This is one in a series of fact sheets containing information to help you select foods that provide adequate daily amounts of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber as you follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Guidelines are -

  • Eat a Variety of Foods
  • Maintain Desirable Weight
  • Avoid Too Much Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol
  • Eat Foods with Adequate Starch and Fiber
  • Avoid Too Much Sugar
  • Avoid Too Much Sodium
  • If You Drink Alcoholic Beverages, Do So in Moderation
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A good food source of iron contains a substantial amount of iron in relation to its calorie content and contributes at least 10 percent of the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance (U.S. RDA) for iron in a selected serving size. The U.S. RDA for iron is 18 milligrams per day. (The U.S. RDA given is for adults, except pregnant or lactating women, and children over 4 years of age.)

Pregnant women have many increased nutrient needs. Iron needs, in particular, drastically increase with pregnancy, due to the body’s increased blood volume. You can easily add iron to your diet with a simple iron supplement.

The U.S. RDA for iron is the amount of the mineral used as a standard in nutrition labeling of foods. This allowance is based on the 1968 Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for 24 sex-age categories set by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. The 1989 RDA has been set at 15 milligrams per day for women 19 to 50 years of age and 10 milligrams for men 25 to 50 years of age.

In 1985 and 1986, 43 percent of the iron in the diets of women was contributed by grain products and 26 percent was supplied by meat, poultry, and fish. Foods that contain small amounts of iron but are not considered good sources can contribute significant amounts of iron to an individual's diet if these goods are eaten often or in large amounts.


Iron, a mineral, functions primarily as a carrier of oxygen in the body, both as a part of hemoglobin in the blood and of myoglobin in the muscles.


According to recent USDA surveys, over three-fourths of American women 19 to 50 years of age had iron intakes below 80 percent of their RDA. Average iron intake was 67 percent of the RDA. Men of the same age met their RDA.

The ability of the body to absorb and utilize iron from different foods varies. The iron in meat, poultry, and fish is absorbed and utilized more readily than iron in other foods. The presence of these animal products in a meal increases the availability of iron from other foods. The presence of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in a meal also increases iron absorption. The body increases or decreases iron absorption according to need. The body absorbs iron more efficiently when iron stores are low and during growth spurts or pregnancy. The most common indication of poor iron status is iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which the size and number of red blood cells are reduced. This condition may result from inadequate intake of iron or from blood loss.


Eating a variety of foods that contain iron is the best way to get an adequate amount. Healthy individuals who eat a balanced diet rarely need supplements. Intakes of iron tend to be low in relation to recommendations, and there aren't that many foods that are really good sources; thus, it may take special care to ensure an adequate intake. Many doctors recommend feeding a fortified milk formula or breakfast cereal or giving an iron supplement to infants and toddlers, because it is especially difficult to meet their iron needs. Doctors usually prescribe iron supplements for pregnant or lactating women. The list of foods will help you select those that are good sources of iron as you follow the Dietary Guidelines. The list of good sources was derived from the same nutritive value of foods tables used to analyze information for recent food consumption surveys of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Human Nutrition Information Service.


Hemochromatosis (HE-mo-kro-ma-TO-sis) is a disease in which too much iron builds up in your body (iron overload). Most people who have primary hemochromatosis inherit it from their parents.


Iron is lost in cooking some foods even under the best conditions. To retain iron:

  • Cook foods in a minimal amount of water.
  • Cook for the shortest possible time.


Pasta, white rice, and most breads made from refined flours are enriched with iron, because iron is one of the nutrients lost in processing. Other nutrients added to refined flours and pasta are thiamin, niacin, and riboflavin. Enriched products or products made from enriched flour are labeled as such. Minimum and maximum enrichment levels are specified for thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin, but only a minimum level of iron is required in farina. Thus, iron enrichment levels for farina vary from brand to brand.

Most ready-to-eat and instant-prepared cereals are fortified with iron. Fortified ready-to-eat cereals usually contain at least 25 percent of the U.S. RDA for iron. Since cereals vary, check the label on the package for the percentage of the U.S. RDA for a specific cereal.


The serving sizes used on the list of good sources are only estimates of the amounts of food you might eat. The amount of nutrient in a serving depends on the weight of the serving. For example, 1/2 cup of cooked spinach contains more iron than a 1/2-cup serving of spinach served raw, because the cooked spinach weighs more. Therefore, the cooked spinach appears on the list while the raw form does not. Raw spinach provides the nutrient - but just not enough in a 1/2-cup serving to be considered a good source.


     FOOD                             SELECTED      PERCENTAGE
                                      SERVING SIZE  U.S. RDA (1)


Bagel, plain, pumpernickel, or whole-wheat 1 medium + Farina, regular or quick, cooked 2/3 cup ++ Muffin, bran 1 medium + Noodles, cooked 1 cup + Oatmeal, instant, fortified, prepared 2/3 cup ++ Pita bread, plain or whole-wheat 1 small + Pretzel, soft 1 + Ready-to-eat cereals, fortified 1 ounce ++ Rice, white, regular or converted, cooked 2/3 cup +


Apricots, dried, cooked, unsweetened 1/2 cup +


Beans, lima, cooked 1/2 cup + Spinach, cooked 1/2 cup +


Meat and Poultry Beef: Brisket, braised, lean only 3 ounces + Ground; extra lean, lean, or regular; baked or broiled 1 patty + Pot roast, braised, lean only 3 ounces + Roast, rib, roasted, lean only 3 ounces + Shortribs, braised, lean only 3 ounces + Steak, baked, broiled, or braised; lean only 3 ounces + Stew meat, simmered, lean only 3 ounces +

Liver, braised: Beef 3 ounces ++ Calf 3 ounces + Pork 3 ounces +++ Chicken or turkey 1/2 cup diced ++ Liverwurst 1 ounce + Tongue, braised 3 ounces + Turkey, dark meat, roasted without skin 3 ounces +

Fish and Seafood Clams; steamed, boiled, or canned; drained 3 ounces +++ Mackerel, canned, drained 3 ounces + Mussels, steamed, boiled, or poached 3 ounces + Oysters: Baked, broiled, or steamed 3 ounces ++ Canned, undrained 3 ounces ++ Shrimp; broiled, steamed, boiled, or canned; drained 3 ounces + Trout, baked or broiled 3 ounces +

Dry Beans, Peas, and Lentils Beans; black-eyed peas (cowpeas), chickpeas (garbanzo beans), red kidney, or white; cooked 1/2 cup + Lentils, cooked 1/2 cup + Soybeans, cooked 1/2 cup ++

Nuts and Seeds Pine nuts (pignolias) 2 tablespoons + Pumpkin or squash seeds, hulled, roasted 2 tablespoons +

(1) A selected serving size contains -

+ 10-24 percent of the U.S. RDA for adults and children over 4 years of age

++ 25-39 percent of the U.S. RDA for adults and children over 4 years of age

+++ 40 percent or more of the U.S. RDA for adults and children over 4 years of age

(2) Breads, pasta, and cereals listed are enriched unless otherwise noted. See section on enriched or fortified foods.

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