Iron-rich foods – the best sources of iron for babies and children

lambfetameatballs_edited_smallThis is Part II of a two-part article about your children’s iron needs and the best foods to eat to ensure adequate iron intake. Read Part I here.

Parents often ask about the best sources of iron for babies and children and how to boost iron absorption from food. In Part I we discussed the importance of a varied, nutrient-dense diet with plenty of naturally iron-rich whole foods. A 2006 study confirmed the importance of emphasizing whole foods over nutrients and encouraging parents to offer a varied diet high in naturally iron-rich foods (1).

Here is some more information about the best iron-rich food sources for all ages.

Heme and non-heme iron

There are two kinds of dietary iron, heme iron and non-heme iron.

Heme iron

Heme iron is the most readily absorbed form of iron, and it is found in mainly in shellfish and red/organ meats. Most people absorb between 15-35% of the heme iron they consume (2). Calcium is the only substance which can interfere with the absorption of both non-heme and heme iron.

Non-heme iron

Non-heme iron is found in meat, fish, eggs and plant foods like beans, cereals and vegetables. The body absorbs it less easily and many non-heme iron sources contain substances which impair absorption, such as phytic acid and oxalates. Soybeans contain more iron than beef, but only about 7% is absorbed due to their high-phytate levels. Spinach is another rich source, but only about 2% is absorbed because it contains oxalates. Boosting iron levels isn’t quite as simple as eating foods that contain iron.

However, although vegetarians only consume non-heme iron and consume less iron overall, adult surveys suggest that anemia is no more common amongst vegetarians. This may be partly because iron is absorbed according to iron need and partly because vegetarians tend to consume more vegetables and fruits high in Vitamin C and beta carotene, which aid absorption. Unless you are iron-deficient, eating a varied, iron-rich diet is probably enough to maintain healthy iron stores and hemoglobin levels.

If you’re wondering how to ensure your children get enough iron, this guide can help you. Children have a higher need for iron and can be pickier, so it is important to ensure a good intake and encourage them to eat a wide variety of foods. There are also a few easy tricks which can increase iron absorption. Even though it may not be necessary, it certainly doesn’t do any harm.

Iron-rich foods

The below table shows the iron content of a number of good iron sources. We have included both vegetarian and meat sources of iron.

Food% Serving SizeIron content (mg)
Chicken liver100g10.6
Sesame Seeds*2.5 tbsp7.78
Tahini*2 tbsp6.35
Beef liver100g6.17
Sunflower seeds*100g5.2
Spinach*(cooked) 100g3.5
Thyme2 tsp3.46
Kidney Beans*100g2.94
Chickpeas*100g cooked2.89
Sea vegetables100g2.85
Pumpkin Seeds*2.5 tbsp2.84
Cumin1 tsp2.79
Dried apricots100g2.66
Beet greens100g2.57
Lima Beans*100g2.39
Blackstrap Molasses2 tsp2.39
Navy Beans*100g2.36
Black Beans*100g2.1
Pinto Beans*100g2.09
Turmeric2 tsp1.82
Swiss Chard100g1.8
Green Peas100g1.4
Brussels Sprouts100g1.39
Oregano2 tsp1.32
Chicken(dark meat) 100g1.3
Black Pepper2 tsp1.21
Basil2 tsp1.18
Sweet potatoes100g1.09
Green Beans100g1.03
Egg yolk*100g1
Romaine Lettuce100g0.96
Mustard Greens100g0.7
Rosemary2 tsp0.7
Dill2 tsp0.69
Parsley2 tbsp0.47
Chicken (white meat)100g0.4

* These items contain iron but also compounds which have been shown to impair its absorption.

  • Egg protein
  • Eggs are often listed as an iron source, but experiments and laboratory analyses suggest that the iron in eggs is poorly absorbed and can inhibit iron absorption (3). Other studies showed that one boiled egg can decrease the amount of iron absorbed from a meal by around 27% (4). However, including egg yolks in the diet of weaning infants had a positive effect on iron levels in one study, although no mention was given of when they were eaten (5). Eggs, particularly the yolks, are an excellent food for babies and children, but it may be best to avoid eating them with iron-rich meals.

