Iron intake can be boosted by focusing on iron-rich foods. Iron is present in both animal- and plant-based foods, but the iron in animal foods is more readily absorbed by the body. Red meats are the best sources of iron. Liver is one of the best sources of all, but is very high in cholesterol.
You can decrease the calorie-fat-cholesterol count of most iron-rich meats by selecting lean cuts, removing visible fat and broiling the meat. Lean cuts of red meat and the dark meat of poultry are excellent sources of iron.
A three-ounce serving of lean ground beef provides 3 milligrams of iron and a three-ounce serving of pork and/or dark turkey meat provides 2 milligrams of iron.
One plant food high in iron is beans: one-half cup cooked kidney or lima beans provides 2 milligrams of iron. A large baked potato with skin provides close to 3 milligrams.
Other plant sources of iron include enriched white rice and pasta (2 milligrams per cup), wheat germ (2.6 milligrams per quarter cup), dried fruits (1 to 2 milligrams per half cup) and broccoli (1 milligram per half cup).
To optimize iron absorption from plant foods, eat vitamin C-rich foods like broccoli, strawberries or citrus fruits at the same meal. Vitamin C increases iron absorption, but you must consume them at the same time you eat the iron-containing foods.
When consumed with a meal, coffee can decrease iron absorption by as much as 39 percent; tea can decrease absorption by 87 percent. The culprit is not caffeine but other substances in the beverages. Poor iron absorption occurs only when coffee or tea are consumed along with the iron source. One study showed that including vitamin C in the same meal helps improve iron absorption.
If you normally consume very little iron but consume large quantities of high-fiber foods, the bran and substances in the fiber can interfere with the absorption of iron. If your diet is well rounded, with adequate amounts of both iron and fiber, this isn't a concern.
Many breakfast cereals and certain other grain products are fortified with iron. Most processed flours and baking mixes are enriched.
If you think you are at risk for iron-deficiency anemia, discuss it with your doctor.
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Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County - University of Maryland.