Iron is an essential mineral for a healthy diet and is vital in the formation and function of red blood cells, which deliver oxygen to every part of the body. Adult males require about 8 mg of iron each day, while women require about 18.
Lack of iron can cause fatigue, sluggishness, and impaired cognitive function. People who are chronically deficient in iron can develop anemia. The most common sources of iron are animal proteins, especially beef, but even people who do not eat meat can get enough iron from their diet without resorting to supplements.
Lentils, peas, and various other legumes are a good plant-based, iron-rich food. One FDA-recommended serving of lentils, 200 grams, provides 6 mg of iron and these versatile foods are an easy addition to many side dishes and entrees. Vegetarians must remember, however, that the iron in plant foods is less bioavailable than that in animal products, which means the body needs more to reap the same benefits.
The iron in dark turkey meat is almost equivalent to red meat. Poultry could be a better choice for people looking to cut back on red meat and choose lower-fat options. Iron in a turkey's white meat is much lower, so choosing cuts like the legs and breast is ideal for increasing iron intake.
Just 3.5 ounces of ground beef delivers about 2.7 mg of iron. Red meat is also rich in B vitamins, zinc, and other trace minerals essential for good health. Various studies indicate regular meat eaters are much less likely to develop iron deficiency than vegetarians. Liver, especially beef liver, is the most iron-rich meat, and lean cuts are always better for cardiovascular health than fattier choices.
Pumpkin seeds are a good vegetarian or vegan snack with a considerable amount of iron -- one ounce contains one milligram of iron. The nutty treat also delivers zinc, magnesium, and vitamin K, which can improve heart health and vision.
A two-cup serving of broccoli contributes about one milligram of iron and also contains vitamin C for better absorption. Some studies point to this cruciferous veggie's ability to reduce the risk of cancer, and it is a good source of fiber, potassium, and folate, too.
Complex carbohydrates and whole grains are essential for a healthy, balanced diet. A one-cup serving of gluten-free cooked quinoa provides 2.76 milligrams of iron. Quinoa contains good amounts of magnesium and copper and antioxidants to guard cells against harmful free radicals. These bad cells attack healthy cells and interrupt the regeneration of new cells, facilitating the development of cancer. This ancient grain is also one of the only plant foods that is a complete protein -- it contains all nine essential amino acids.
Spirulina is a blue-green algae generally sold in whole food markets and specialty stores. A tablespoon of dried spirulina contains 2 milligrams of iron. The sea vegetable is also high in vitamins B, C, D, and E. The strong grassy flavor of this superfood prompts many people to disguise it in smoothies or consume it in tablet form.
A single serving, one ounce, of dark chocolate contains about 3.5 milligrams of iron. The darker the chocolate, the more benefits, and fewer drawbacks, however. Chocolate that is less than 70% cocoa contains too much milk and sugar to be very beneficial, but very dark varieties are rich in antioxidants and can improve brain function and help protect the skin.
Dark leafy greens, especially spinach, are an excellent plant source of iron. A single serving of one cup of cooked spinach provides 6.4 mg of iron, a good helping of vitamin C, and a host of other valuable nutrients. Research suggests eating more spinach could help control diabetes, prevent cancer (thanks to the presence of chlorophyll), ease asthma, and improve bone health.
Tofu is a soy-based product popular as a meat substitute in vegetarian diets. One serving of tofu is about 150 grams and provides about 1.5 milligrams of iron. The versatile food may also help lower bad (LDL) cholesterol and can alleviate symptoms of menopause in some women.
When it comes to plant sources of iron, consuming vitamin C in conjunction can improve the body's ability to absorb the mineral. Green vegetables and tomatoes have high vitamin C content and are easy to incorporate into meals that contain plant-based iron sources. Vitamin C has many other health benefits, as well, including boosting immunity, lowering blood pressure, and delivering healing antioxidants.
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