Iron is an essential nutrient, but people with hemochromatosis accumulate an excessive amount of iron in their bodies. Despite eating the same foods as unaffected individuals, their intestines absorb more iron. The excess iron deposits in the liver, heart, pancreas and pituitary, potentially causing cirrhosis, liver cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Although increased iron absorption is to blame, a diet containing moderate amounts of iron is not discouraged.
Start With a Healthy Diet
In general, people with hemochromatosis should simply follow a heart-healthy diet. Clinical practice guidelines for hemochromatosis published by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in 2011 state that there's no need to limit intake of naturally iron-rich foods. The guidelines further emphasize that withdrawing blood periodically -- therapeutic phlebotomy -- is more important for lowering iron levels than any particular diet.
What to Avoid
Clearly excessive iron intake should be avoided in people with hemochromatosis. Foods fortified with iron, including fortified breakfast cereals, nutrition bars and meal-supplement shakes, should not be consumed. Vitamin and mineral supplements containing iron should likewise be avoided. Although vitamin C can increase iron absorption, there's no need to avoid vitamin C-rich foods. However, vitamin C supplements should be avoided, according to the AASLD guidelines.
Guidelines from the European Association for the Study of the Liver published in 2010 also emphasize a generally normal diet, but avoiding iron-fortified foods and iron-containing vitamins. These guidelines note that alcohol increases liver damage and may increase iron absorption in hemochromatosis. Although they do not specifically recommend avoiding excessive alcohol, this would be prudent.
Is This an Emergency?
- Hepatology: Diagnosis and Management of Hemochromatosis: 2011 Practice Guideline by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases
- Journal of Hepatology: Clinical Practice Guidelines for HFE Hemochromatosis
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010