  • Grains
  • Cereal grains and beans like oats, wheat and other cereals, navy beans, lentils and chickpeas are often cited as a good source of iron. They do contain iron, but most grains and legumes are so high in substances like phytates, lectins and glucosides – which bind to iron – that the iron isn’t very well absorbed. Vitamin C can dramatically increase the amount of iron absorbed from grains (6,7,8) but this still only results in a small intake. In a study of iron absorption from different cereal grains (9), Vitamin C increased absorption by up to 270% from 1% to 4%: around 0,02mg of iron from 100g of oats. The researchers also found that iron absorption increased by 37% when added iron was removed. In a randomized controlled trial of breast-fed infants, iron received mainly from fortified cereal had no effect on iron stores or hemoglobin levels (10). Furthermore, the results of several studies including a 10-year study published in 2012 suggest that iron-sufficient infants with high iron levels may suffer slower growth or development when given iron supplements or fortified products (11,12). This may apply to other starches and not just grains (13).

    Parents often rely on cereal grains, particularly fortified products (often accompanied by milk products, which calcium also decreases iron absorption) as a key part of their child’s diet, on the advice of their doctor or nurse. Although cereal grains can be a part of your child’s diet if you choose, the emerging data suggests that it is important to include lots of other iron-rich foods in your child’s diet.

  • Soy Protein
  • Like eggs, soy protein has been shown in numerous studies to decrease iron absorption significantly. Organic, GMO-free and preferably fermented soy products can be a good occasional vegetarian alternative for children, but it is best eaten separately from iron-rich meals (14, 15, 16).

    Ideas to increase iron absorption from food

  • Add some Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
  • Vitamin C occurs naturally in many vegetables and fruits. Studies have shown that Vitamin C significantly enhances the absorption of non-heme iron. One study reported that just 63 mg of Vitamin C almost trebled iron absorption (17). Two small kiwis contain approximately 137 mg of Vitamin C – all the Vitamin C an adult or child needs in a day and more.

    Good sources of Vitamin C for children 
    FoodVitamin C content (mg/100g)
    Dried chives660
    Dried coriander566
    Yellow peppers183
    Fresh Thyme160
    Fresh/dried Parsley149
    Lemon peel129
    Yellow Kiwi105
    Sun-dried tomatoes101
    Green kiwi92
    Brussels sprouts85
    Mustard Greens70
    Raw kohlrabi62
    Raw red Cabbage57
    Lemon juice38
    Passion fruit30
    Honeydew melon18
    Apple with skin4

  • Add some beta-carotene
  • Beta-carotene occurs naturally in many vegetables and fruits and can significantly improve iron absorption, overcoming some of the inhibitory effects discussed above (18). Carotenoids are yellow to red pigments that are contained in many foods such as apricots, beets and beet greens, carrots, collard greens, corn, red grapes, oranges, peaches, prunes, red peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnip greens and yellow squash.

    Here is a table of betacarotene-rich fruits and vegetables:

    FoodBeta Carotene Content (mg/100g)
    Sweet potato12498
    Carrot juice9303
    Kale (cooked)8823
    Collard greens8113
    Turnip greens7625
    Swiss chard6124
    Kale (raw)5927
    Beet greens (cooked)4590
    Red leaf lettuce4495
    Winter squash (e.g. butternut)4226
    Dried apricots (unsulphured)2163
    Cantaloupe melon2020
    Pak Choi2549
    Red pepper1624
    Apricots (raw)1094

  • Eat enough (organic) meat
  • Red meat and organ meats in particular contain an abundance of heme iron and also increase the absorption of non-heme iron. Beef, lamb and venison contain the highest amounts of heme. The modern pattern of weaning is to introduce cereals and vegetables followed by meat and seafood slightly later in infancy. However, studies have shown that a diet higher in meat results in improved iron and zinc levels (19, 20, 21).

    Some countries have recently amended their weaning guidelines to encourage earlier consumption of meat and so far this has been shown to improve iron status. It is important to choose good quality meat, preferably wild game meat or meat that is pasture-raised on grass, because it contains far more omega-3 than grain-fed meat and does not contain the antibiotics and hormones. Organic, grass-fed offal may be even healthier. Only give small amounts to children, because offal contains a lot of Vitamin A.

  • Add some fruit
  • In the Framingham Heart Study, a National Institutes of Health project (22), taking iron with fruit appeared to increase iron stores. Other studies have confirmed the impact of fructose on iron absorption (23). As shown above, many fruits are also a source of beta carotene and Vitamin C.

  • Eat calcium separately
  • Calcium has been shown in numerous studies to interfere with the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron, although the effect is less noticeable in a varied diet. As children’s iron needs are great, it might be best to eat calcium-rich foods separately from iron-rich foods (24).

    Adding some Vitamin-C and beta carotene-rich fruit puree to your child’s porridge and some greens, squash and meat to his rice dish is a great way to increase absorption of its non-heme iron. Even better, make a dish of stir-fried vegetables high in beta-carotene and vitamin C, add some meat or seafood and skip the grains altogether.


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