As part of the micronutrient series, this article will examine how iron influences our health. First of all, we’ll look at why iron is important, and then we’ll go through a list of 10 low-carb foods that are high in Iron.
Iron is a critical micronutrient that supports several important biological functions. However, excessive iron in the body has been linked to some serious illnesses.
Is it difficult to consume enough iron? And how much is too much?
Why is Iron Important?
Iron is an essential mineral, meaning that we need to consume an adequate amount from the foods we eat.
The primary biological function of iron is to help transport oxygen around the body. It is used to make (and incorporated in) hemoglobin, a substance found in our red blood cells tasked with carrying oxygen.
There are also two types of iron: heme (animal foods) and non-heme (plant foods).
Heme iron has much better bioavailability, but it is not as well regulated by the body. This increases the risk of problems if consumed in excess.
If we don’t consume enough dietary iron, then our body cannot produce enough red blood cells. The result of this is known as anemia.
Is Iron Deficiency a Problem?
It can be. As the most significant dietary source of iron comes from animal foods, vegetarians often find themselves prone to developing anemia.
There have been several studies undertaken that suggest although vegetarians are at greater risk of low iron stores, there is little difference between vegetarians and non-vegetarians regarding iron intake (1).
Heme iron (from meat) is much more bioavailable than from plant sources and is the likely explanation for this.
Additionally, vegetarian diets tend to be higher in phytic acid; a compound that inhibits iron absorption to some extent (2).
Meat eaters tend to have sufficient dietary intake of iron.
Do Grains Inhibit Iron Absorption?
Simple answer: yes. A more complicated question would be to what extent they inhibit absorption?
One study investigated a group of healthy female participants eating the recommended daily intake of fiber-rich wheat bread. After four months, all the women showed an impairment of iron status.
To make that clear: following the recommended daily intake of whole grain wheat bread led to an iron deficiency in previously healthy women (3).
This study suggests that people frequently eating grains may need a higher intake of iron.
If you are experiencing low iron stores or any kind of iron deficiency, this might be something worth investigating.
What Foods Are High in Iron?
We’ll now take a look at some iron-rich foods to include in your diet. I have selected these across a range of animal foods and also plant foods; some are cooking ingredients, and some are snacks high in iron.
So, let’s get started – here are 10 low-carb foods that are high in iron.
Note: the values for meat and seafood are all based on the food being cooked.
185% Dark Chocolate (11.90mg, 66% DV per 100g)
Chocolate is a great food. It has been prized for its health benefits from the days of ancient civilizations like the Mayans, and it’s still one of the most popular foods in the world today.
The key is to avoid the commercial chocolate in grocery stores which, in reality, is nothing more than chocolate-flavored sugar.
Try stick to 85% or higher cacao content.
Per 1 oz serving
Iron: 3.37mg Carbohydrate: 10g Sugar: 3.82g
2Chicken Liver (11.63mg, 64.6% DV per 100g)
Organ meats are probably the most nutritious food we consume as part of our diets (if we eat them), and they also provide an impressive source of iron.
We know that animal foods are the biggest source of iron. Out of all animal foods, organ meats are the biggest contributors.
Chicken liver has the highest iron content among organs meats, providing 11.63mg per 100g (5).
Any iron deficiency will quickly disappear if you’re including this iron rich food in your diet.
Need inspiration? I realize that some people hate the idea of eating organ meats; I know how you feel because I used to be the same!
But how does chicken livers with butter, brandy, and cream sound?
There’s a great recipe on the BBC website that shows you how to make it.
Trust me – it’s magnificent.
Per 3 chicken livers
Iron: 15.36mg Carbohydrate: 0g Sugar: 0g
3Spinach (3.57mg, 19.8% DV per 100g)
Spinach is another nutrient-dense food that’s full of minerals. If you’re not already including it, then it can play a great role in optimizing your diet.
Spinach is a plant source of iron and contains 3.57mg per 100g (6).
Spinach is high in oxalates, so it is best to boil or steam the spinach rather than eating it raw. Oxalates are an anti-nutrient found in various plant foods including spinach, beets, almonds, and cacao.
A great tasty way to cook spinach is to steam it lightly and, just before serving, add a few drops of tamari and olive oil.
This combination gives the spinach an excellent flavor, and the olive oil helps ensure you’re getting all those beneficial fat-soluble vitamins.
Per 1 cup
Iron: 6.43mg Carbohydrate: 6.75g Sugar: 0.77g
4Grass-fed Beef (3.23mg, 17.9% DV per 100g)
Red meat is one of the most nutritious foods on the planet.
