The human body

How can I get enough iron?

The human body needs iron for a lot of reasons. Most of the iron in our body is found in our blood. It is part of the red pigment in blood and helps the blood to carry oxygen. As a result, more severe cases of iron deficiency are often associated with tiredness and exhaustion. People who eat a balanced diet can normally get enough iron that way. Most foods have (usually very small amounts of) iron in them, contributing to our overall iron intake.

The recommended daily iron intake for women is generally 15 milligrams (mg). Men need less iron: Their recommended daily iron intake is 10 mg. Women need more iron because they lose iron during their monthly period.

According to the German Nutrition Society (DGE, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung), pregnant women need 30 mg of iron per day in order to provide for their baby. After the baby is born, they need about 20 mg of iron per day to refill the iron stores that were depleted during pregnancy and childbirth.

Which foods have iron in them?

Meat is a good source of iron because it has the red pigment hemoglobin in it too. The iron found in hemoglobin is easily absorbed by our bodies. Iron in plant-based foods is generally more difficult to absorb and use. So it may be difficult for vegetarians to get the recommended double amount of iron during pregnancy only though the foods that they eat.

The amount of iron you get also depends on your diet as a whole. This is because different kinds of food influence each other. Our bodies also adapt depending on how much iron we currently need: If our iron stores are empty, our bodies can get a lot more iron out of the food we eat.

The uptake of iron from plant-based foods can be reduced by other substances in food. These substances bind to iron in the bowel, preventing the body from absorbing it. They include things like tannins (e.g. in red wine or black and green tea), oxalic acid (e.g. in spinach, beetroot, rhubarb and cocoa), phytate (e.g. in cereals) and phosphate (e.g. in processed cheese slices and spreads). Wheat bran, dairy products, soy products and coffee also contain substances that reduce iron uptake.

People who eat a lot of plant-based foods, or only eat plant-based foods, can increase their iron uptake by combining different plant-based foods in specific ways. For instance, vitamin C (ascorbic acid) increases iron absorption. Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, orange juice, broccoli and red peppers. Meat, fish and poultry also increase the amount of iron absorbed from plant-based foods.

Illustration: Iron-rich foods – as described in the articleIron-rich foods

The following table provides a rough idea of how much iron different foods have in them. The foods listed in the table are mainly foods that have particularly high amounts of iron in them.

Meat

Food product

Typical portion size

Iron in mg/portion

Pork liver, cooked

125 g

24.4

Veal liver, cooked

125 g

11.3

Beef liver, cooked

125 g

9.7

Venison, cooked

150 g

5.1

Beef, cooked

150 g

4.9

Pork, cooked

150 g

3.9

Mutton, cooked

150 g

3.3

Veal, cooked

150 g

3.1

Traditional blood sausage/black pudding

30 g

2.3

Liver pâté, fine

30 g

2.2

Cooked ham (pork)

30 g

0.7

Salami

30 g

0.5

Fish

Food product

Typical portion size

Iron in mg/portion

Mussels, cooked

100 g

3.8

Shrimps

100 g

1.8

Tuna, cooked

130 g

1.3

Herring fillet, Matjes style

90 g

1.1

Smoked eel

75 g

0.5

Salmon

150 g

0.4

Bread, muesli

Food product

Typical portion size

Iron in mg/portion

Spelt bread

1 and 50 g.

2.1

Soy bread

1 slice (45 g).

2

Whole grain buckwheat bread

1 slice (60 g).

1.7

Whole grain oat bread

1 slice (50 g)

1.4

Whole grain bread with sesame seeds

1 slice (50 g)

1.3

Whole grain bread

1 slice (50 g)

1

Rye bread

1 slice (45 g)

0.6

Oats

60 g

2.7

Muesli

50 g

1.7

Cereal flakes

2 to 3 tbsp. (20 g)

0.8

Lettuce, Vegetables, Herbs

Food product

Typical portion size

Iron in mg/portion

Chanterelle mushrooms, steamed

200 g

11.6

Black salsify, steamed

250 g

5.5

Spinach, steamed

150 g

4.6

Swiss chard, steamed

150 g

3.6

Canned chickpeas

150 g

3.3

White beans (dry), cooked

150 g

3.3

Green peas, steamed

250 g

2.5

Lamb's lettuce

100 g

2

Green cabbage, as traditionally prepared at home

200 g

1.9

Brussel sprouts, steamed

250 g

1.7

Leeks, steamed

250 g

1.3

Asparagus, steamed

200 g

1.3

Beetroot, cooked

150 g

1.2

Thyme, fresh

5 g

1

Parsley

15 g

0.5

Garden cress

15 g

0.4

Nuts, fruit

Food product

Typical portion size

Iron in mg/portion

Pistachios

60 g

4.4

Cashews

60 g

3.8

Sesame seeds

20 g

2

Strawberries

250 g

1.6

Blackcurrants

125 g

1.6

Raspberries

125 g

1.3

Dried apricots

25 g

1.1

Kiwis

125 g

1

Dried figs

25 g

0.8

Yeast flakes

5 g

0.8

Rhubarb, cooked

150 g

0.6

Nectarines

125 g

0.6

Side dishes

Food product

Typical portion size

Iron in mg/portion

Tofu

100 g

2.8

Whole grain rice, boiled

180 g

2.2

Millet, cooked

80 g

2.1

Whole grain pasta with soy   protein, cooked

125 g

2

Parboiled rice, boiled

180 g

1.9

Whole grain pasta, boiled

125 g

1.6

Pasta (with eggs), boiled

125 g

1

Chicken egg

60 g

1

Pasta (without eggs), boiled

200 g

0.9

White rice (milled), boiled

180 g

0.5

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