Foods to Avoid While Trying to Absorb Iron

Beef and vegetable stew with potatoes
Meat and vegetables contain lots of natural iron. (Image: istetiana/iStock/GettyImages)

Iron is vital for the health of your body, and every cell depends on it. You need iron in order for oxygen to be carried from your lungs to the rest of your body. If your physician has advised you to increase your intake of iron-rich foods and possibly add a daily iron supplement to your regimen, take into consideration that certain things you consume in your diet may limit the absorption of iron in your body.

Heme vs. Nonheme Iron

First, it's important to know that iron is present in two dietary forms: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is found in animal products that contain hemoglobin, such as fish, red meats and poultry. Heme is two to three times better absorbed when compared to nonheme iron, which is found in plant sources.

The absorption of nonheme iron is most affected by other dietary elements. With that in mind, here are some foods that could interfere with your body's ability to absorb iron.

Dairy Products and Calcium

Products containing calcium, such as dairy products, antacids and calcium supplements, decrease or inhibit the absorption of nonheme iron either from the diet or from supplements. Calcium may also decrease the absorption of heme iron from animal products as well.

While iron and calcium are both essential for a healthy body, do not consume dairy products within two hours before or after taking an iron supplement or eating iron-rich foods if you are trying to increase your body's absorption of iron. Avoid taking calcium and iron supplements together at the same time during the day.

Coffee, Tea and Cocoa

Coffee, tea and cocoa naturally contain polyphenols, which are beneficial plant nutrients with antioxidant effects. While long-term consumption of foods containing polyphenols may offer protection against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases, they do interfere with the absorption of iron in the body.

Teas also contain tannins that impacts the absorption of nonheme iron. Drinking coffee, tea and coco inhibits the absorption of nonheme iron. Avoid drinking these beverages when consuming iron-rich meals or taking iron supplements.

Fiber-Rich Foods

Consuming foods high in fiber can decrease the absorption of iron from foods and supplements you consume. Raw vegetables, whole grains and bran products, all of which are high in fiber, should not be consumed at the same time you take iron supplements.

Iron is actually best absorbed on an empty stomach or with vitamin C. If iron supplements tend to cause nausea, cramps, constipation or diarrhea, eating a small amount of vitamin C rich foods, while avoiding high fiber foods, may help your to avoid these side effects.

Whole Grains and Legumes

Phytates are naturally occurring substances found in grains and legumes. Referred to as anti-nutrients, phytates reduce the bioavailability of minerals, including nonheme iron.

In particular, vegetarians who only receive nonheme iron from their diet need to take this into consideration when eating to increase iron levels. To enhance the absorption of iron from dietary sources or supplements, combine foods high in vitamin C with iron-rich foods at the same meal.

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