Last Updated on July 26, 2022 by Dr. Neeraj Gujar
Iron is an essential mineral your body needs to function properly. Thus, it’s vitally important to consume adequate amounts of it in your daily diet to maintain healthy iron levels.
Interestingly, the foods you eat influence not only how much iron you consume, but also how well it is absorbed into your body. Once it’s absorbed by your body, it’s used as a building block for hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that helps shuttle oxygen around your body.
Iron is also a component of myoglobin, an oxygen storage protein found in your muscles. This oxygen is used when you use your muscles. The recommended intake range is 7–18 mg per day for the general population and up to 27 grams for pregnant women.
Red meat is a good source of iron, but there are other foods too that offer high iron levels.
Iron can be found in foods in two forms: heme or non-heme.
Heme Iron Sources
Heme iron can be found in animal foods containing hemoglobin such as meat, poultry, and fish. Heme iron is the most effective form of iron. It can be absorbed up to 40% by your body.
These are good food sources for heme iron:
- Fishes like tuna, salmon, perch, and halibut
- Shellfish like oysters, clams, and mussels
- Red meats as well as organ meats
Non-Heme Iron Sources
Non-heme iron is mainly found in plants. It can also be found in grains, vegetables, and fortified foods. This is the iron-enriched form of food, along with many other supplements.
According to estimates, 85-90% of iron intake is from non-heme forms, and 10-15% from heme forms. Non-heme iron absorbs iron much more efficiently than heme iron in terms of bioavailability.
These are some good sources of non-heme Iron:
Fortified cereals, wheat, and rice
Soybeans and lentils are beans
Raisins and Apricots are dried fruits.
Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale
Foods To Help You Absorb More Iron
Although not all iron is equally absorbed, certain foods can increase your body’s capacity to absorb it.
- Vitamin C-rich Foods
Vitamin C has been shown that it can increase iron absorption. It stores non-heme iron in a form that is easier to absorb by the body. Vitamin C-rich foods include melons, strawberries, dark green leafy veggies, bell peppers, and melons.
One study found that taking 100mg of vitamin C with a meal increased iron sorption by 67%. Drinking citrus juice, or other vitamin-rich foods, while eating high-iron food can help increase your body’s ability to absorb iron.
Iron absorption can be improved in vegetarian and vegan diets by eating vitamin-C-rich vegetables with meals.
2. Foods containing Vitamin A and Beta Carotene
Vitamin B is essential for maintaining healthy vision, bone health, and the immune system. Beta-carotene, a red-orange pigment, is found in fruits and plants. It can be converted into vitamin A by your body. Sweet potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach are good food sources of vitamin A and beta-carotene.
One study that involved 100 people eating cereal-based meals showed that vitamin It affected iron absorption. It was found in a study that rice, wheat, and corn were all more absorbent than the other two. The same study also showed that adding beta-carotene in the meals increased rice absorption by more than 300%, and wheat and corn absorption by 180%.
3. Poultry, fish, and meat
Not only do they provide well-absorbed iron levels, but also allow for the absorption of non-heme iron. Numerous studies have shown that adding beef, chicken, or fish to a cereal-based meal results in a 2-3x increase in non-heme Iron absorption.
Research also showed that 75g of meat can increase the absorption rate of non-heme Iron by approximately 2.5 times compared to meals without it. According to study results, 1 gram of meat or fish, or poultry, provided an enhancement effect similar to 1 mg of vitamin C.
Foods That May Hinder Iron Absorption
Iron absorption can be improved by certain foods, while others can make it more difficult.
- Foods Containing Phytate
Phytate or phytic Acid is found in whole grains, legumes, and soya. Iron absorption can be significantly reduced by even a small amount.
One study found that as little as 2mg of phytate in food inhibited iron absorption by 18% when it was added to wheat rolls. When 250mg of phytate were consumed, 82% of iron was not absorbed.
However, phytate can be neutralized by eating foods that increase non-heme iron absorption such as vitamin C and meat.
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2. Calcium-Rich Foods
Calcium is essential for bone health. But some evidence does show that iron absorption is affected by dairy products and calcium supplements.
Studies have shown that taking 165mg of calcium from milk, cheese, or a supplement can reduce iron level absorption by approximately 50-60%. This is concerning since increased calcium intake is often recommended for children and women. These are the same people who are at high risk of iron deficiency. Most studies were conducted in one meal and were therefore short-term. Long-term studies were reviewed and found no adverse effects of calcium or milk products.
Calcium-rich foods shouldn’t be eaten with meals that contain most of your daily iron intake to maximize absorption. Supplements should be taken at different times throughout the day if possible.
3. Polyphenol-rich Foods
There are many types of polyphenols in plants, such as fruits, vegetables, and coffee. Both coffee and tea are popular beverages for meals. They have a high level of polyphenols and have been shown not to absorb non-heme iron.
One study found that drinking black tea with a meal decreased iron absorption by 60-70%. It didn’t matter if the tea was strong, weak, or normal. Participants who drank tea with meals experienced a 20% reduction in absorption.
You can counteract the adverse effects of polyphenols by allowing a few hours between iron-rich meals and afternoon tea or coffee.
Health Risks of Excessive Iron
Iron poisoning from food sources is uncommon. Iron toxicity from food sources is rare. Your body has its balancing mechanism to ensure that you get enough.
However, one study showed that iron supplements can cause fatal overdoses. Hemochromatosis is a condition that causes excessive iron levels in certain people. This is often caused by a gene that increases absorption.
Iron overload can also be caused by repeated blood transfusions and large iron intakes. Consuming too much iron over time can cause large deposits in the liver and other tissues. It can lead to liver disease, diabetes, and heart disease.
Unless a doctor recommends it, you should not take iron supplements.
Tips To Get Enough Iron
These tips can help you increase your iron intake.
- Lean red meat is the best source of easily absorbed iron. If you have a low intake, eating it multiple times per week may help.
- Eating chicken and fish These foods are good sources of iron. You can eat a variety of them.
- Include vitamin C-rich food: Eat vitamin-rich foods with meals to increase non-heme Iron absorption. You can increase your iron absorption by adding lemon juice to leafy greens.
- Do not drink coffee, tea, or milk close to meals. These should be avoided when you are eating iron-rich food. Instead, drink your tea or coffee between meals.
- Eat foods high in non-heme Iron levels. If you are a vegetarian, then look for plant-based substitutes that can compensate for your iron intake.
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Iron is an essential mineral for your body’s function. There are two types of iron in food: heme or non-heme.
The heme form is found in meat, poultry, and fish. It is easy to absorb by the body. Non-heme Iron is mostly found in plant foods. However, this form of iron is more difficult to absorb. Your body can absorb vitamin C, vitamin B, and vitamin A by eating food containing these nutrients during meals.
Iron absorption can be hindered by foods that contain phytates (cereals, grains), calcium (milk or dairy), and polyphenols.
You can ensure that you get the iron you need by carefully choosing the foods you eat.