By: Angela Ciroalo

Due to many friends and family who have mentioned issues with iron deficiency, I decided to write an article outlining the importance of an iron deficiency, how to properly address the deficiency, and some suggestions of foods to incorporate into the diet to avoid deficiency or low levels.

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An iron deficiency occurs when there are low levels of the mineral iron in the blood stream.

An iron deficiency occurs in the body because the person is not consuming and assimilating an adequate amount of iron from their foods.

A great deal of people in society, believe that if they consume meat they automatically have sufficient iron levels due to their meat consumption.

The truth however, is that iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What is Iron & Why is it Important?
Iron is an essential mineral that serves many purposes in our bodies.

Iron in Blood

One of iron’s most importance functions is the role that it plays in the body’s blood through protein production.

According to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF Medical Center), about 70 percent of iron in the body is found in the red blood cells.

The 70 percent of iron found in the blood cells is known as hemoglobin, where the iron serves the function of transporting oxygen to the body’s tissues – allowing the body to function.

In the muscles, iron is known as myoglobin, and serves the function of accepting, storing, transporting and releasing oxygen into the cells to allow the muscles to function.

Additional roles that iron plays in the body includes assistance with respiration and energy metabolism through various proteins, the synthesization of collagen and neurotransmitters in the form of enzymes, as well as their role in the immune function, according to an article published by UCSF Medical Center healthcare professionals.

The remaining 25 percent of the body’s iron creates circulation in the blood stream through storing itself in the body’s cells in the form of the protein ferritin (UCSF Medical Center).

Iron Storage
Additionally, the UCSF Medical Center healthcare professionals found that based on iron consumption, men will store about 1,000 mg of iron in the body – which is enough for three years – while women will store 300 mg. – enough for six months.

Due to the female monthly menstrual cycle, a woman is expected to lose iron through monthly blood loss – causing her irons levels to be lowered.

As a result of the increased frequency of blood loss, women who are at the age of menstruation require more iron in their diet than men and postmenopausal women.

Iron Requirements
The Centers for Disease Control created a table listing the recommended dietary allowance of iron based on each individual’s age and gender.

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron by age and sex.
Age/Group Life Stage Iron (mg/day)
Infants 0–6 months 0.27*
7–12 months 11
Children 1–3 years 7
4–8 years 10
Males 9–13 years 8
14–18 years 11
19–30 years 8
31–50 years 8
51–70 years 8
>70 years 8
Females 9–13 years 8
14–18 years 15
19–30 years 18
31–50 years 18
51–70 years 8
>70 years 8
Pregnant Women 14–18 years 27
19–30 years 27
31–50 years 27
Lactating Women 14–18 years 10
19–30 years 9
31–50 years 9

*This value is an Adequate Intake (AI) value. AI is used when there is not enough information known to set a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).

As you can see, the recommended level of iron consumption is much higher amongst babies, women between 14 and 50, pregnant women, and teens.

The recommended amounts of iron level among men remains fairly consistent throughout life.

Why it is Important to Replenish Iron Levels
In plain English; iron levels are important because of their job of providing oxygen to cells.

Iron Blood Cells
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Oxygen allows the cells to function, and our body is made up of cells, therefore in order for the body to function we need oxygen in our cells.

When a body has low levels of iron, the cells have a lower amount of oxygen, forcing the body to function at a slower and more lethargic rate.

The CDC stated that low iron (iron deficiency or anemia) can impair the body’s functions and is a major concern.

Iron blood
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Low iron can cause each of the ailments listed below:

  • Delayed normal infant motor function, or normal activity and movement, as well as mental function, which consists of normal thinking and processing skills.
  • Iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy can increase the risk of small or premature babies, which can be detrimental. Small or premature babies are more likely to have health problems or die in the first year of life than infants who are born full term.
  • In adults, iron deficiency can cause fatigue that impairs the body’s ability to do physical work.
  • Amongst teens, iron deficiency may affect memory or other mental functions.

The reason iron deficiency has become such a problem is iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the United States (CDC).

