Every cell in your body depends on iron and zinc to keep it functioning normally. Without enough iron, cells don’t have the oxygen they need to produce energy. Without enough zinc, cells can’t divide efficiently and their walls are weaker and more prone to damage. Your immune system also requires both minerals for optimal performance. While a wide range of foods contain iron and zinc, not all of them are good sources of both.
Not only are oysters an excellent source of iron, but they’re also higher in zinc than any other food. For just under 90 calories, a 3-ounce serving of steamed, boiled or poached wild oysters delivers 445 percent and 44 percent of the daily values for zinc and iron, respectively. Like other animal sources, oysters supply mostly heme iron, which is easier for your body to absorb than the nonheme type found in plant-based foods. Poach oysters in fish stock with fresh herbs, or stir shucked oysters into risotto for the last few minutes of cooking.
Beef is a leading source of zinc and iron in the American diet, according to the National Institutes of Health. Braised, lean-cut flank steak supplies 200 calories and 34 percent and 16 percent of the daily values for zinc and iron, respectively, per 3-ounce serving. Because minerals are found in meat and not fat, leaner cuts of beef tend to be better sources of both nutrients. Instead of making beef the main focus of a meal, use smaller amounts to boost the flavor, texture and nutritional value of salads, stews and whole-grain dishes.
Poultry is another important source of zinc and iron for many Americans. Although chicken meat does provide a significant amount of both minerals, turkey is a better source. For about 125 calories, a 3-ounce serving of roasted light-meat turkey provides 11 percent and 4 percent of the daily values for zinc and iron, respectively. Although dark-meat turkey delivers about twice as much iron and zinc as light meat, it’s also 15 percent higher in calories and contains about three times as much fat.
Like dried beans and peas, lentils are a type of mature legume. They’re a low-fat, high-fiber source of a wide array of nutrients, including iron and zinc. One cup of cooked lentils provides 230 calories and 37 percent and 17 percent of the daily values for iron and zinc, respectively. Although the nonheme iron in lentils is not as readily available as heme iron, you can boost its absorption with vitamin C. To get more iron from lentils, therefore, consume them with broccoli, red bell peppers, tomatoes, winter squash or another good source of vitamin C.
As is the case with most whole grains, oats are a good source of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, B vitamins and several key minerals. For just under 170 calories, a cup of unfortified cooked oats supplies 16 percent and 12 percent of the daily values for zinc and iron, respectively. To enhance your body’s ability to absorb the iron in oatmeal, serve it with sliced strawberries or a small glass of orange juice. You can also use quick-cooking rolled oats to add texture and density to soups and stews.
Iron and zinc are trace minerals, meaning -- relative to major minerals such as potassium and magnesium -- your body only needs relatively small amounts each day to avoid deficiency. Women’s iron needs are greater prior to menopause, which is why dietary guidelines recommend that most healthy young women get about 18 milligrams of iron a day. Healthy women of all ages should get about 8 milligrams of zinc each day.
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Iron
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Zinc
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Mollusks, Oyster, Eastern, Wild, Cooked, Moist Heat
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Beef, Flank, Steak, Separable Lean Only, Trimmed to 0" Fat, Choice, Cooked, Braised
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Turkey, All Classes, Light Meat, Cooked, Roasted
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Lentils, Mature Seeds, Cooked, Boiled, Without Salt
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Cereals, Oats, Regular and Quick, Unenriched, Cooked With Water (Includes Boiling and Microwaving), Without Salt
- Wellness Foods A to Z; Sheldon Margen, M.D., et al.
- The Real Vitamin & Mineral Book; Shari Lieberman, Ph.D., C.N.S., F.A.C.N., et al.
Based just outside Chicago, Meg Campbell has worked in the fitness industry since 1997. She’s been writing health-related articles since 2010, focusing primarily on diet and nutrition. Campbell divides her time between her hometown and Buenos Aires, Argentina.