Grass-fed beef provides a huge source of vitamins and minerals. This may be surprising for most people, as many seem to think that vitamins only come from fruit.
In addition to many other great nutrients, beef provides 3.23 mg iron per 100g (7).
Until the dietary guidelines launched a war against fat, red meat was traditionally considered a health food and it’s not hard to see why.
If you feel like trying a new beef recipe, then here are 10 low-carb beef recipes that taste great.
Per 6 oz
Iron: 5.50mg Carbohydrate: 0g Sugar: 0g
5Octopus (9.54mg, 53% DV per 100g)
If you’re not eating seafood, then you’re missing out on a huge source of nutrients. Octopus is one of the most nutritious foods from the sea, and it also supplies a decent amount of iron – significantly more than beef in fact.
100g octopus provides 9.54 mg of iron; over half of the recommended daily value (8).
Mark’s Daily Apple has an incredible looking recipe for octopus braised in red wine.
Per 6 oz
Zinc: 16.22 mg Carbohydrate: 0g Sugar: 0g
6Almonds (3.71mg, 20.6% DV per 100g)
Almonds are one of the healthiest plant foods in the world and an excellent source of many nutrients.
Almonds are also reasonably high in iron, containing 3.71mg per 100g (9).
One of the great things about almonds is their adaptability; they can be used as a quick on-the-go snack, or they can even be used to make a pizza.
Don’t believe me? Check out the fantastic FatHead Pizza.
Per 1 oz serving
Zinc: 1.05mg Carbohydrate: 6.11g Sugar: 1.23g
7Cuttlefish (10.84mg, 60.2% DV per 100g)
Cuttlefish can inject a massive amount of iron into your diet. It contains 10.84mg on a 100g basis – making it one of the standout providers of iron on this whole list. (10).
Only a 6 oz serving of cuttlefish provides more than 100% of the recommended daily value for iron.
Like almonds, cuttlefish is also a very adaptable food and it can be used in a range of Mediterranean-inspired dishes.
In Russia and East Asia, it is also popular to eat as a dried snack – kind of like our beef jerky.
Foodily has an interesting collection of cuttlefish recipes, although please be aware that not all of them are strictly low-carb.
Per 6 oz serving
Zinc: 18.42mg Carbohydrate: 1.64g Sugar: 0g
8Oysters (9.20mg, 51.1% DV per 100g)
Oysters tend to be a ‘love them or hate them’ style food.
As for me, I’m not a huge fan, but I do eat them occasionally as their nutrient profile is, quite frankly, amazing.
Want to get more of a particular micronutrient? Just eat a few oysters and you likely covered it!
As with many other nutrients, oysters are very high in iron. On a per-100g basis, they provide 9.20mg of the mineral (11).
Per 3 oysters
Zinc: 6.90mg Carbohydrate: 8.42g Sugar: 0g
9Swiss Chard (2.26mg, 12.6% DV per 100g)
Along with spinach, swiss chard is one of the most nutrient-dense leafy greens around.
Swiss chard can contribute 2.26mg of iron per 100g (12).
An excellent way to eat it is by mixing it with smoked salmon, pieces of cheese, cherry tomatoes, purple onions, and olives.
Squeeze some lemon juice into the mixture, then add a tablespoon of olive oil and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar.
Add liberal amounts of salt and you have a quick, convenient, healthy and great tasting meal.
Zinc: 3.95mg Carbohydrate: 7.23g Sugar: 1.93g
10Grass-fed Lamb Shank (2.24mg, 12.4% DV per 100g)
Similar to beef, lamb is also a good dietary source of iron.
A lamb shank contains approximately 2.24mg of iron (13).
As animal food contains heme iron, this makes the mineral easier to absorb than from plant sources.
If you’re looking for a great way to cook some lamb, then you should check out Diet Doctor: Lamb Roast Filled with Herbs & Cream Cheese.
Looks great, doesn’t it?
Per 6 oz
Zinc: 3.8mg Carbohydrate: 0g Sugar: 0g
How Much Iron is Too Much?
To be honest, this is a complex issue that deserves its own article, but here’s a brief overview.
It’s well established that adverse effects can arise when iron is continuously consumed in excess.
Although it is the best source of iron, heme iron (from animal foods) is the one we need to watch.
But you shouldn’t panic too much; it’s difficult to eat excessive amounts of iron consistently unless you’re eating unrealistic amounts of meat, or octopus every day.
I plan on writing an in-depth guide on this in the future, but I suggest doing further research if you have any concerns.
One thing that I can tell you is to be very careful with iron supplementation; it’s a very easy way to put excessive amounts of iron into your blood.