Iron plays an important role in the body.
Iron is responsible for carrying oxygen through our blood and into our cells.
It helps our brain, tissues and cells all function properly.
Iron balance is regulated in the body. Without enough iron or with too much iron, the body encounters problems.
Check out our list of the top 10 Paleo Foods that contain iron and iron-rich recipes to meet your daily iron needs!
What is Iron?
Iron is a very important trace mineral. It is a component of the protein hemoglobin that carries oxygen from the lungs to red blood cells. Iron is also needed for growth, development and cellular functioning. Iron is required to make some hormones and connective tissues.
Essentially, it is necessary to sustaining life.
There are two main forms of dietary iron: heme and non-heme.
Heme iron is the most bioavailable form (the body absorbs it best). It is found in meat and seafood products.
Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by the body and is found mostly in plant-based foods (but can also be in meat and fish). Plant based foods have iron-absorption inhibitors that will block iron from being fully absorbed in the body. Non-heme iron can also compete with the absorption of other minerals like zinc.
Most of the iron that is stored in the body is located in hemoglobin. The remaining trace amounts of iron are stored in the iron-storage protein ferritin, which is found in the liver, spleen, bone marrow or muscle tissue.
What Are the Health Benefits of Iron?
- Iron is needed for oxygen transport and healthy red blood cell functioning
- Iron helps to create energy from nutrients
- Iron also aids in nerve impulses
Why is Iron Good for the Heart?
- Recent research has suggested that proper levels of iron are protective against coronary artery disease1.
- Iron is needed to transport oxygen throughout the body, which is important to health.
- Your heart muscle needs an adequate supply of oxygen to survive and function.
How Much Iron Do We Need?
The RDA for adult women is 18 mg and for adult men is 8 mg.
Iron intake needs greatly increase for pregnant or lactating women.
Who Is at Risk for Low Iron Levels?
Most people are not at risk for iron deficiency in the United States. The groups that are most at risk include those that have a poor diet, malabsorption issues or blood loss.
Those at risk for inadequate levels of iron include pregnant women, children and adolescents, women who have heavy menstrual bleeding, those with heart failure, those with cancer and those with severe inflammatory diseases. Additionally, those on kidney dialysis or taking iron-blocking medications could be at risk.
There are also risks with an overconsumption of iron.
Should I Take an Iron Supplement?
You likely don’t need an iron supplement unless you fall into one of the at-risk groups mentioned above. While iron is necessary, there is a flip side to it: too much iron can also be detrimental to health.
Don’t worry too much about overdosing on iron from food sources, however. Iron balance in the body is tightly regulated. This means that if you have higher stores of iron in the body, your body will adjust and absorb less from food to account for this.
If you would like to maintain adequate iron levels and get essential nutrients from organ meats (one of the best dietary sources of iron) you could try out our Kick Start My Heart.
What are the 10 best foods that contain iron?
The most iron-rich foods are meat or seafood. Plant-based foods like vegetables may contain adequate levels of iron but it is not in a bioavailable form, meaning the body won’t absorb much iron from plants.
1. Oysters – 3 oz. serving 8 mg ironOysters are packed full of nutrients, especially the essential mineral iron. Eaten cooked or raw, they are a great, nutritional option. Oysters are also rich in other nutrients like protein, B vitamins and zinc.
Try it: Coconut Milk Oyster Stew
2. Grass-fed beef liver – 3 oz. serving 5 mg ironOrgan meats like beef liver are especially nutrient dense. They have many essential vitamins and minerals the body needs for health. Check out our customized Drs. Wolfson organ meat recipes here. Organ meats also contain choline, B vitamins, vitamins A, D, and K as well as minerals. Typically, any form of organ meat will provide a healthy dose of iron!
Try it: Beef Liver and Onion Meatballs
3. Grass-fed beef – 3 oz. serving 5 mg ironGrass-fed beef is a rich source of iron. Beef is also a complete protein source with other essential vitamins like B12 and minerals like magnesium and zinc. There are many health benefits to consuming grass-fed beef.
Try it: Paleo Bacon Garlic Avocado Burger
4. Sardines – 3 oz. serving 2 mg ironSardines are nutrient rich small fish. They contain good levels of iron. They contain essential omega 3 fatty acids. Sardines also contain vitamin B12 and vitamin D as well as other minerals like potassium, magnesium and zinc.
Try it: Pan Fried Sardines
5. Mussels – 1 oz. serving 1.1. mg ironMussels are another nutrient rich type of seafood. They contain good levels of iron. They are also a complete protein source. Each 1 cup serving of mussels contains 18 g of protein. Mussels are also a good source of vitamin A and selenium, which help to support immune and muscle function.
Try it: Coconut Curry Mussels with Zucchini Noodles
6. Pasture-raised turkey – 3 oz. serving 1 mg ironPoultry like turkey is a great source of iron. Turkey is also an excellent source of tryptophan, an amino acid needed for mood regulation and sleep enhancement. Turkey also contains B vitamins, selenium, phosphorous and adequate levels of protein.
Try it: Paleo Turkey Chili
7. Pasture-raised eggs – 1 egg serving 1 mg ironEating eggs regularly is a good method of getting in iron daily. Eggs are also a great source of protein, choline, B vitamins and other essential minerals. We advise our patients to consume eggs. Read more about the heart-healthy benefits of eggs here.
Try it: Paleo Egg Breakfast Muffins
8. Pasture-raised chicken – 3.5 oz. serving 1 mg ironGrass-fed chicken is another good poultry source of iron. Chicken is also a good source of quality protein, B vitamins and choline. It also contains selenium, zinc and magnesium.
Try it: Paleo Lemon Roasted Chicken
9. Cashews – 1 oz. serving 2 mg ironNuts are a healthy snack option that contain iron. They are considered a plant-based source so be aware that they have lower bioavailability of iron. This just means that you would have to consume a lot more cashews to meet your iron needs if this was your only iron source.
Try it: Homemade Cashew Butter
10. Spinach – ½ c. serving 3 mg iron (plant-based source lower bioavailability)Spinach is also relatively high in iron, but again it’s a plant source. Because plant-based sources have non-heme iron, with naturally occurring iron-inhibitors called phytates, they are not as readily absorbed. Make sure to have meat and vegetable sources to ensure you are getting adequate levels of iron daily.
Try it: Paleo Spinach Salad
Summary of information:
- Iron is an important trace mineral. The body needs sufficient levels of iron as it is an important component of the red blood cell protein hemoglobin and is needed to transfer oxygen throughout the body.
- For the most part, dietary food sources of iron are all that are needed to maintain normal iron levels. Grass-fed organ meat and oysters are some of the best iron sources. There is really no risk for toxicity with food sources.
- Check out our 10 best Paleo-approved foods and recipes for providing iron. Also, be sure to check out our newly released Kick Start My Heart
- Gill et al., 2017: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1161/ATVBAHA.117.309757