Iron and the Keto Diet: Despite the Beef, You Still May Not Get Enough

Iron is an extremely important mineral that serves several functions in the human body. It provides oxygen to muscles, aids in the synthesis of hormones, and plays a role in cellular functioning.[1] It’s an integral part of every diet, and the keto diet is no exception.

Iron and the Keto Diet

You thought you were getting enough iron just because you eat beef and spinach on the keto diet? Might want to check that calorie counter just in case…

Despite most keto dieters eating high amounts of meat, many don’t realize that they still aren’t meeting their daily recommended amounts of the critical element!

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make sure you’re getting enough iron, even while sticking to a ketogenic lifestyle. By researching high-iron foods, monitoring your daily intake, and carefully supplementing around any deficiencies, you won’t have any trouble meeting your daily iron goals.

Let’s take a look at some of the steps you can take to make sure your iron levels are optimal, but first, take a look at some of the featured iron supplements on PricePlow (you can compare all prices and sign up for deal alerts on our main iron page):

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Monitoring Your Iron Intake is Easy: We use MyFitnessPal

First, note the recommended daily iron intakes:

Iron Dosage

Note that NIH is actually getting their recommendation from another source – The Institute of Medicine

  • Men over 18: 8mg.
  • Women between 19 and 50, 18mg.
  • After age 51, 8mg is recommended for women.
  • Pregnant women are recommended to have 27mg of iron per day.[1]

    Note that there is no research, however, on the success of ketosis / the keto diet during pregnancy, so always have your diet under a doctor’s care.

The only way you can be sure you’re meeting the recommended daily intake for your age group is by tracking your iron in a fitness tracker over the course of a few weeks. After that, there’s a great chance you’ll see that your numbers are consistently low!

Don’t assume that you’re fine – people who follow the keto diet sometimes think they don’t need to track their iron because of higher meat/beef consumption. In reality, it’s quite easy to have low iron levels while eating meat regularly, especially when not eating “iron fortified” cereals and the like..

MyFitnessPal is one app allows you to easily track your iron levels. This helpful website/app combo lets you calculate your daily iron goal, and then you can view your progress towards your goal after adding the foods eaten.

Now let’s get back to iron itself:

Understand the Difference Between Heme and Non-Heme Iron

When striving to meet your daily iron goal, it’s important to know the difference between the two types of dietary iron:[1,2]

Heme Iron

Oxygen binds to heme on the hemoglobin molecule. Image courtesy Medline and ADAM.

  • Heme iron is found in lean meats and seafood, and is absorbed by the body more effectively.

  • Non-heme iron is found in plant sources such as leafy greens and nuts.[1]

    Although you can still reach your daily iron goals from eating foods with non-heme iron, you should aim to consume foods high in heme iron if possible.

Good news: all of these sources are “on limits” for keto dieters, so below we have some specific examples.

High-Iron Keto Foods

Many of the foods you’re used to eating regularly on the keto diet are naturally high in iron. Meats are excellent natural sources of heme iron and should be consumed often.

  • Beef liver is an exceptionally good choice, as a 3 ounce serving contains 5mg of iron.
  • If you prefer to stay away from organ meats, beef bottom round will give you 2mg of iron per 3 ounce serving.
  • Turkey breast and chicken are also good choices, and each contain 1 mg of iron per 3 ounce serving.[1]
  • Seafood is also a great source of heme iron. Oysters provide a whopping 8mg of iron per 3 ounce serving, which is more than the meats above. Canned tuna is also a good source, providing 1mg of iron per 3 ounce serving.[1]

One of nature’s miracle foods! Keto dieting does NOT mean ZERO-VEGETABLE dieting!!

There are plenty of non-heme iron foods that are suitable for the keto diet as well:

  • Spinach is a great option, and a 1/2 cup serving contains 3mg of iron.
  • Green peas are a decent choice as well, with a 1/2 cup serving containing 1mg of iron.
  • If you aren’t in the mood for either of those, try a 1/2 cup serving of broccoli for 1mg of iron (1).

Don’t fear these vegetables! Their carbs have negligible impact on ketosis (we’re in the process of testing this with actual blood work) and their benefits cannot be understated. The average keto dieter is not getting enough veggies in!

Supplementing Your Diet May Be Necessary to Avoid Iron Deficiency

If you’ve been tracking your iron and are still falling short of your goals, supplementing your diet is the next step. Even if you’re eating a pretty solid diet, don’t be surprised to see your numbers below the 100% RDA mark – especially for women, whose needs are quite high but caloric goals are typically lower!

So it’s up to supplements – and truth be told – even non keto dieters are often short and should consider supplementing. Taking a daily iron supplement will help you stay healthy and avoid the dangers of iron deficiency.

