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 bodies is found in our blood. As part of the red pigment in blood, it helps the blood carry oxygen. More severe cases of iron deficiency are often associated with tiredness and exhaustion as a result. 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. Women need about twice as much iron when they are pregnant. It can be particularly difficult for vegetarians to get that amount of iron in their diet alone.

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.

Whether or not someone gets enough iron in their diet depends on the different kinds of food they eat. 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 affected 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 spreads). Wheat bran, dairy products, soy products and coffee also contain substances that reduce iron uptake. But that does not mean your body cannot get any iron out of these foods.

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.

The following table provides a rough idea of how much iron different foods have in them. Most foods will contribute a little to your overall iron intake, usually in very small amounts. The foods listed in the table are mainly foods that have particularly high amounts of iron in them. But the actual amount of iron absorbed by your body will also depend on how the different foods in your diet are generally combined. 

Table: How much iron do normal foods have in them?
Food Typical portion size Iron in mg/portion
Meat
 Veal, cooked  150 g  3.1
 Lamb, cooked  150 g  3.3
 Pork, cooked  150 g  3.9
 Beef, cooked  150 g  4.9
 Venison, cooked  150 g  5.1
 Beef liver, cooked  125 g  9.7
 Calf's liver, cooked  125 g  11.3
 Pig's liver, cooked  125 g   24.4
 Salami  30 g  0.5
 Cooked ham (pork)  30 g  0.7
 Liver pâté, fine  30 g  2.2
 Traditional blood sausage/black pudding  30 g  2.3
 Fish   
 Salmon  150 g  0.4
 Smoked eel  75 g  0.5
 Herring filet, Matjes style   90 g  1.1
 Tuna, cooked  130 g  1.3
 Shrimps  100 g  1.8
 Mussels, cooked  100 g  3.8
 Bread, Cereals   
 Brown bread  1 slice (45 g)  0.6
 Whole grain bread  1 slice (50 g)  1
 Whole grain bread with sesame seeds  1 slice (50 g)  1.3
 Whole grain oat bread  1 slice (50 g)  1.4
 Whole grain buckwheat bread  1 Slice (60 g)  1.7
 Soy bread  1 slice(45 g)  2
 Spelt bread  1 slice (50 g)  2.1
 Cereal flakes  2 to 3 tbsp. (20 g)  0.8
 Muesli  50 g  1.7
 Lettuce, Vegetables, Herbs   
 Lamb's lettuce  100 g  2.0
 Beetroot, cooked    150 g  1.2
 Leeks, steamed  250 g  1.3
 Asparagus, steamed  200 g  1.3
 Cauliflower, steamed  250 g  1.7
 Green cabbage, prepared at home   200 g  1.9
 Green peas, steamed  250 g  2.5
 Canned chickpeas  150 g  3.3
 Swiss chard, steamed  150 g  3.6 
 White broad beans (dry), cooked   150 g  3.3
 Spinach, steamed   150 g  4.6
 Black salsify, steamed   250 g  5.5
 Chanterelle mushrooms, steamed  200 g  11.6
 Garden cress  15 g  0.4
 Parsley  15 g  0.5
Fruits and nuts
 Rhubarb, cooked  150 g  0.6
 Nectarines  125 g  0.6
 Dried figs  25 g  0.8
 Kiwis   125 g  1
 Raspberries  125 g  1.3
 Dried apricots  25 g  1.1
 Blackcurrants  125 g  1.6
 Strawberries  250 g  1.6
 Cashew nuts  60 g 3.8 
 Pistachio nuts   60 g  4.4
 Side dishes  
 White rice (hulled), boiled  180 g  0.5
 Parboiled rice, boiled  180 g  1.9
 Whole grain rice, boiled  180 g   2.2
 Tofu   100 g  2.8
 Pasta (without eggs), boiled  200 g  0.9
 Pasta (with eggs), boiled  125 g  1
 Whole grain pasta, boiled  125 g  1.6
 Whole grain pasta with soy protein, cooked  125 g  2
 Millet, cooked  80 g  2.1
 Chicken eggs  60 g  1

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