Are you anemic? The foods you consume can have a significant influence on how iron is absorbed in your body. Paying attention to some key foods will help you absorb as much iron as possible from your diet.
How Does Iron Absorption Work?
Adults absorb only 10 to 15 % of their dietary intake. This is because your body does not have an effective way to get rid of it. If you have too much of this mineral, it can lead to excessive free radical formation and tissue damage.
In humans, most of this mineral is found in the red blood cells, and some is stored in the liver, spleen, bone marrow or muscle tissue. When your body senses that these areas are low, it will signal your digestive tract to increase its absorption. The additional iron will be used to produce more red blood cells and recharge your stores.
Iron can be found as Heme Iron (this type is found in the muscle tissue of animals) and Non-heme Iron (found in plant foods, as well as meat and eggs).
Heme iron is naturally absorbed more easily by the body than non-heme iron. The absorption of non-heme iron can be greatly influenced by other nutrients you consume. So, some nutrients have little effect on its absorption.
What Helps Iron Absorption
Vitamin C can increase the absorption. So, if you are anemic you must eat food rich in Vitamin C. A study from 2009 showed that taking a small amount (63 mg) of vitamin C with a meal rich in non-heme iron increased its absorption by almost three times.
Some fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamin C are:
• Sweet bell peppers
• Alma fruit
• Dark green leafy vegetables
• Kiwi fruit
• Berries (especially strawberries)
• Citrus fruits
These foods are especially rich in vitamin C, but most fruits and vegetables will still contain enough to help increase iron absorption.
In addition, fermented foods have other organic acids which can enhance its absorption.
What Blocks Iron Absorption
Unfortunately, the list of substances that block absorption is a bit longer. Research shows that absorption is lower when iron-rich foods are eaten with:
- Phytic acid or phytates (found mainly in grains, legumes, and other seeds),
- Egg protein (from the white or yolk),
- Minerals that compete with iron for absorption, including calcium, magnesium, zinc, and copper
- Tannic acid in tea
- Certain herbs, such as peppermint and chamomile
- Caffeine (often added to colas and energy drinks)
- Dietary fiber
This does not mean you need to cut out all foods rich in these nutrients in order to properly absorb iron. But it can be beneficial to pay closer attention to what you’re eating in combination with it.
Tips for Better Absorption
Vitamin C will always help its absorption, regardless of other minerals you intake by food.
For example, one study shows that Vitamin C supplements taken by anemic preschool children on a vegetarian diet (including phytate-rich meals) improve its absorption. After 60 days, most of the children had significantly improved their red blood cell health and were no longer anemic.
Grains, bean, and other seeds are naturally high in phytic acid. But with proper preparation concentration of phytic acid will be increased. For instance, if you cook them phytates will be eliminated and the food will be easily digestible while the iron more bioavailable.
High amounts of minerals will block its absorption more than smaller amounts. So it’s most important to avoid eating iron-rich foods with products such as multivitamins, mineral supplements, milk or fortified vegan kinds of milk that are high in calcium.
It’s best to drink coffee, tea or other caffeinated drinks at least an hour before eating. Research has shown that a cup of coffee reduced its absorption of a hamburger meal by 39 percent. And a cup of tea reduced it by 64 %. The effects were the same if the coffee was consumed one hour after a meal. In any case, there was no decrease in absorption when coffee was consumed one hour before a meal.
Also, note that a serving of beef, even though it has the better-absorbed heme iron, only contains 2.62 mg of iron. A serving of cooked lentils has 6.59 mg. If you eat a serving of lentils combined with foods rich in vitamin C, you can still potentially get more than a serving of beef.
Why Food is Preferable
Another issue that can affect absorption is gut health. Friendly bacteria typically make up the majority of your gut flora and keep any harmful bacteria under control.
Many harmful species of bacteria require this mineral for growth. If you have more of it in your body, it will be naturally excreted through your digestive tract.
This encourages the overgrowth of harmful bacteria, which can lead to a variety of gastrointestinal issues, such as constipation and compromised nutrient absorption. The large amounts of iron in supplements can often make these symptoms worse.
Comparatively, foods will have much smaller amounts of this mineral and less chance of disturbing the balance of your gut bacteria. Even if you have to take supplements for medical reasons, taking probiotics or other steps to maintain healthy gut flora will also help with absorption.