Iron Deficiency Symptoms
Iron Deficiency
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Symptoms of iron deficiency, according to the CDC, include:

  • Feeling tired and weak
  • Decreased performance at school or work
  • Slowed cognitive and social development throughout childhood
  • Difficulty maintaining body temperature – frequently feeling cold
  • Glossitis – or an inflamed tongue

Additional symptoms, found by, include:

  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Headaches
  • Sore tongue
  • Sensitivity to cold or having a low body temperature
  • Shortness of breath when doing simple tasks
  • Pica or the desire to chew ice/non-food items
  • Loss of interest is everyday activities such as work, recreation, relationships and intimacy

Natural Sources of Iron
Food Sources of Iron ranked by milligrams of iron per standard amount; also calories in the standard amount. (All amounts listed provide 10 percent or more of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for teenage and adult females, which is 18 mg/day.) (CDC

Food, Standard Amount Iron (mg) Calories
Clams, canned, drained, 3 oz 23.8 126
*Fortified dry cereals (various), about 1 oz 1.8 to 21.1 54 to 127
Cooked oysters, cooked, 3 oz 10.2 116
Organ meats (liver, giblets), cooked, 3 oza 5.2 to 9.9 134 to 235
*Fortified instant cooked cereals (various), 1 packet 4.9 to 8.1 Varies
*Soybeans, mature, cooked, ½ cup 4.4 149
*Pumpkin and squash seed kernels, roasted, 1 oz 4.2 148
*White beans, canned, ½ cup 3.9 153
*Blackstrap molasses, 1 Tbsp 3.5 47
*Lentils, cooked, ½ cup 3.3 115
*Spinach, cooked from fresh, ½ cup 3.2 21
Beef, chuck, blade roast, cooked, 3 oz 3.1 215
Beef, bottom round, cooked, 3 oz 2.8 182
*Kidney beans, cooked, ½ cup 2.6 112
Sardines, canned in oil, drained, 3 oz 2.5 177
Beef, rib, cooked, 3 oz 2.4 195
*Chickpeas, cooked, ½ cup 2.4 134
Duck, meat only, roasted, 3 oz 2.3 171
Lamb, shoulder, cooked, 3 oz 2.3 237
*Prune juice, ¾ cup 2.3 136
Shrimp, canned, 3 oz 2.3 102
*Cowpeas, cooked, ½ cup 2.2 100
Ground beef, 15% fat, cooked, 3 oz 2.2 212
*Tomato puree, ½ cup 2.2 48
*Lima beans, cooked, ½ cup 2.2 108
*Soybeans, green, cooked, ½ cup 2.2 127
*Navy beans, cooked, ½ cup 2.1 127
*Refried beans, ½ cup 2.1 118
Beef, top sirloin, cooked, 3 oz 2.0 156
*Tomato paste, ¼ cup 2.0 54

Food Sources of iron are ranked by milligrams of iron per standard amount; also calories in the standard amount. (All amounts listed provide 10% or more of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for teenage and adult females, which is 18 mg/day.)
Source: CDC

(*) Indicates non-heme iron sources. To improve absorption, eat these foods with a vitamin-C rich food.

Non-Heme Sources of Iron

Food Amount Iron (mg)
Soybeans,cooked 1 cup 8.8
Blackstrap molasses 2 Tbsp 7.2
Lentils, cooked 1 cup 6.6
Spinach, cooked 1 cup 6.4
Tofu 4 ounces 6.4
Bagel, enriched 1 medium 6.4
Chickpeas, cooked 1 cup 4.7
Tempeh 1 cup 4.5
Lima beans, cooked 1 cup 4.5
Black-eyed peas, cooked 1 cup 4.3
Swiss chard, cooked 1 cup 4.0
Kidney beans, cooked 1 cup 3.9
Black beans, cooked 1 cup 3.6
Pinto beans, cooked 1 cup 3.6
Turnip greens, cooked 1 cup 3.2
Potato 1 large 3.2
Prune juice 8 ounces 3.0
Quinoa, cooked 1 cup 2.8
Beet greens, cooked 1 cup 2.7
Tahini 2 Tbsp 2.7
Veggie hot dog, iron-fortified 1 hot dog 2.7
Peas, cooked 1 cup 2.5
Cashews 1/4 cup 2.1
Bok choy, cooked 1 cup 1.8
Bulgur, cooked 1 cup 1.7
Raisins 1/2 cup 1.6
Apricots, dried 15 halves 1.4
Veggie burger, commercial 1 patty 1.4
Watermelon 1/8 medium 1.4
Almonds 1/4 cup 1.3
Kale, cooked 1 cup 1.2
Sunflower seeds 1/4 cup 1.2
Broccoli, cooked 1 cup 1.1
Millet, cooked 1 cup 1.1
Soy yogurt 6 ounces 1.1
Tomato juice 8 ounces 1.0
Sesame seeds 2 Tbsp 1.0
Brussels sprouts, cooked 1 cup 0.9
Sources: USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 24, 2011 and Manufacturer´s information.

