What is Heme iron?

There are two types of iron found in foods: heme and non-heme. Your body absorbs heme iron more easily than non-heme iron. However, foods containing non-heme iron are also very important sources of iron in your diet. See HealthLink BC File “Iron and Your Health“, for more information on how much iron you need and how to get the most iron from foods

Foods with Heme Iron

Food** Serving Iron (mg)
Clams 75 g (2 ½ oz) 21.0
*Liver, pork 75 g (2 ½ oz) 13.4
*Liver, chicken 75 g (2 ½ oz) 8.7
Oysters 75 g (2 ½ oz) 6.4
Mussels 75 g (2 ½ oz) 5.0
*Liver, beef 75 g (2 ½ oz) 4.9
Beef 75 g (2 ½ oz) 2.4
Shrimp 75 g (2 ½ oz) 2.3
Sardines 75 g (2 ½ oz) 2.0
Turkey/Lamb 75 g (2 ½ oz) 1.5
Tuna/herring/trout/mackerel 75 g (2 ½ oz) 1.0
Chicken 75 g (2 ½ oz) 0.9
Pork 75 g (2 ½ oz) 0.8
Salmon (canned/fresh) 75 g (2 ½ oz) 0.6
Flatfish (flounder/sole/plaice) 75 g (2 ½ oz) 0.3
* Pregnant women should not eat liver. It has a very large amount of vitamin A, which can be be harmful to the baby.
* Liver is high in cholesterol, so people with high blood cholesterol levels should not eat it often.
** All iron values or amounts are for cooked meat, fish, shellfish and poultry.

Foods with Non-Heme Iron

Food Serving Iron (mg)
Pumpkin seeds, kernels, roasted 60 mL (1/4 cup) 8.6
Tofu, medium-firm or firm 150 g (3/4 cup) 2.4 – 8.0*
Infant cereal, dry 28 g (10 Tbsp) 6 – 7*
Soybeans, dried, boiled 175 mL (3/4 cup) 6.5
Instant enriched oatmeal 1 package 4.2 – 6.0*
Lentils, cooked 175 mL (3/4 cup) 4.9
Enriched cold cereal 30 g 4.0*
Dark red kidney beans, boiled 175 mL (3/4 cup) 3.9
Blackstrap molasses 15 mL (1 Tbsp) 3.6
Refried beans 175 mL (3/4 cup) 3.1
Cream of wheat, quick, instant, prepared 175 mL (3/4 cup) 3.1
Soy beverage 250 mL (1 cup) 2.9
Wheat germ, ready to eat, toasted, plain 30 g (2 Tbsp) 2.7
Chickpeas, canned 175 mL (3/4 cup) 2.4
Soybeans, green, boiled 125 mL (1/2 cup) 2.4
Tahini, sesame seed butter 30 g (2 Tbsp) 2.3
Lima beans, boiled 125 mL (1/2 cup) 2.2
Swiss chard, boiled 125 mL (1/2 cup) 2.1
Asparagus, canned 6 spears 2.0
Potato, baked, with skin 1 medium 1.9
Bagel 1/2 1.8
Cherries, sour 125 mL (1/2 cup) 1.8
Shredded Wheat 30 g 1.8*
Quinoa, cooked 125 mL (1/2 cup) 1.7
Seaweed, agar, dried 8 g (1/2 cup) 1.7
Beets, canned 125 mL (1/2 cup) 1.6
Prune juice, canned 125 mL (1/2 cup) 1.6
Cream of wheat, regular, prepared 175 mL (3/4 cup) 1.5
Green peas, boiled 125 mL (1/2 cup) 1.3
Sunflower seeds, kernels, roasted 60 mL (1/4 cup) 1.2
Whole wheat bread 35 g (1 slice) 1.2
Eggs 2 1.1
Oats, quick or large flakes, prepared 175 mL (3/4 cup) 1.1
Pearled barley, cooked 125 mL (1/2 cup) 1.1
Sauerkraut 125 mL (1/2 cup) 1.1
Pasta, enriched, cooked 125 mL (1/2 cup) 1.0
Molasses, fancy 15 mL (1 Tbsp) 1.0
Raisins 60 mL (1/4 cup) 0.7
Broccoli, cooked 125 mL (1/2 cup) 0.6
Peanut butter 30 mL (2 Tbsp) 0.6
*Note: Iron amounts in enriched foods vary; check the label for accurate information. If the iron amount is given as a percentage of the daily value (DV), the standard used is 14 mg (or 7 mg for infant cereals). For example, if a serving of cereal has 25% of the daily value, it has 3.5 mg of iron (0.25 x 14 mg).

