How to Increase Iron Absorption from Foods?
Iron is an essential mineral your body requires to function properly. Thus, it’s very important to consume proper amounts of it in your diet daily.
The foods that you eat influence not only how much iron you consume, but also how properly it is absorbed into your body.
Once it’s absorbed in the body, it’s utilized as a building block for haemoglobin, 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 that is found in your muscles. This oxygen is utilized when the muscles are used.
The recommended intake range of iron is 7–18 mg per day for the general people and up to 27 grams for pregnant women.
Iron is present in two forms in foods: heme and non-heme.
Sources of Heme Iron
Heme iron is mainly found in animal foods that contain haemoglobin, like meat, fish and poultry.
Heme iron is the best form of iron, as up to 40% of it gets easily absorbed by the body.
Food sources of heme iron include:
- Shellfish such as clams, oysters and mussels
Sources of Nonheme Iron
Non-heme iron mainly comes from plant sources and is also available in grains, vegetables and fortified foods.
This form is added to foods enriched with iron, as well as to several supplements.
Around 85–90% of total iron intake comes from the non-heme form, while 10–15% comes from the heme form.
But non-heme iron is absorbed much less efficiently than heme iron.
Food sources of non-heme iron include:
- Fortified cereals, rice, wheat and oats
- Green leafy vegetables
- Dried fruits like raisins and apricots
- Beans like lentils and soybeans
Foods That Help You Absorb More Iron
While not all dietary iron is absorbed equally, some foods can boost your body’s ability to absorb it.
Foods Rich in Vitamin C
Vitamin C has been shown to boost the absorption of iron. It captures non-heme iron and stores it in a form that’s very much easily absorbed by your body.
Hence, drinking citrus juice or eating other foods high in vitamin C while you’re eating high-iron foods can increase your body’s iron absorption.
Foods rich in vitamin C are citrus fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, bell peppers, melons and strawberries.
Foods With Vitamin A and Beta-Carotene
Vitamin A plays a crucial role in having a healthy vision, bone development and immune system.
Beta-carotene is a red-orange pigment found in plants and fruits which can be turned into vitamin A in your body.
Good food sources of beta-carotene and vitamin A are carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, squash, red peppers, cantaloupe, apricots, oranges and peaches.
Meat, Fish and Poultry
Meat, fish and poultry not only provide well-absorbed heme iron, but they can also help to stimulate the absorption of the non-heme form.
Various studies have reported that adding beef, chicken or fish to a cereal-based meal resulted in about 2–3 times more non-heme iron absorption.
Foods That May Hinder Iron Absorption
Just as some foods can enhance iron absorption, others can hinder it too.
Foods Containing Phytate
Phytate, or phytic acid, is found in whole grains, cereals, soy, nuts and legumes.
Even a small quantity of phytate can significantly reduce iron absorption.
However, the negative effect of phytate can be counteracted by consuming foods that enhance non-heme iron absorption, such as vitamin C or meat.
Calcium is a very crucial mineral for bone health.
However, some evidence shows that it hinders iron absorption, regardless of whether the source is a calcium supplement or a dairy product.
To maximize absorption, calcium-rich foods should not be taken with foods that provide most of your dietary iron.
If possible take calcium and iron supplements at different times of the day.
Foods Containing Polyphenols
Polyphenols are found in several amounts in plant foods and beverages, including vegetables, fruits, some cereals and legumes, tea, coffee and wine.
Coffee and tea, both widely consumed around meals, have a very high content of polyphenols, and they inhibit the absorption of nonheme iron.
So, avoid having your iron-rich meal and your afternoon tea or coffee together. Have a gap of a couple of hours between them.
Health Risks of Excessive Iron
Excessive iron levels can occur in some people with a condition called hemochromatosis. This is usually caused by a gene that boosts absorption.
Other reasons for iron overload include repeated blood transfusions, massive doses from the diet and rare metabolic disorders.
Additionally, consuming too much iron over time may lead to large deposits of it forming in the liver and other tissues.
Consequently, it may cause diabetes, heart disease and liver damage.
You should never take an iron supplement unless recommended by a health professional.
Tips to Get Enough Iron
The tips below can help you increase your dietary iron intake:
- Eat lean red meat
- Eat chicken and fish
- Consume vitamin C-rich foods
- Avoid coffee, tea or milk near meals
- Choose foods rich in non-heme iron
Iron is a vital mineral that’s very essential for the function of your body. Two types are found in food — heme and non-heme. By carefully selecting the foods you eat and knowing how certain foods can boost or inhibit absorption, you can make sure you’re getting the iron you need with the best iron-rich foods.