Young women's version of this guide

What is iron and why is it important?

Iron is a mineral that helps build red blood cells. Most importantly, iron helps your blood cells carry the oxygen that is needed for energy. Getting the right amount of iron can improve your performance in sports and in school. People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet also need to pay extra attention to make sure they get enough iron. Iron deficiency in young men is pretty rare and typically indicates something other than just a dietary insufficiency.

What happens if I don’t get enough iron?

Anemia is a condition typically associated with an iron deficiency. Anemia occurs when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells. Without the right amount of healthy red blood cells, enough oxygen doesn’t get into your body. This causes people with anemia to look pale and feel weak and tired. The most common cause of anemia is not getting enough iron in your diet. Your health care provider may recommend a multivitamin with iron if it seems like you are not getting enough iron from foods. If you are already anemic, your health care provider will probably suggest an iron supplement.

How much iron do I need?

Iron is measured in milligrams. The amount you need depends on your age, gender, body size, and lifestyle. In general, you can use these guidelines to figure out how much iron you need.

  • Guys age 9-13: 8 mg/day
  • Guys age 14-18: 11 mg/day

What foods are rich in iron?

Good sources of iron include red meat, eggs, poultry, fish, legumes (or beans), and fortified cereals. It is important to know that your body absorbs iron from animal sources (known as “heme” iron) more easily than it absorbs iron from plant sources (known as “non-heme” iron). The best sources of iron in food come from things that might not sound too appetizing, such as beef liver and chicken giblets. However, there are plenty of foods that you probably already eat that contain iron as well. The following table lists some foods that are good sources of iron.

FoodServing SizeIron (mg)
Beans and Peas
Baked beans, without pork½ cup2
Chickpeas (made from died or canned)½ cup2
Lentils½ cup3
Kidney beans (made from dried or canned)½ cup3
White beans (made from dried or canned)½ cup3
Cheerios®1 cup9.3
Cinnamon Life®¾ cup7.4
Rice Krispies®1¼ cup10
Whole Grain Total®¾ cup18
Malt-O-Meal® hot cereal1 serving13.9
Dried Fruit
Peaches¼ cup2
Apricots½ cup2
Raisins¼ cup1
Meat, Poultry and Fish
Egg1 large1
Pork* (lean meat)3 ounces1.0
Tuna, canned*3 ounces1.0
Beef loin*3 ounces2.0
Ground turkey*3 ounces1
Chicken* (breast, skinless)3 ounces1
Turkey deli meat3 ounces1
Almonds1 ounce1.0
Cashews, unsalted1 ounce2
Prune juice½ cup2
Spinach, boiled½ cup2
* Source of heme iron

All iron content was calculated using the USDA supertracker. It’s important to note that these are all estimates and can range depending on how a food is prepared and what else you are eating at that meal.

Nutrition Tips:

  • Foods high in vitamin C help your body absorb non-heme iron. Eat iron-rich foods along with foods that are high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits and juices, cantaloupe, strawberries, tomatoes, and dark green vegetables to increase the amount of iron you absorb. For example, you could top your cereal with strawberries, add tomato slices or salsa to a bean burrito bowl, or have an orange with a peanut butter sandwich.
  • Additionally, eating a heme source of iron will help you to absorb iron from a non-heme source of iron. You can enjoy a meal that contains a source of vitamin C, a source of heme iron and a source of non-heme iron such as turkey and bean chili with tomatoes, or chicken fajitas with beans and green peppers.
  • If you take a calcium supplement, try not to take it at the same time as your iron supplement because your body absorbs these nutrients better when they are taken separately.
  • Don’t take an iron supplement with a caffeinated drink such as cola, black tea or coffee. Caffeine, as well as tannins found naturally in both coffee and some teas, can interfere with iron absorption.
  • Choose breads, cereals, and pastas that say “enriched” or “iron-fortified” on the label. These foods have extra iron added which can help you meet your nutritional needs.
If you’re concerned about iron, here’s a tip on how to bring it up with your health care provider: “How do I know if I get enough iron?”