Why is iron important?

Iron is a mineral that is important for good health. Without enough iron, you may get tired and get sick easily. Babies and children need iron for healthy brain development.

How much iron do I need?

The amount of iron you need depends on your age and gender.

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Iron (Daily)
Age (years)
Male (mg)
Female (mg)
Over 50
Breast-feeding under 19
Breast-feeding 19-50

If you are pregnant or breast-feeding, your iron needs change. Pregnant women need more iron and should choose iron-rich foods every day. A daily prenatal supplement with the RDA for iron is usually recommended. Speak to your doctor.

How do babies and children get enough iron?

Babies and children need iron to grow and develop. Breast milk is the only food babies need until 6 months of age, and this continues to be a good source of iron for older babies and toddlers. Babies who are not breastfed should receive iron-fortified infant formula until 1 year of age.

Include iron-rich solid foods in your baby’s diet every day starting at 6 months of age. These include iron-fortified infant cereal, cooked, finely minced meat, poultry or fish, egg yolk, lentils and dried beans. If your family is vegetarian, talk with a registered dietitian to make sure your baby gets enough iron. See HealthLink BC File Baby’s First Foods.

Do some people need more iron?

The following people may need more iron than the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA): vegetarians, frequent blood donors, endurance athletes, and women in post-menopause who take hormone replacement therapy and still menstruate.

Vegetarians need more iron in their diets. The iron in plant foods is not absorbed by the body as well as animal foods. Vegetarians should choose several iron-rich plant foods daily.

Iron Recommendations for Vegetarians
14 mg per day
33 mg per day
Adolescent girls
26 mg per day

Endurance athletes may need one-third more iron than the RDA. Athletes should choose several iron-rich foods every day.

How do I get enough iron?

Following Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide will help you to get the RDA for iron. The guide recommends 2 to 3 servings of meat or meat alternatives, a variety of fruits and vegetables, and whole and/or enriched grains every day.

How can I get the most iron from food?

The amount of iron you absorb from food depends on how much iron you have stored in your body. People with low iron levels absorb more. The amount of iron you absorb also depends on the type of iron. Heme iron, found in meat, fish and poultry, is well absorbed. Non-heme iron, found in grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, is not as well absorbed.

By eating certain foods at the same time, your body can absorb more non-heme iron. Eat vitamin C rich foods at each meal to get the most non-heme iron from foods, including cantaloupe, honeydew, grapefruit, kiwi fruit, oranges, papaya, mango, most berries, pineapple, citrus juices, vitamin C enriched juices, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes.

Foods containing heme iron can also help absorb non-heme iron if eaten at the same time. Examples of food combinations that help you to get the most iron include:

  • Split pea soup (non-heme iron) with some ham (heme iron);
  • Iron fortified breakfast cereal (non-heme iron) with an orange or half a grapefruit (vitamin C); and
  • Whole wheat pasta with lentils (non-heme iron) and tomato sauce (vitamin C).

To increase the amount of non-heme iron in foods, cook with cast-iron or stainless steel cookware. You can also drink tea or coffee one hour after meals, rather than with meals. These beverages can reduce the amount of non-heme iron absorbed from foods.

Do I need an iron supplement?

Some people may need iron supplements, but iron supplements are not recommended for everyone. Do not take iron supplements unless your doctor recommends them. Iron supplements or too much iron can be harmful to some people and especially children. For example, those with hemochromatosis absorb too much iron and should not take iron supplements.

Always keep iron supplements out of children’s reach, including multivitamins with iron.

If you are diagnosed with low iron or anemia, you may need to take iron supplements. You should also eat iron-rich foods every day. If your doctor has prescribed both iron supplements and calcium supplements, talk to your pharmacist or dietitian about the best times to take them.

While some food items can enhance iron absorption, some can inhibit or interfere with iron absorption. Avoid eating them with iron-rich foods to maximize iron absorption.

Iron Absorption Enhancers

Iron Absorption Inhibitors

  • Meat/fish/poultry
  • Fruits: Orange, Orange Juice, cantaloupe, strawberries, grapefruit etc
  • Vegetables: Broccoli, brussels sprouts, tomato, tomato juice, potato, green & red peppers
  • White wine
  • Red Wine, Coffee & Tea
  • Vegetables: Spinach, chard, beet greens, rhubarb and sweet potato
  • Whole grains and bran
  • Soy products