Why supplement? Avoiding the a-word (anemia)

Iron deficiency causes anemia, which can lead to many other serious symptoms. Women are at a greater risk for iron deficiency than men, especially during pregnancy. Some symptoms of anemia are gastrointestinal distress, impaired cognitive and immune function, and poor body temperature regulation. People suffering from anemia may also have difficulty exercising and even working.[1]

Iron Supplement Side Effects

Too little iron is clearly dangerous, but it’s also prudent to tell you that too MUCH iron can cause oxidative damage as well! This is why we typically stick to the lower-dosed iron supplements.

When supplementing your diet with iron, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s possible to have too much iron as well. When taking supplements containing over 20 mg of iron, gastric upset, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and faintness can result. In doses over 25 mg, zinc absorption can be negatively impacted. Doses of over 60 mg can lead to organ failure, coma and death (1). It’s important to exercise caution when taking iron supplements to avoid these dangerous side effects.

This is why we typically like the lower-dosed (and cheaper) 18mg capsules. There really doesn’t seem to be a huge need for 50mg unless you have special circumstances per your doctor. In fact, 50mg is greater than the upper-limit dose for men — so just because you think you’re a big guy doesn’t mean you need the biggest dose you can find!

Choosing the Right Iron Supplement

There are many reputable iron supplements on the market to choose from. You should choose the best supplement based on your individual needs. The recommended daily iron intake varies based on gender and age, so it’s important to first do your research before committing to a supplement.

NutraBio Iron 18mg

NutraBio’s Chelated Iron Comes in both 18mg and 27mg doses – but we’ll typically stick to 18mg unless doctor says otherwise!

Women between the ages of 19 and 50 are recommended to consume 18mg of iron a day. The NutraBio Chelated Iron 18mg Veggie Caps will help you easily reach your daily iron goals if you fall into this category. The 18mg Iron Veg Capsules by NOW Foods are equally effective.

Why one of these two brands? See our interview with Mark Glazier

These are two highly trusted brands that do massive amounts of testing on their incoming raw materials and outgoing products. You can watch our interview with Mark Glazier regarding the regulation of supplements if you want to learn more about that, but suffice to say that NutraBio is putting in the bottle what they say they’re putting in the bottle.

Although men over 19 only require 8mg of iron a day, both of the above supplements are suitable for men looking to supplement their iron intake as well. It’s more than you need, but not over the upper-limit dose of 45mg. If you eat a monstrous steak or a ton of oysters in a single day, however, feel free to skip the supplement. (Note that eating too much high-protein steak can also spike insulin and kick you out of ketosis, so beware!)

Since pregnant women require 27mg of iron a day, additional iron supplementation may be required, but again, there’s no good research on pregnancy and ketosis, so talk to your doctor. The NOW Foods Iron Complex yields that 27mg number, and has folate added, so it’s pretty clear they’re marketing this one to pregnant women.

Avoid taking with compounds that disrupt iron absorption

When taking your iron supplement, be sure to avoid milk, antacids, and calcium supplements. Calcium decreases your body’s ability to absorb iron, so it’s best to avoid it for several hours before and after you take your iron supplement.

But do add the vitamin C…

On the other hand, vitamin C can help your body absorb iron more effectively. Taking your iron supplement with a glass of calcium-free orange juice can aid in absorption.[3]

Unsurprisingly, the NOW Iron Complex supplement listed above has Vitamin C added as well.

Meeting Your Iron Goals on the Keto Diet Doesn’t Have to be Difficult

Ultimately, I wrote this article because I found it very surprising that my iron numbers were falling short even after eating beef and spinach on the same day. So I turned to low-dose iron supplementation to fill the gap.

It comes down to tracking, though – you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Researching iron intake on the keto diet gives you a better understanding of how to make sure you’re getting enough of this important mineral. By enjoying all the delicious food choices you can eat on the keto diet, as well as supplementing your diet with iron if necessary, you’ll be able to meet your daily iron goals without much trouble.

Tracking your food intake with MyFitnessPal is really the best way to stay on top of things. Now all you have left to do is find some beef liver and oysters, otherwise see the featured products below:

Iron - Deals and Price Drop Alerts

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Disclosure: PricePlow relies on pricing from stores with which we have a business relationship. We work hard to keep pricing current, but you may find a better offer.

Posts are sponsored in part by the retailers and/or brands listed on this page.

About the Author: Mike Roberto

Mike Roberto

Mike Roberto is a research scientist and water sports athlete who founded PricePlow. He is an n=1 diet experimenter with extensive experience in supplementation and dietary modification, whose personal expertise stems from several experiments done on himself while sharing lab tests.

Mike's goal is to bridge the gap between nutritional research scientists and non-academics who seek to better their health in a system that has catastrophically failed the public.

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