Foods That Affect Iron Absorption

Do you know that just eating iron-rich food may not help you in improving your haemoglobin levels? Find out how some food items are preventing your body from absorbing iron.

By Monali Bordoloi

Foods That Affect Iron Absorption
Dairy products like yogurt should be avoided after iron-rich meal

Of late, Vijaya Natarajan, a 35-year-old housemaker, feels too tired to do her household chores. Her husband notices that her skin is pale, and she feels dizzy most of the time. She complains about a crawling feeling in her legs too. Turns out that Vijaya, who is a vegetarian, is anaemic and her haemoglobin levels are dangerously low. Vijaya decides to try some iron-rich food to up her haemoglobin level instead of going for a medical consultation.

However, after three months her reports come, and it still shows low haemoglobin levels. A session with a nutritionist clears all her misconceptions, the nutritionist explains that even if she is eating iron-rich food, her body is not able to absorb the iron from it, so her haemoglobin levels are still low.

The nutritionist has asked her to add some food items and avoid certain iron-blocking foods so that her body can absorb iron better and her haemoglobin count will reach a healthy level. 

What is Haemoglobin?

Haemoglobin is responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues. It is essential for living cells to perform properly. Haemoglobin also helps in transporting carbon dioxide away from the cells and back to the lungs.

A haemoglobin count below 13.5 grams per deciliter in men or 12 grams per deciliter in women is considered as low.

People often gorge on iron-rich food to increase their haemoglobin levels, without realising that first, the body must be prepared to absorb the iron. Low haemoglobin level is more common in women than men. Apart from pregnancy and periods, the most common cause of low haemoglobin level is nutritional deficiencies of iron, folic acid, and vitamins C and B12.

However, it can also occur because of some serious ailments like surgery-related blood loss or trauma, regular blood donation, bone marrow diseases, cancer, kidney problems, arthritis, diabetes, stomach ulcers and other diseases of the digestive tract.

Foods that badly affects iron absorption:

Just like some food provide us with adequate iron, there are other food groups that interfere with the body’s absorption of iron from the diet.

To increase haemoglobin level, whether we take iron-rich food or supplements, we must make sure that body easily processes the extra iron put into it.

Here are some iron-blocking food groups:

  • Dairy products
    The calcium present in dairy products is an important part of a healthy diet. However, if you are trying to improve iron deficiency, it's better to cut down on dairy products just after and before an iron-rich meal. Dairy products such as yogurt, cheese and milk interfere with the absorption of iron in the body.
  • Hot beverages like tea and coffee
    If you have a habit of pairing hot beverages like tea, coffee with a meal which is rich in iron, avoid it or your iron from food will not be absorbed by the body properly.
  • Spices
    Certain spices like oregano can also decrease the absorption of iron in the body. Those who are looking to up their haemoglobin levels should avoid it.
  • Cereals and soy
    Corn, rice, oats and wheat bran cereals can decrease the absorption of iron. Soybeans and tofu also do not go well with the absorption of iron.
  • Phytic acid
    Foods high in phytic acid like walnuts, brazil nuts, and sesame seeds can reduce the body’s absorption of iron, especially in vegetarians. Thus, vegetarians should avoid eating together foods high in phytic acid with iron-rich foods. However, phytic acid is an essential nutrient that shouldn’t be completely removed from your diet.

Foods that increase iron absorption:

Try pairing these foods along with iron-rich food to up your haemoglobin levels.

Vitamin C

Without the help of vitamin C, iron cannot be fully absorbed by the body. Combining iron-rich food either with vitamin C-rich food or supplement will greatly help in absorption of iron. Some foods rich in vitamin C are lemon, oranges, strawberries and dark, leafy greens.

Vitamin A and beta-carotene

Vitamin A and beta-carotene help in absorbing more iron. Vitamin A is present in animal food sources, such as fish and organ meats like liver.

Beta-carotene is found in colourful fruits like red, yellow, and orange coloured fruits and in vegetables like carrots winter squash, sweet potatoes, mangos, etc.

Iron-rich food for improving haemoglobin

Once you ensure that you are not eating iron-blocking food, you can get all your daily requirements of iron from various food groups.

The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements recommends that men get up to 8 mg of iron per day, while women should get up to 18 mg per day. It will go up to 27 mg a day for pregnant women.

Iron-rich diet:

Iron in food helps the body in making red blood cells which contain haemoglobin. Some of the iron-rich food is fish such as perch, salmon or tuna and shellfish such as clams, oysters and mussels. Organ meats like liver are particularly good sources of iron.

Folate diet:

Our body needs vitamin B to produce heme, a part of red blood cells that makes haemoglobin. Folic acid, a B-complex vitamin is required to mature the red blood cells. If the body does not get it, it leads to folate deficiency anaemia and low haemoglobin levels.

Here are the food sources of folic acid: green leafy vegetables, sprouts, dried beans, wheat germ, kidney beans, avocado, peanuts, bananas, broccoli, spinach, green beans, cabbage and chicken liver.

Beetroot and apple, high in folic acid as well as iron, potassium and fibre are highly recommended to increase the body’s red blood cell count. Dates increase the supply of iron in blood and help in reducing the symptoms of low haemoglobin level in the blood. Dry fruits like almonds (badaam), dried peaches or raisins are also good sources of iron. 

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