The RDA for iron is 8 mg/day for adult men and for post-menopausal women and 18 mg/day for pre-menopausal women. Vegetarians (including vegans) may need up to 1.8 times more iron.

Dietary Sources of Vitamin C
Vitamin C should be eaten with non-heme sources of iron

Food, Standard Amount Vitamin C (mg) Calories
Guava, raw, ½ cup 188 56
Red bell pepper, raw, ½ cup 142 20
Red bell pepper, cooked, ½ cup 116 19
Kiwi fruit, 1 medium 70 46
Orange, raw, 1 medium 70 62
Orange juice, ¾ cup 61 to 93 79 to 84
Green bell pepper, raw, ½ cup 60 15
Green bell pepper, cooked, ½ cup 51 19
Grapefruit juice, ¾ cup 50 to 70 71 to 86
Vegetable juice cocktail, ¾ cup 50 34
Strawberries, raw, ½ cup 49 27
Brussels sprouts, cooked, ½ cup 48 28
Cantaloupe, ¼ medium 47 51
Papaya, raw, ¼ medium 47 30
Kohlrabi, cooked, ½ cup 45 24
Broccoli, raw, ½ cup 39 15
Edible pod peas, cooked, ½ cup 38 34
Broccoli, cooked, ½ cup 37 26
Sweet potato, canned, ½ cup 34 116
Tomato juice, ¾ cup 33 31
Cauliflower, cooked, ½ cup 28 17
Pineapple, raw, ½ cup 28 37
Kale, cooked, ½ cup 27 18
Mango, ½ cup 23 54

Food sources of vitamin C are ranked by milligrams (mg) of vitamin C per standard amount; also calories in the standard amount. (All amounts listed provide 20% or more of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 90 mg/day for adult men.)

Source: CDC

Meat vs. Plant-based Iron Sources
As you can see from the chart above, iron can be found in very high amounts in many plant-based foods (foods grown from the earth).

A factor that must be considered however, is that there are two forms of iron – heme and non-heme – and both are absorbed differently by the body.

Heme and non-heme iron is found in animal products, while only non-heme is found in plant foods.

Heme iron is better absorbed by the body, while non-heme iron is absorbed in the presence of vitamin C.

According to, the Vegan Resource Guide, animal flesh (meat) is made up of 40 percent of heme iron and 60 percent of non-heme iron. Plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, legumes and seeds) are made up 100 percent non-heme iron.

As a result, meat can be eaten alone and iron will be absorbed by the body, although is a plant-based food was eaten alone the iron would not be absorbed.

Based on this information, many people believe that meat is the better choice when seeking iron in the diet. However, most plant-based foods also contain vitamin C, therefore allowing the body to fully absorb the iron without any fuss.

The Vegan Resource Guide,, found that people who do not eat meat will often consume higher levels or iron because they are eating a large variety of foods that contain iron, more frequently.

The Vegan Resource Guide,, also found in a survey, is no more common among vegetarians and vegans that it is among the general population.

I share this information not to guide you towards vegetarianism, but to demonstrate that meat does not, and probably should not, be your only source of iron.

Regardless of the type of food that you choose to consume to increase iron levels, it is important that you remain conscious of the body’s iron levels – especially if you have had low levels in the past, it runs in your family, or if you are at an age where recommended iron levels are increased.

Addressing Low Iron
If you or someone you know has an iron deficiency it is important that they talk to their doctor.

If the deficiency is very low the doctor will likely request that the patient begins taking a supplement to stabilize levels.

At any time during this process the patient can begin eating foods with higher levels or iron.

One thing that must be considered, however, is that plant-based iron sources are absorbed differently than animal-based iron sources.
I hope you enjoyed this article about iron and that it will be helpful to you and your family. If you have any questions or concerns, please let me know! 

❤ Wishing you love, joy and blessings,

-Angela Joy

Vegan Resource Guide:
Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
University of California San Francisco: