How to Maximize Your Iron Absorption

The foods and minerals you eat 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?

Iron is the only nutrient you ingest that is strictly regulated by your body. Healthy adults will only absorb about 10 to 15 percent of their dietary iron intake. This is because your body does not have an effective way to get rid of iron. If you have too much iron, it can lead to excessive free radical formation and tissue damage.

Most of your iron is found in your red blood cells, and some is stored in your liver, spleen, bone marrow or muscle tissue. When your body senses that these areas are low, it will signal your digestive tract to increase iron absorption. The additional iron will be used to produce more red blood cells and replenish your stores.

Two main types of iron exist:

  • Heme Iron Ė found in the muscle tissue of animals.
  • Nonheme Iron Ė found in plant foods, as well as meat and eggs.

Heme iron is naturally absorbed more easily by the body than nonheme iron. But thatís not the end of the story.

The absorption of nonheme iron can be greatly influenced by other nutrients you eat. Whereas, other nutrients have little effect on heme iron absorption.

What Helps Iron Absorption

Iron is absorbed more readily when itís eaten with foods high in vitamin C. This includes vitamin C supplements. In fact, a 2009 study showed that eating a small amount (63 mg) of vitamin C with a meal rich in nonheme iron increased iron absorption by almost three times.

Some foods that are rated the highest in vitamin C are:

  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Guava
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Broccoli
  • Berries (especially strawberries)
  • Citrus fruits
  • Tomatoes
  • Peas
  • Papaya

These foods are especially high in vitamin C, but most fruits and vegetables will still contain enough to help increase iron absorption.

Fermented foods have other organic acids in addition to vitamin C that are shown to enhance iron absorption.

Also, including 50 to 85 grams of meat with a meal may increase iron absorption by one and a half to four times. Beef appears to have the best effect compared to other meats.

What Blocks Iron Absorption

Unfortunately, the list of substances that block iron absorption is a bit longer. Research shows that iron 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
  • Coffee
  • Cocoa
  • Caffeine (often added to colas and energy drinks)
  • Fiber

This does not mean you need to cut out all these foods in order to properly absorb iron. But it can be beneficial to pay closer attention to what youíre eating in combination with iron.

Food Tips for Better Iron Absorption

Vitamin C will always help iron absorption, regardless of other foods youíve eaten at the time. It can counteract the effect of many of the foods that block absorption.

For instance, one study gave vitamin C supplements to anemic preschool children who ate purely vegetarian diets, including phytate-rich meals. After 60 days, most of the children had significantly improved their red blood cell health and were no longer anemic.

Grains, beans and other seeds are naturally high in phytic acid. But effective preparation can largely remove these acids. Soaking, sprouting and cooking will all remove phytates and make foods easier to digest and the iron more bioavailable.

High amounts of minerals seem to block iron absorption more than smaller amounts. So itís most important to avoid eating iron-rich foods with products such as multivitamins, mineral supplements, milk or fortified vegan milks that are high in calcium.

Itís best to drink coffee, tea or other caffeinated drinks at least an hour before eating. Research has shown that a cup of coffee reduced the iron absorption of a hamburger meal by 39 percent. And a cup of tea reduced it by 64 percent. The effects were the same if coffee was consumed one hour after a meal. Whereas, 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 of iron. If you eat a serving of lentils combined with foods rich in vitamin C, you can still potentially take in more iron than a serving of beef.

Try some of these recipes with great combinations to enhance iron-rich foods:

Why Food is Preferable to Iron Supplements

Another issue that can affect iron absorption is gut health. Friendly bacteria typically make up the majority of your gut flora and keep any harmful bacteria under control.

Iron is important for human health, but many harmful species of bacteria also require iron for growth. If you have more iron in your system, more iron will naturally be 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 iron 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 iron absorption

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Marija M
Marija M2 months ago

Very useful info, tks.

Lisa M
Lisa M3 months ago


Lisa M
Lisa M3 months ago


Peggy B
Peggy B3 months ago

Good to know.

Janis K
Janis K3 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim Ven4 months ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven4 months ago


Jerome S
Jerome S4 months ago

thanks for sharing

Jerome S
Jerome S4 months ago

thanks for sharing

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill5 months ago

Use cast iron pans, your food will absorb some of the iron from it.