Iron rich foods: A guide for the science-minded parent

© 2009 - 2020, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

The smart consumption of iron rich foods

If your child is iron deficient, it makes sense to examine his or her diet. But boosting iron levels isn’t just a matter of eating iron rich foods.

Some foods contain iron, but they also contain compounds that decrease the body’s ability to absorb iron.

For instance, many grains, legumes, and vegetables contain phytates--chemical compounds which bind to iron and then pass through the small intestine unabsorbed. Other foods, like eggs, contain proteins that interfere with iron absorption.

So while we often hear that eggs and spinach are good sources of iron, the reality is more complicated. Experiments and laboratory analyses confirm that the iron in these foods is poorly-absorbed (Gordon and Chow 1984; Insel et al 2004; Ishikawa et al 2007).

Then there's the problem of calcium. Calcium competes with iron for absorption by the body (Insel et al 2004), so a calcium-rich meal can temporarily block iron absorption (Lönnerdal 2010).

This may explain, at least in part, a well-known risk factor for iron deficiency in children: Kids who consume lots of milk are more likely to suffer from an iron deficiency (Uijterschout et al 2014; Gunnarson et al 2007; Hallberg 1998).

For example, in a study of Canadian children, toddlers were more likely to suffer from an iron deficiency if they were in the habit of consuming more than two cups of cow's milk per day (Cox et al 2016).

And a number of studies confirm a link between elevated iron deficiency risk and prolonged breast-feeding. The longer babies depend exclusively on breast milk for their nutrients, the more likely it is that they will develop an iron deficiency (van der Merwe and Eusson 2017; Cox et al 2016).

Are there any foods that enhance iron absorption?

Yes. Vitamin C and "meat factor" (found in red meat, salmon, and other animal muscle proteins) help the body absorb iron and counteract the effects phytates.

In one study, adding 63 mg of vitamin C to a grain-based, iron rich meal boosted iron absorption by almost 300% (Fidler et al 2009).

So what's a good dietary strategy for boosting iron levels in an iron deficient child?

  • Avoid the consumption of high levels of calcium (>40 mg) during meals that are intended to boost iron levels.
  • Avoid other iron absorption inhibitors, like peppermint, chamomile, tea, and coffee.
  • And encourage your child to consume iron rich foods in combination with sources of vitamin C (like citrus fruits, peaches, papayas, sweet red peppers, berries, broccoli, and peas).

What about meat? Do you have to eat meat to avoid iron deficiency?

Not if you are careful to get iron from other sources. But it's worth noting that some families who avoid red meat may find it more difficult to maintain target iron levels.

For instance, in a study of more than 250 Israeli children, researchers found that kids who ate red meat rarely had a fourfold increased risk of being iron deficient (Moshe et al 2013). If you have concerns about iron deficiency and red meat isn't on your menu, you may want to take special note of  this evidence-based advice.

So what foods are especially rich in iron?

There are two classes of iron rich foods. Foods that contain heme iron, and foods that contain non-heme iron. Let's take a closer look.

Iron rich foods: Sources of heme iron

Heme iron is the form of iron most easily absorbed by the body. It is found in animal muscle tissue. Here are some specific examples of heme iron rich foods, as rated by the USDA Nutrient Database.

Iron rich foods: Sources of nonheme iron

Nonheme iron is found in plant foods, as well as in meat and eggs. Compared with heme iron, nonheme iron is less efficiently absorbed. Moreover, many sources of nonheme iron also contain phytates, which greatly reduce bioavailability. If you want to absorb significant quantities of nonheme iron, it’s especially important to combine it with vitamin C or meat. Again, see my article on iron absorption for more information.

Here is a list of nonheme iron rich foods, compiled from the USDA Nutrient Database:

These tables represent only a small sampling of foods. For a more extensive listing of iron rich foods, check out the USDA Nutrient Database for yourself.

Copyright © 2006-2020 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

References: Iron rich foods

Bailey RL, Catellier DJ, Jun S, Dwyer JT, Jacquier EF, Anater AS, Eldridge AL. Total usual nutrient intakes of US children (under 48 months): findings from the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) 2016. J Nutr 2018;148:1557S–66S.

Cox KA, Parkin PC, Anderson LN, Chen Y, Birken CS, Maguire JL, Macarthur C, Borkhoff CM. 2016. Association Between Meat and Meat-Alternative Consumption and Iron Stores in Early Childhood. TARGet Kids! Collaboration. Acad Pediatr. 16(8):783-791.

Fidler MC, Davidsson L, Zeder C, and Hurrell RF. 2004. Erythorbic acid is a potent enhancer of nonheme-iron absorption. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Jan;79(1):99-102.

Gordon DT and Chao LS. 1984. Relationship of components in wheat bran and spinach to iron bioavailability in the anemic rat. Journal of Nutrition 114(3): 526-535.

Gunnarsson BS, Thorsdottir I,and Palsson G. 2007. Associations of iron status with dietary and other factors in 6-year-old children. Eur J Clin Nutr. 61(3):398-403.

Hallberg L. 1998. Does calcium interfere with iron absorption? Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 68: 3-4.

Insel, PM, Turner RE, and Ross D. 2003. Nutrition. 2nd edition.

Ishikawa SI, Tamaki S, Arihara K, Itoh M. 2007. Egg yolk protein and egg yolk phosvitin inhibit calcium, magnesium, and iron absorptions in rats. J Food Sci. 72(6):S412-9.

Moshe G, Amitai Y, Korchia G, Korchia L, Tenenbaum A, Rosenblum J, Schechter A. 2013. Anemia and iron deficiency in children: association with red meat and poultry consumption. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 57(6):722-7.

Rutzke CJ, Glahn RP, Rutzke MA, Welch RM, Langhans RW, Albright LD, Combs GF Jr, and Wheeler RM. 2004. Bioavailability of iron from spinach using an in vitro/human Caco-2 cell bioassay model. Habitation (Elmsford). 10(1):7-1.

Uijterschout L, Vloemans J, Vos R, Teunisse PP, Hudig C, Bubbers S, Verbruggen S, Veldhorst M, de Leeuw T, van Goudoever JB, Brus F. 2014. Prevalence and risk factors of iron deficiency in healthy young children in the southwestern Netherlands. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 58(2):195-200.

van der Merwe LF and Eussen SR. 2017. Iron status of young children in Europe. Am J Clin Nutr. 106(Suppl 6):1663S-1671S.

Content last modified 10/2020