The IRONy of Foods

As the main carrier of oxygen to all the tissues in the body, iron brings energy to your brain, muscles and all moving parts.

By Hélène Charlebois, RD

What is the role of iron in the body?

As the main carrier of oxygen to all the tissues in the body, iron brings energy to your brain, muscles and all moving parts. Feeling tired? It can be due to a lack of iron in the body.

Why do I need iron?

Oxygen fuels your brain and muscles so the lack of iron will make you feel tired and run down. If low iron levels continue, this can lead to a decrease in the red blood cells you make and anemia. A simple blood test will confirm if your body is low in iron.

Why is my body low in iron? 

There may be many reasons including but not limited to:

  • not eating enough iron rich foods on a daily basis

  • eating too many foods that bind to iron therefore, not letting it be absorbed as easily. Many food compounds bind to iron like caffeine (pop, coffee, tea), calcium (dairy products), phytates (wheat), oxylates (chocolate);

  • not absorbing iron efficiently due to gastrointestinal issues (Crohn’s Disease, Celiac Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivities, Irritable Bowel Syndrome & Irritable Bowel Disease); 

  • eating too quickly and not chewing enough, leaving the food particles too large for the iron to be released efficiently;

  • taking medication that reduces the acid in the stomach, therefore the iron is not broken down to its most absorbable form;

  • increased blood loss due to:

    • a very heavy menstrual flow (women)

    • internal bleeding

Who is affected most? 

  • Women of child-bearing years (may need up to 2x more daily than men), pregnant women, adolescent girls and children

  • Vegetarians, as they do not eat ‘heme’ iron (from animals) which is the most absorbable form

How much do I need daily? (milligrams=mg)


Males (mg)

Females (mg)

7 to 12 months



1 to 3 years



4 to 8 years



9 to 13 years



14 to 18



19 to 50 



51 years and over






Health Canada Dietary Reference Intake, 2010  

How do I get more iron into my body?

STEP 1: Eat more high-iron foods on a daily basis. The iron sources that are best absorbed are the ‘heme’ irons, meaning from blood.

Examples include:

  • Chicken, the dark meat is a better option such as wings, legs and thighs

  • Lean red meats, such as beef, pork & lamb

  • Other poultry 

  • Fish & seafood (clams, oysters)

  • Organ meats 

Some plant-based foods are also high in iron, but it is not in a form that is as easily absorbed. These are called ‘non-heme’ iron sources.

Examples include:

  • Iron fortified foods: breakfast cereals (hot and cold), breads, pasta and any wheat products as the flour is fortified

  • Soy beans

  • Pumpkin & squash seeds

  • Dried fruit: raisins, apricots

  • Dark green leafy vegetables: spinach

STEP 2: Eat foods that help iron be more readily absorbed into the body. Vitamin C-containing foods will help increase the iron absorbed by as much as 30%. When you are eating foods higher in iron, try to include a source of Vitamin C.

Examples include: 

  • citrus fruits and juices

  • cantaloupe 

  • strawberries

  • broccoli

  • red peppers 

  • tomatoes 

A good example of meal pairing would be: A spinach salad with added strawberries &/or oranges and a chicken stir fry with added peppers & a splash of orange juice. Add some chopped prunes &/or raisins for added iron.

Or simply take a Vitamin C supplement along with your iron supplement. Ask you dietitian or doctor if taking an iron supplement will help.

STEP 3: Eat less food that binds with iron as this makes the iron you eat less available to be absorbed. 

Examples include:

  • Raw spinach and chocolate (oxalic acid)

  • Wheat brans or legumes (phytic acid)

  • Black teas (tannins) & coffee (polyphenols) so avoid these at meal time

  • Calcium containing foods like milk and yogurt will bind to iron

  • Calcium carbonate supplements; try to take these at bed time

Another helpful tip would be to chew your foods better. The smaller the food particles going down, the more available the nutrients will be for absorption.

Recipe key ingredients:

  • Skinless chicken thighs, kidney beans, legumes, lentils

  • Prunes, apricots, dried fruit

  • Vitamin C foods; tomatoes, peppers, oranges

Breakfast ideas which are higher iron

  • 175 mL (¾ cup) cream of wheat or breakfast cereal fortified with iron or whole grain toast

  • 125 mL (½ cup) cantaloupe or berries or kiwi or any citrus fruit, i.e: oranges, grapefruit

  • 1 boiled egg or a handful of nuts/ pumpkin seeds

Lunch ideas which are higher in iron

Cold chicken leg with spinach salad 

  • 1 cup raw spinach

  • 125 mL (½ cup) strawberries (or oranges) 

  • 60 mL (¼ cup) pumpkin seedsAdd chopped prunes &/or raisins

Dinner ideas which are higher in iron

Dinner Fajitas

  • 90 g (3 oz) cook chicken thighs, shredded

  • 60 mL (¼ cup) sautéed red peppers

  • 60 mL (¼ cup) diced tomatoes

  • 1 whole wheat tortilla 

  • 30 g (1 oz) shredded mild cheddar cheese

  • 125 mL (½ cup) refried beans 

Snack ideas which are higher in iron

  • Dried apricots with a handful of almonds 

  • Or lentil or chickpea dip with veggies (broccoli, peppers, carrots) 

These 2 recipes contain heme and non heme iron plus a vitamin C source to help it be absorbed. For best Iron content, use dark chicken meat such as thighs, wings or legs.

Chicken Marbella with Green Peas

Fresh Tomato and Green Olive Tagine


Hunt JR, Dietary and physiological factors that affect the absorption and bioavailability of iron. Int. J Vitam. Nutr. Res. 2005 Nov; 75(6):375-84.

Dietitians of Canada

Health Canada, Dietary Reference Intake

Raymond J. et al, Food and the Nutrition Care Process, 3rd edition 2012, pp: 1159  

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