Swearing off red meat doesn't mean you're destined to become iron-deficient. Red meat, especially lean beef, is a quality source of iron, but it isn't the only way to get this valuable mineral that supports oxygen transport and red blood cell health. Seafood, poultry, beans and legumes, nuts, fortified cereals and even dark chocolate can help satisfy your daily requirements.
Your Iron Needs
The average adult male requires 8 milligrams of iron daily, while the average adult woman requires 18 milligrams. Pregnancy increases your daily need to 27 milligrams. Due to the lesser bioavailability of iron in plant foods, vegetarians and vegans have a higher daily requirement, too: 14 milligrams per day for men and 33 milligrams per day for women. Athletes may also need to increase their iron intake by 30 percent to 70 percent over the recommended daily allowance because intense exercise can lead to expedited red blood cell destruction. Iron intake should not exceed 45 milligrams per day. Only use a supplement while under the supervision of a doctor; otherwise, get your iron from food sources.
Types of Iron
Iron comes in two forms: the more digestible heme iron, which is found in animal foods, and nonheme iron, which is found in fruits, vegetables, dried beans, nuts, seeds and grains. Some plant sources of iron contain compounds, such as polyphenols and phytates, that inhibit your ability to absorb much of their iron. Spinach, whole grains and beans contain these compounds. Calcium supplements, coffee and tea also contain compounds that interfere with iron absorption, so avoid consuming these along with iron-rich foods. Consuming iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus, strawberries, cantaloupe and colored peppers, enhances absorption.
Heme Sources of Iron
If you've given up red meat, chances are you're also not consuming beef liver -- which is a high-quality source of iron with 9 milligrams per 3.5 ounces. Chicken liver provides even more, with 13 milligrams of iron per 3.5-ounce serving. In a 3.5-ounce serving of chicken breast, you get just over 1 milligram of iron, while thighs offer even more with 2 milligrams per 3.5 ounces. In 3/4 cup of fried clams, you'll get 3 milligrams of iron, and with six fried oysters you get 4.5 milligrams. Pork contains roughly 1.5 milligrams per 3.5 ounces, and turkey offers 1.5 milligrams per 3.5 ounces of white meat and 2 milligrams for dark.
Plant-based sources of iron are abundant. Any breakfast cereal that claims to be fortified with 100 percent of the daily value for iron will have 18 milligrams per serving. White beans are among the highest iron-containing plant-based foods with 4 milligrams per 1/2 cup, cooked. A 1/2-cup serving of cooked spinach, boiled lentils or firm tofu contains 3 milligrams. Cooked kidney beans and chickpeas offer 2 milligrams per 1/2 cup. Snack on 18 cashew nuts to get 2 milligrams of iron; a medium baked potato also offers 2 milligrams of the mineral. Bread, both whole-wheat and white, and a 1/2-cup serving of rice contain 1 milligram of iron. Dark chocolate that is labeled 45 percent to 69 percent cacao provides 2.3 milligrams per ounce.