Chow Line: Take medical advice when reducing iron (for 7/26/09)

July 17, 2009

My iron levels are way too high. How can I cut back on the iron in my food?

Most foods contain at least some iron, but there are things you can do to reduce your body's absorption of this essential mineral.

However, before you make any changes to your diet, it's important that you be sure to follow the treatment plan provided by your medical care team. High iron levels are caused by a medical condition, such as hereditary hemochromatosis, so any general guidance offered in a forum like this should be reviewed by health professionals familiar with your specific condition before you begin adopting new behaviors.

That said, trying to eliminate iron from the diet is not usually recommended as an effective method of controlling excess iron stores in the body. Foods that contain iron also provide other essential elements that help heal and rebuild the body. If you try to eliminate iron, then you'll also be eliminating a lot of other nutrients that your body needs.

But you can take some steps to reduce how much iron your body absorbs:

  • Vitamin C aids iron absorption in the body. Avoid cereal and other processed foods with added vitamin C. Do not take vitamin C over-the-counter vitamins or a multivitamin (all of which contain some vitamin C). As long as your diet contains normal amounts of whole fruits and vegetables, you will get the vitamin C your body needs without additional vitamin C intake with supplemental forms.
  • Drinking tea can help inhibit iron absorption. Teas contain tannins that block iron.
  • The iron in meat proteins, called "heme iron," is more easily absorbed by the body compared to the iron in plant proteins like soy, beans and whole grains. Depending on how much meat you eat currently, cutting back could help reduce your body's overall absorption of iron.

The National Institutes of Health has a fact sheet on iron that offers detailed information that may be helpful. It's online at http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron.asp. But again, keep in mind that even that information should not replace other treatment protocols you may be received from your medical care team.

Ironically, iron deficiency is a much more common problem than iron overload. In fact, as much as 80 percent of the world's population may be iron deficient, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the United States. People with low iron can do the opposite of the above guidance (consume more vitamin C, avoid drinking tea, eat more meat) to build up iron stores.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or filipic.3@cfaes.osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Julie Shertzer, registered dietitian and program specialist for Ohio State University Extension in the Department of Human Nutrition, in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Author(s): 
Martha Filipic
Source(s): 
Julie Shertzer