Skip to main content

The question: With the scare over beef these days, I'm thinking of giving up red meat. How can I get enough iron?

The answer: It's true that red meat, especially beef, is a good source of iron. Beef has more iron than many other foods and the type of iron it contains – called heme iron – is well absorbed by the body. Three ounces of sirloin steak, for example, provides half a day's worth of iron for men and postmenopausal women. (Men and women over 50 require eight milligrams of iron each day; younger women need 18 mg.)

Red meat isn't the only food that contains heme iron. It's also found in chicken, turkey, tuna, trout, oysters, crab and shrimp. When it comes it comes to poultry, dark meat has a little more iron than light meat.

The iron in plant foods is called non-heme iron, a form that's less well absorbed than heme iron. Even so, this type of iron provides most of the iron in our diet. Good sources include beans, lentils, tofu, dried prunes, dried apricots, raisins, cooked spinach and blackstrap molasses. Non-heme iron is also the type of iron that's added to iron-enriched breakfast cereals.

There are ways to increase the amount of non-heme iron your body will absorb from plant foods. You'll get more iron if you eat some of your foods cooked (vegetables, for example), sprouted (breads, grains, legumes) or fermented (tempeh), since these preparation methods release iron from phytates, natural compounds that bind iron. Including a vitamin C-rich food in a plant-based meal will also boost iron absorption. The acidity of the vitamin converts iron to a form that's more readily absorbed. Tannins in tea also reduce iron absorption, so it's best to drink tea between rather than with meals.

It's entirely possible to get enough iron in your diet without eating red meat – or animal foods for that matter. Some people, however, may need the help of a multivitamin and mineral supplement to prevent an iron deficiency. These include low-calorie dieters, pregnant women, teenage girls, women with heavy menstrual losses and people with gastrointestinal disorders who do not absorb iron properly.

Iron in foods (in milligrams)

Heme Iron

  • Oysters, canned, 3 oz.: 5.7
  • Beef, sirloin steak, 3 oz.: 3.8
  • Trout, 3 oz.: 1.7
  • Tuna, light, 3 oz.: 1.4
  • Turkey, dark meat, roasted, 3 oz.: 1.3
  • Turkey, light meat, roasted, 3 oz.: 1.1
  • Chicken, dark meat, roasted, 3 oz.: 1.1
  • Chicken, light meat, roasted, 3 oz.: 0.9

Nonheme iron

  • Soybeans, cooked, 1 cup: 8.8
  • Lentils, cooked, 1 cup: 6.6
  • Baked beans in tomato sauce, 1 cup: 5.0
  • Black beans, cooked, 1 cup: 3.6
  • Garbanzo beans, cooked, 1 cup: 4.7
  • Tofu, firm, 1 cup: 4.0
  • Tempeh, cooked, 3.5 ounces: 2.1
  • Shreddies, ¾ cup: 5.4
  • Raisin Bran, ¾ cup: 5.5
  • All Bran, Kellogg’s, ½ cup: 4.7
  • Oatmeal, instant, 1 pouch: 4.5
  • Bran Flakes, ¾ cup: 3.4
  • Pita, whole wheat, 6.5-inch pocket: 2.0
  • Apricots, dried, ¼ cup: 2.0
  • Prunes, dried, ¼ cup: 4.9
  • Raisins, ¼ cup: 2.0
  • Spinach, cooked 1 cup: 6.8
  • Collard greens, cooked, 1 cup: 2.3
  • Blackstrap molasses, 1 tbsp.: 3.6

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct (

Click here to submit your questions. Our Health Experts will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.