recipe ideas
Eaten hot or cold, chickpeas are a versatile backup in any kitchen cupboard.
Try some of these recipes to enrich your diet with protein and fibre:
There’s no need to buy hummus when it’s so simple to make at home.
- Simply combine chickpeas, lemon juice, cumin, tahini and garlic in a blender.
- Mix to form a creamy texture, adding water along the way if the mixture is too dry.
- Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil to serve.
- A tasty dip with carrot and celery sticks or as a moreish starter with strips of pitta bread.
Delicious baked falafel
A delicious baked version of these deep-fried Middle Eastern is delightful.
- To make, thoroughly mash together cooked chickpeas and sautéed onion and garlic.
- Add coriander, cumin and a beaten egg. Mix and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Split the mixture into small balls and bake in a preheated oven for 20 minutes on a non-stick baking tray.
- Once they’ve cooled, serve them with shredded lettuce and minted yoghurt.
For an egg-free alternative, try vegan egg.
Straightforward channa masala
Chickpeas, or channa as they’re called in India, are fantastic in curries.
Although it’s straightforward to make, channa masala is packed with flavour.
- Add onions and garlic to an oiled pan with cumin, turmeric, coriander and a pinch of chilli powder.
- Once the onions are browned, add the chickpeas and a few tablespoons of water.
- Simmer for 15 minutes before seasoning with salt and lemon juice.
Crunchy roasted chickpeas
Roasting chickpeas in an oven provides a crunch, handy snack.
- Spread boiled chickpeas onto a non-stick baking tray.
- Sprinkle with your favourite spices and a drizzle of oil and roast in the oven until they turn golden.
- Let them cool for a healthier alternative to crisps.
- For a sweet treat, swap the savoury spices for cinnamon, vanilla or honey.
Whether you call them garbanzo beans, channa or chickpeas, it’s clear that regularly eating these legumes is a great way to boost your diet with essential nutrients.
2 iron rich recipes for vegans
What about if you're vegan? 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
Heat the onion and curry paste in a pan with a small amount of vegetable oil.
Cook for about 6 minutes until the onion becomes translucent.
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 garnish.
Simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the tin of chickpeas and spinach and stir until spinach has wilted.
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 stalk 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
Sauté the onion in the sesame oil for 5 minutes until soft.
Add the garlic and ginger and sauté for a further 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the sweet chilli sauce and soy sauce, stirring gently to form a glossy mixture.
Add the broccoli and edamame beans and cook for around 5 minutes.
The broccoli should be sufficiently soft but not in any way mushy. Stir in the rice noodles.
Cook until the broccoli is sufficiently soft but not overcooked.
Stir in rice noodles and coat in the sauce. Cook for 3 minutes.
Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.
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.9
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.10
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.11
- 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
- Hot drinks can inhibit iron absorption when drank with meals and snacks
- Many breakfast cereals are fortified with iron, as well as all white and brown flour in the UK
How much iron do we need?
The NHS recommends:12,13
- 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.14
- We need varying levels of iron at different ages, see the information above to see how much you should be getting
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 access to nutritious foods.15
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.16 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.17
- It’s thought that 25% of the world’s population is deficient in iron
- People on restrictive diets, vegans, vegetarians, pregnant people and women who are menstruating are at risk of low iron levels
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.18
It’s unlikely that someone would get too much iron through their diet, unless you’re regularly eating large amounts of red meat.
A healthy body can control the amount of iron absorbed into the blood and ensure there is no build-up. However, this system of regulation can sometimes go wrong and the result can be a build up of iron in the body. This is called haemochromatosis and is relatively rare.1
More commonly, iron overload is caused by ingesting too much via iron supplements. If you’re not a vegan, pregnant woman, menstruating woman, 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:20
- Stomach pains
These symptoms should stop quickly once you reduce your iron intake below 20mg.
- Yes, you can have too much iron, e.g. 20mg a day would be considered too high
- It is unlikely to get too much iron from your diet, unless you eat a lot of red meat
- Iron can build up in the body and become harmful, but this is rare
- If you’re susceptible to low iron levels and are eating a balanced diet including iron-rich foods, you’re unlikely to need an iron supplement
The final word
- 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
- There are lots of iron-rich foods, like meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and dark chocolate
- 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
- People on restrictive diets, vegans, vegetarians, pregnant people and women who are menstruating are at risk of low iron levels
- You can have too much iron. It is unlikely to get too much iron from your diet, unless you eat a lot of red meat
Last updated: 6 October 2021