Authors as Published

Ann Hertzler, former Extension specialist, Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, and Amanda Holsinger, Dietetic intern, Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise; Virginia Tech.

Iron in the Body

Iron is an important nutrient for your body and for your health. It helps your cells "breathe." Iron works with protein to make the hemoglobin in red blood cells. The hemoglobin carries oxygen to all parts of the body so it can perform its normal functions. The body stores iron in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow.

Most Americans obtain enough iron from their diets. Still, without enough iron, you can acquire a condition called iron-deficiency anemia, most common among women and children. Symptoms include feeling weak and tired. Too much iron can also be harmful. Eating excessive amounts of iron-rich foods has been associated with a higher risk of heart disease. Getting the right amount of iron in your diet is important.

Iron Recommendations

The amount of iron you need depends on your age, gender, and activity level. For example, iron needs increase during periods of rapid growth, such as during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence when new tissue is being built. Women and teenage girls need more iron than men because of menstrual losses. Competitive athletes may also experience an increased need for iron.

Iron Recommendations
Infants and childrenDietary Reference Intakes (mg)
1 - 3 years7
4 - 8 years10
9 - 13 years8
14 - 18 years11
19+ years8
9 - 13 years8
14 - 18 years15
19 - 50 years18
51+ years8
<18 years27
18+ years27

Most individuals can obtain enough iron from foods and do not require a supplement. If you have any questions about how much iron you need, see your physician or a registered dietitian.

Food Guide Pyramid

The best way to meet your iron needs is to eat a variety of foods as illustrated by the Food Guide Pyramid. Average selections from the Food Guide Pyramid provide about 10 milligrams of iron per day. Iron is not concentrated in many foods outside of liver and organ meats. Iron is usually associated with the more colorful foods, red meats, dark green vegetables, and the browns of whole grains. Fortified cereals and breads also are good sources of iron. Select these kinds of foods to ensure that you have an adequate intake.


Your body absorbs iron better when the iron is from plant sources or combined with foods rich in vitamin C. For example, if you eat peanut butter with a glass of orange juice, the vitamin C in the juice will increase the absorption of iron from the peanut butter. Cooking foods in cast iron pots and pans also will add iron to your diet.

Read the Nutrition Facts label, found on most packaged food products, for nutrient content. Iron and vitamin C are two of the four nutrients required on the food label.

Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta Group

Whole-grain and enriched breads and cereals provide ready amounts of iron and other nutrients. Cereal products fortified with higher amounts of iron usually cost more. Check the Nutrition Facts label to learn how much iron is in a serving.

Iron is the key to strong blood. Eating a variety of foods from the different food groups of the Food Guide Pyramid will help you reach your iron needs, as well as other nutrient needs for optimal health.

Vegetable and Fruit Groups

Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach, chard, and collard greens are good sources of iron because they tend to be low in calories and are rich in vitamins and minerals. Aim for five servings a day. Many fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, which helps your body absorb iron.

Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese Group

Although these foods and drinks are good sources of calcium, they do not supply a lot of iron. The exceptions are tofu, breast milk, and infant formulas.

Meat, Fish, Poultry, Dried Beans, Eggs, and Nuts Group

Iron in meats, fish, and poultry is used especially well by the body. Meat, eggs, dried beans, and nuts have slightly more iron than poultry and fish. Dark meats have more iron than light meats. Liver is one concentrated source of iron. Choose lean meats to limit your intake of saturated fat.

Fats, Oils, Sweets and Alcohol

Fats, sugars, and alcohol are high in calories, and contain mostly calories with a few other nutrients. The darker the sugar is, the higher its iron content is. Thus, black strap molasses is a fairly good source of iron. Excessive amounts could result in tooth decay.


Examples of Iron-rich Foods
Meats and Dried Beansmg iron
Beef (3 oz.)2.7
Pork (3 oz.).9
Chicken (dark, 3 oz.)1.4
Chicken (light, 3 oz.)1.0
Fish (3 oz.)1.1
Baked beans (1 cup)5.0
Black turtle beans (boiled, 1 cup)5.3
Lentils (boiled, 1 cup)6.6
Breads, Cereals, Grains
Whole wheat bread (1 slice).9
Iron fortified cereals* (3/4 cup)4.5 - 18.0
Buttermilk biscuit (one)1.7
Corn bread (1 piece)1.6
Enriched pasta (1 cup)2.2
Old-fashioned oatmeal (1/2 cup)1.9
Fruits and Vegetables
Artichoke (boiled, whole)3.9
Peaches (dried, 10 halves)5.3
Raisins (2/3 cup)2.1
Soybeans (boiled, 1 cup)8.8
Spinach (boiled, 1/2 cup)3.2
Swiss chard (boiled, 1/2 cup)2.0
Tomatoes (canned, 1/2 cup)2.0
*iron levels vary depending on product


Fruits high in vitamin C:
apples, oranges, peaches,
strawberries, tomatoes, pineapple, raspberries

Vegetables high in vitamin C:
kale, broccoli, sweet potatoes, pepper, collard greens, potatoes

Winning combinations:
Chicken* with broccoli
Beans* with tomatoes
Ham* with sweet potatoes
Strawberries with oatmeal
Orange juice with fortified cereal

*Substitute any meat for these options


Food and Nutrition Board (FNB), Institute of Medicine (IOM). Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc (2002).

Reviewed by Elena Serrano, Extension specialist and assistant professor

Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, reprint, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; M. Ray McKinnie, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State University, Petersburg.

Publication Date

May 1, 2009