Food Facts: Iron

As a kid, you may have grown up watching Popeye, the cartoon character, consume his big cans of spinach. From this, a myth about the iron content of spinach was born; spinach was thought to be the best source of iron. Unfortunately, this is false!

Iron is available in many food sources. Spinach is considered to be a good source of iron, but so are organ meats (ex: liver), red meats (choose lean), pumpkin seeds, some cereals, beans, and seafood, especially clams and oysters. Meat sources are better choices than plant sources, as the type of iron in meats is more effectively absorbed. Spinach does provide some iron, but not a largely significant amount; many meat sources and fortified cereals have more iron than spinach. In fact, clams and oysters have more than three times the amount of iron than spinach does. So, when trying to get your iron fill, spinach is not necessarily the best source, although it does have many other vital nutrients! In order to absorb and use iron effectively, you must have adequate Vitamin C intake. Do not consume excess amounts of coffee and tea, as they are thought to decrease the absorption of iron. By following the recommendations of MyPlate, you should not be too concerned about iron deficiency.

As far as function, iron is extremely important as it works in every cell in the body! Iron is a component of red blood cells, as it is primarily used in the make up of hemoglobin or myoglobin. Hemogloblin delivers oxygen to all parts of the body and requires iron to do so; myoglobin functions to take oxygen away from the muscles. When your body has insufficient iron, the red blood cells cannot deliver oxygen to your cells. Men need 8mg of iron daily, while women nineteen to fifty years old need 18mg daily. Pregnant women have further increased needs for iron.

Anemia, iron deficiency, is the most common nutrient deficiency not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, a swollen tongue (called glottis), and decline in mental functioning, as well as other symptoms. If you think you are anemic, your doctor can do a blood test to determine if you are. So, make sure your red blood cells are pumped with iron! Don’t be another statistic to add to the anemia epidemic!


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

University of Georgia Health Center

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Health Center


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