Iron is one of the hardest minerals to absorb. If you’ve ever taken an iron supplement—you would agree avoiding them is to your advantage! Although there are many vitamins and minerals that are difficult to absorb, consulting a dietitian can provide you with important information regarding absorption strategies to help you optimize your chances of retaining some of the nutrients you consume.
Various macronutrients may either promote, or inhibit, the absorption of iron. Let’s start with the good—Vitamin C promotes the absorption of iron making it easier to make it into your bloodstream. Citrus fruits and juices are simple foods to add to your meal to increase iron absorption. Strawberries, peppers, brussel sprouts, and broccoli are other foods high in Vitamin C you should consider incorporating with your meals.
Calcium, however strong it may be for our bones, inhibits the absorption of iron. Cheese, milk, and yogurt all prevent iron from being absorbed which can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Does this mean you should eliminate dairy products or calcium from your diet? No! Rather, it is important to focus on the timing of our dairy consumption to stop this counter effective action of iron malabsorption. This is something a dietitian can help you with by creating a personalized meal plan. The next time you sit down to eat a steak try to avoid the sour cream and cheese on your baked potato and your glass of milk or tea. The pairing of foods is shockingly important in the prevention of anemia and optimal uptake of nutrient, vitamins, and minerals.
Another food often consumed that inhibits iron absorption is tea. Whether you’re in the Southern United States or London—Tea is often consumed with meals—resulting in less iron absorbed into the body. Until learning of my iron deficiency I was drinking black tea or green tea daily with lunch and dinner. I quickly learned I was wasting many foods rich in iron by pairing them with one of my favorite caffeinated beverages. I now drink tea in the afternoon (after my food is digested) so I can continue to get the antioxidant benefits without inhibiting iron from being absorbed with meals.
Now that you are aware of some of the foods that help and hurt absorption, it should be easier to prevent iron deficiency anemia. Iron supplements can cause significant GI distress, nausea, and constipation. Many foods are now fortified with iron making it easier for us to reach our RDA, but we have to remember what foods to avoid to prevent us from reaching optimal levels.