While some people have an iron deficiency, others have too much of an iron buildup, which isn't good for the body either. To balance iron levels if yours are too high, focus on iron-free foods or designing low-iron meals.
Your Body’s Iron Needs
Iron is an essential mineral that's found in red blood cells. Its main purpose is to carry oxygen from your lungs and throughout the rest of your body. This makes it a crucial element for all your cells and organs to work properly.
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Typically, the average adult needs about 8 to 18 milligrams of iron per day to meet their body's iron requirements, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That number tends to be higher for people assigned female at birth (AFAB) and vegetarians.
There are two main forms of iron: heme and nonheme. Plant-based foods, as well as iron supplements, typically contain nonheme iron. Meat and seafood, meanwhile, contain both heme and nonheme iron. Heme iron tends to be absorbed by your body at a higher level.
When people have low levels of iron in their body, they may develop iron deficiency anemia. With iron deficiency anemia, your blood doesn't have enough healthy red blood cells to work properly or to produce hemoglobin, according to Mayo Clinic. Iron deficiency anemia may leave you feeling out of breath, tired, weak and dizzy. It may also impair your appetite.
One of the main factors behind iron deficiency anemia is not consuming enough iron in your diet. If you're not eating enough food in general, or not eating iron-rich foods like meat, eggs and dark leafy green vegetables, your iron levels may suffer. Other factors, like blood loss or disorders that cause an inability to absorb iron, can also lead to iron deficiency anemia.
If left untreated, iron deficiency can cause heart problems and growth issues. For pregnant people, it's especially dangerous — it can increase the risk of premature births and babies with low birth weights.
Interestingly, while a quarter of the world's population is anemic, poor iron levels in developed countries like the United States are rare, according to Harvard Health. That's because people in the United States actually consume large quantities of meat, making it easy for them to meet minimum iron requirements.
On the flip side, it's also possible for your body to absorb too much iron — a condition known as hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis causes you to absorb more iron than you need, and too much iron accumulated in the body can become toxic.
Your body stores iron in your liver, heart and pancreas. As it doesn't have a natural way of getting rid of the extra iron, the overload can cause damage to your organs over time.
It's due to this scenario, or other medical reasons that may cause too much of an iron buildup, that some people need to focus on a diet low in iron. If you're hoping to maintain or lower your iron levels, you may want to focus on low-iron-diet menu options.
In this case, it's important to avoid things like iron supplements and raw seafood, which contain high levels of iron. You can also focus on iron-free fruits and vegetables and legumes. Here are some foods that are particularly low in iron.
Read more: Can Iron Deficiency Cause Psychological Problems?
While there are some foods that contain virtually no iron, most healthy nutritious foods like meats, vegetables and fruits contain some iron. If you're looking to consume foods low in iron, a good general rule is to avoid meats and seafood, and instead turn to options like fruits, vegetables and legumes.
If you're looking for low-iron-diet menu options, you may want to focus on foods that contain nonheme iron rather than heme iron, according to Oregon State University. While it's likely that only 10 to 15 percent of the iron in your diet is heme iron, it's more easily absorbed in the body than nonheme iron, making it provide up to one-third of your total absorbed iron.
Nonheme iron absorption, on the other hand, can either be inhibited or enhanced by other factors in food. According to Oregon State University, eating nonheme iron in combination with vitamin C can enhance iron absorption. Other organic acids, like citric, malic and lactic acids, also boost absorption of nonheme iron.
Finally, eating nonheme iron sources with meat and fish can contribute to its absorption. However, certain compounds like phytic acid can inhibit nonheme iron absorption.
Legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds all contain phytic acid, which has been shown to inhibit nonheme iron absorption. An April 2016 study published in BMC Nutrition found that intake of phytate inhibited both iron and calcium from the diets of pregnant people.
Soy protein and calcium can also affect iron absorption. Finally, polyphenolic compounds found in coffee, black tea and herbal tea may also inhibit nonheme iron absorption.
Dairy products like milk, yogurt or creams contain relatively low iron levels and are good low-iron-diet menu options. Butter, sour cream, ice creams and half-and-half creams are all iron-free foods. Other iron-free foods include lard, fat, salad dressings, mayo and most oils. Candies, which are high in sugar, also typically contain no iron.
Read more: Types of Iron Supplements
Low-Iron Fruits and Vegetables
Since it's impossible to avoid all iron-filled foods and live off a diet of iron-free foods like cream and oil, you can still consume healthy amounts of fruits and vegetables. While dark leafy green vegetables like swiss chard, spinach or broccoli contain decent amounts of iron, it's still important to eat them on a regular basis for their other health benefits.
It is, however, tough to find a ton of iron-free fruits and vegetables. Some fruits like grapefruit contain low traces of iron, but they're high in vitamin C, which can enhance iron absorption when eaten with high-iron foods.
Simply avoid the foods that contain a lot of vitamin C, or avoid eating them in combination with high-iron foods. While many fruits contain vitamin C, you can choose to eat them separately from iron-rich meals to avoid increasing your iron absorption.
Some iron-free fruits and vegetables include cantaloupe, mushrooms and tomatoes. Aside from dark leafy green vegetables, the iron levels of most fruits and vegetables will likely be lower than what you would find in red meats and seafood.
High-Iron Foods To Avoid
Plenty of healthy foods out there are rich in iron, as they are in other vitamins and minerals. Shellfish, liver, legumes, broccoli and tofu all contain good amounts of iron. Foods like fortified breakfast cereals can contain up to 100 percent of your daily recommended iron, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Other foods high in iron include seaweed, oysters, spinach and meats like ham, chicken, veal, beef or turkey. You can also find decent levels of iron in canned white beans, beef liver, sardines, green peas, chicken and tuna.
While you shouldn't completely cut out iron-rich foods from your diet, as they contain a lot of essential vitamins, protein and minerals, you can make it a goal to eat them in moderation if you're hoping to lower your iron levels. A mix of low-iron and high-iron foods, with a balance of heme and nonheme iron, can help you maintain healthy iron levels.
- Jackson Siegelbaum Gastroenterology: "High/Low Iron Diet"
- National Institutes of Health (NIH): "Iron"
- Iron Disorders Institute: "Iron We Consume"
- Mayo Clinic: "Iron Deficiency Anemia"
- Harvard Health: "A Healthy Diet is the Key to Getting the Iron You Need"
- Mayo Clinic: "Hemochromatosis"
- Oregon State University: "Micronutrient Information Center"
- BMC Nutrition: "Dietary Phytate Intake Inhibits the Bioavailability of IRON and Calcium in the Diets of Pregnant Women in Rural Bangladesh: A Cross-Sectional Study"
- The Journal of Nutrition: "Polyphenols and Phytic Acid Contribute to the Low IRON Bioavailability From Common Beans in Young Women"