Iron-Rich Foods: Good, Better, Best

Improving your child's diet is the most important way to prevent and to treat iron deficiency. Here's my good, better and best list of iron-rich foods.


What can I do for my child’s iron deficiency anemia? Can you suggest any iron-rich foods?

Dr. Greene's Answer

Improving your child’s diet is the most important way to prevent and to treat iron deficiency. Many foods are good sources of iron.

Here’s my list of iron-rich foods:

  • Good — Grass-fed beef, lamb, sardines, eggs
  • Better — Asparagus, peas, pumpkin seeds, Brussels sprouts, tofu, kale, broccoli, green beans
  • Best –Spinach, lentils, soybeans, sesame seeds, garbanzo beans, navy beans, kidney beans, black beans
  • (The Secret of Spices) — Cumin, turmeric, chili peppers, thyme, oregano, basil, fennel, black pepper, cloves

It’s popular wisdom that red meat is where to look for iron in food. And this makes sense – many animal foods are indeed rich sources of iron. But many plant foods contain high levels of iron as well – and if you count iron per calorie, plant foods dominate the list.

Iron from animal foods is easy to absorb and resilient to cooking. The iron from plant foods is more available and better absorbed when prepared with shorter cooking times and less water.

The intestines of children who are being breastfed are two to three times more efficient at absorbing iron from every source.

Taking vitamin C, or eating foods high in vitamin C (such as papaya, broccoli, strawberries, kiwifruit, oranges, or orange juice) at the same time as foods high in iron, also helps the body absorb and use the iron. The iron in iron-fortified foods is poorly absorbed, but usually contains enough extra iron to compensate for this.

Many herbs and spices are among the very most iron-rich foods. Cooking with these (or adding some parsley or olives – or molasses) can be the secret of adding iron to any dish. Bonus: thyme, fennel, and basil also have lots of vitamin C.

Cooking in iron pans, or with the Lucky Iron Fish, can help significantly by adding iron to the food. You can get a milligram or two of iron per meal cooked this way – and perhaps even more if the meal contains acidic foods. The iron from cookware is well-absorbed.

Taking an over-the-counter multi-vitamin with iron can help provide a safety net for picky eaters who don’t get enough of the great stuff on my list of iron-rich foods.

Drinking too much milk makes anemia worse! Excess cow’s milk can cause a child to lose iron through the intestines, and can also make it more difficult for the body to use the iron that is present. Most toddlers get sufficient calories and calcium from 16-24 ounces of milk daily. No child needs more than 32 ounces of cow’s milk a day. Almost all cases of severe iron deficiency in young children are in those who drink too much milk.

If the anemia is severe, or if the diet isn’t working, an iron supplement may be necessary to replenish your child’s iron stores. The iron may be given with juice; they are both better tolerated and better absorbed. If they are given straight, iron drops may turn the teeth dark. Iron can turn the stools dark and cause constipation, no matter how they are given. If a supplement is needed, here is a game changer.

The supplements are usually given for about a month before a repeat blood test is performed to see if the anemia is resolving. If it is, the iron is given for another few months. If it is not, further investigation is needed into the many other possible causes of anemia.

Last medical review on: April 24, 2021
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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Recent Comments

waoo Thank you so much for the useful information about Food rich in iron for teens

All I can say is thank God for breastmilk.