Dietary Help for Iron-Deficiency Anemia

If you have been diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor has likely advised you to eat more foods that are rich in iron. Here’s what you need to know to be sure you get the iron you need.

Foods containing iron are grouped into two categories:

•Heme iron is found only in meat, chicken and fish.
•Non-heme iron is found in eggs and vegetable-based foods, such as beans, green vegetables and dried fruit. Non-heme iron is also used to fortify some cereals, pastas and breads.
Maximizing absorption
The body absorbs heme iron from meat, chicken and fish better than non-heme iron from vegetable sources. These tips can help you maximize your overall iron absorption:

•Choose lean meats, fish and poultry. Iron is found in the flesh, not the fat. Keep your heart healthy by buying lean cuts of meat and skinless chicken.
•Eat vegetables and grains (non-heme) with small amounts of meat or poultry (heme). The average absorption of iron from plant sources increases when eaten with meat, poultry or fish. An example of a good combination is enriched spaghetti with clam or meat sauce.
•Combine iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C. Vitamin C can more than double the amount of iron your body absorbs. Excellent vitamin C sources include sweet bell peppers, vegetable and tomato juices, brussels sprouts, broccoli, baked and sweet potatoes, greens, cabbage, kiwi, guava, oranges and orange juice, grapefruits and grapefruit juice, strawberries and melon.
•Avoid drinking regular or herb tea, coffee or cocoa with your meals. Certain tannins and acids found in these drinks can interfere with iron absorption.
•Avoid taking any calcium supplements with your meals. Excess calcium can also interfere with iron absorption.
What about vegetarians?
Because iron is not absorbed as well from plant foods, it is recommended that vegetarians take in about twice the amount of iron recommended for non-vegetarians.

However, there is evidence that our bodies adapt to lower iron intakes over time by increasing absorption and decreasing losses. Studies show that the incidence of iron deficiency anemia among vegetarians with well-balanced diets is similar to that of non-vegetarians.

If you are a vegetarian, though, you should be sure to do the following to maximize the absorption of iron from your diet:

•Seek out specific high iron — natural and enriched — vegetarian foods.
•Avoid taking calcium supplements and drinking coffee, tea or cocoa with meals.
•Eat plenty of foods rich in vitamin C.
Adding it up
How much iron you need depends on your gender and age. In general, adult women between the ages of 19 and 50 need more than men. Men over age 18 and women over 50 need about 8 mg of iron per day. Women ages 19-50 years need 18 mg per day.

The following chart shows how much iron you get from your foods. For packaged food, use the Nutrition Facts label to determine how much iron has been added.

Cooked Source
Serving Size
Iron (mg)


Clams 3 oz.

Oysters 3 oz.

Shrimp 3 oz.

Tuna, halibut 3 oz.

Meat and poultry

Chicken, skinless breast 3 oz.

Duck, no skin 3 oz.

Beef, lean 3 oz.

Turkey breast 3 oz.

Turkey drumstick, no skin 3 oz.

Pork tenderloin 3 oz.

Eggs 1 large

Beans, cooked

Lentils 1/2 cup

Limas 1/2 cup

Dried beans (kidney, black) 1/2 cup

Split peas 1/2 cup

Soybeans, boiled 1/2 cup


Cream of wheat 1/2 cup

Fortified cold breakfast cereal 3/4 cup

Fortified oatmeal 1 packet

Wheat germ 2 Tablespoons

Enriched whole wheat bread 1 slice


Dried apricots, peaches 1/4 cup

Broccoli 1/2 cup

Brussels sprouts 1/2 cup

Peas 1/2 cup

Potatoes, cooked with skin 1 medium

Prunes 1/4 cup

Spinach, Swiss chard, cooked 1 cup

Squash, winter, cooked 1 cup

Think you need a supplement? Talk to your doctor, who will determine when and if an iron supplement is appropriate for you.

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