Iron deficiency? Here are the foods you should be eating

Looking for new ways to add more iron to your diet? Start with legumes. Getty Images

It can get tricky to keep track of all your daily vitamins and minerals, but experts say getting enough iron shouldn’t be that difficult for most of us.

Registered dietitian Shahzadi Devje of Toronto said, for the most part, Canadians are getting a sufficient amount of iron. One 2012 study indicated at least 97 per cent of Canadians had enough iron — even though many parts of the world live in deficiencies. 

“There are, however, at-risk groups,” she explained. “Those with impaired iron absorption like the case of people with celiac disease or irritable bowel disease, women with heavy menstrual periods, or those with a low dietary intake of iron.”

She adds those who donate blood regularly, pregnant women (because they have higher needs), or even babies who haven’t been breastfed or weren’t fed an iron-containing formula, can all have iron deficiencies. 

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“Women are more vulnerable to iron deficiency than men, mainly due to menstruation,” she added. “Hence, their iron needs are higher than men. For women aged 19 to 50 years, the recommended dietary allowance is 18 mg per day. For men, it’s considerably lower — 8 mg per day.”

Signs of iron deficiencies

Symptoms can start mild and many people may not even notice as they progress.

“Symptoms of moderate to severe iron deficiency can include fatigue, weakness, pale skin, headaches and dizziness,” she said. “Always visit your doctor who can assess your need for iron supplements and work with a registered dietitian for dietary support.”

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People with iron deficiencies should also avoid tea, coffee, milk and dairy products with meals because it can interfere with iron absorption.

“Eating foods cooked in iron pots and pans may help to improve iron status especially in those who are deficient. This is a common practice in the developing world.”

Healthiest ways to get iron

The best way to get more iron is to eat more iron-filled foods. Meat, fish and poultry are rich sources of iron, but there are plenty of other plant-based options too.

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“If you’re plant-based, include iron-rich foods such as fortified cereals (oatmeal, cream of wheat), tofu, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds. And be wary of foods that interfere with iron absorption, and remember to pair foods that help to boost absorption,” Devje said. Below, she lists plant-based food full of iron.

There are two forms of iron found in food: heme and non-heme. “Heme iron, found in meat, fish and poultry, is easier for us to absorb relative to non-heme iron, typically found in legumes, cereals, fruits and vegetables.”

Cream of wheat (cooked): 5.7 to 5.8 mg of iron
Oatmeal: 4.5 to 6.6 mg of iron
Lentils: 4.1 to 4.9 mg of iron
Beans: 2.6 to 4.9 mg of iron
Dry cereal: 4.0 to 4.3 mg of iron
Tofu (cooked): 2.4 to 8.0 mg of iron
Soybeans (mature) cooked: 6.5 mg of iron
Tempeh: 3.2 mg of iron
Pumpkin/squash seeds: 1.4 to 4.7 mg of iron
Blackstrap molasses: 3 mg to 6 mg of iron

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And while spinach or kale or peas are also good sources of iron, it is not as much as soybeans, legumes, lentil or beans.

“[Most leafy greens are] all low compared to the others above. When we advise clients, we focus on the higher sources.”
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