Iron

Young women's version of this guide

Iron is a mineral that helps build red blood cells, which is especially important for growing teens. Most importantly, iron helps your blood cells carry oxygen, which provides energy throughout the body. Therefore, getting the right amount of iron can improve your energy and affect activities such as performance in sports and in school. People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet need to pay extra attention to make sure they get enough iron.

What happens if I don’t get enough iron?

Iron deficiency can cause a condition called iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency anemia occurs when you do not get enough iron and therefore your body does not have enough healthy red blood cells. Without the right amount of healthy red blood cells, your body’s muscles and organs cannot get the oxygen they need. This can cause people with iron deficiency anemia to look pale, and feel weak and tired. Not getting enough iron in your diet is the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia. Your health care provider may recommend a multivitamin with iron if it seems like you are not getting enough iron from foods. If a blood test indicates you are anemic, your health care provider may suggest an additional 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:

  • Young Women
  • Age 9-13: 8 mg/day
  • Age 14-18: 15 mg/day
  • Young Men
  • Age 9-13: 8 mg/day
  • Age 14-18: 11 mg/day

What foods are rich in iron?

Red meat, eggs, poultry, fish, legumes (beans), fortified cereals, and dark leafy greens (like spinach and broccoli) are good sources of iron. It is important to know that your body absorbs iron from animal sources (also known as “heme” iron) more easily than it absorbs iron from plant sources (also known as “non-heme” iron). The richest sources of dietary iron comes from foods 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 have iron as well. The following table lists some foods that are good sources of iron, either naturally or by being “fortified” (i.e., the iron has been added to the food).

FoodServing SizeIron (mg)
Beans and Peas
Baked beans, without pork½ cup1.5
Chickpeas (made from dried or canned)½ cup1.5
Lentils½ cup3.3
Kidney beans (made from dried or canned)½ cup1.5
White beans (made from dried or canned)½ cup3.9
Iron-Fortified Cereals
Cheerios®1 cup9.3
Cinnamon Life®¾ cup7.4
Rice Krispies®1¼ cup9
Whole Grain Total®¾ cup18
Quaker Oatmeal Squares®1 cup16.4
Dried Fruit
Peaches¼ cup1.6
Apricots½ cup1.7
Raisins¼ cup0.7
Meat, Poultry and Fish
Egg1 large1
Pork* (lean meat)3 ounces1
Tuna, canned*3 ounces1
Beef loin*3 ounces2
Ground turkey*3 ounces1
Chicken* (breast, skinless)3 ounces0.4
Turkey deli meat1 cup2
Salmon3 ounces0.5
Hot dog1 item0.6
Ground beef3 ounces2
Other
Almonds1/4 cup1.3
Cashews, unsalted1/4 cup2
Prune juice1 cup3
Spinach, boiled½ cup3
* Source of heme iron

All iron content was calculated using the USDA Nutrient Database. 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 (plant sources) 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 whole-wheat cereal with strawberries, add tomato slices or salsa to a bean burrito bowl, or have an orange with a peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread.
  • Eat a heme source of iron (like meat) with a non-heme source of iron (like beans) to help your body absorb non-heme iron. For optimal absorption, 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 at different times. For example, take one supplement in the morning and one with dinner.
  • Avoid caffeine (for example soda, black tea, or coffee) when taking an iron supplement. 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 body’s iron needs.

Remember: Try to include iron-rich foods in your day to keep your body healthy and prevent iron-deficiency anemia.

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?”