Iron is readily available through many types of food. However, nutritional deficiencies, increased iron needs and poor absorption of dietary iron mean that many people aren’t able to get adequate iron from their diets alone. For these reasons, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States.
There are two types of iron found in food, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin and therefore found in animal foods including meat, fish and poultry.
Non-heme iron is found in plants and also added to fortified and enriched foods including cereal, some nutrition bars and bread. Absorption of heme iron ranges from 15-35% whereas non-heme iron absorption is 2-20%.
In addition, heme iron absorption is efficient and not significantly affected by what is eaten concurrently. However, absorption of non-heme iron is influenced by several dietary factors making what is eaten with a food rich in non-heme iron, important.
In addition to choosing foods high in iron, you can increase your body’s absorption of non-heme iron if you pair it with the right foods. Both meat protein and vitamin C rich foods increase the body’s absorption of non-heme iron. Try eating iron-fortified cereal with a glass of orange juice or making a salsa or Texas caviar with iron-rich beans and vitamin C-rich tomatoes. You can also top a hamburger with slices of tomato so you better absorb the iron in your iron fortified hamburger bun. Another good suggestion – add vitamin C rich citrus fruit to spinach salad.
Individuals with dietary restrictions, particularly vegetarians, are vulnerable to iron deficiency, despite the fact that many vegetarians eat a well-rounded diet of iron-rich foods. That’s because the iron found in plant-based foods (called non-heme iron) is not as well absorbed as iron found in animal based foods (heme iron).
Even if you take in enough dietary iron, you may still be vulnerable to iron deficiency if you have higher iron needs than other individuals. Individuals with greater iron needs may include:
If you suspect you may not be getting adequate iron from your diet, or you fall into any of the above categories, ask your doctor about an iron test. If he or she determines that you are iron deficient, ask about iron supplements to help get your iron levels back on track.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nutrition for Everyone: Iron and Iron Deficiency. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/vitamins/iron.html March 7, 2012.