Foods that deplete your iron and can affect iron absorption

Cup of coffee and biscuit
Cup of coffee and biscuit

An iron-rich diet is not only nutritious, but delicious. It’s packed full of tasty vegetables, meats, and grains. But what about foods that block iron absorption? Research shows that some of the most common foods, vitamins, and compounds can make it harder for your body to absorb iron and actually lower iron levels in the process. Keep reading for all the foods to watch out for—and how to keep your iron levels high without sacrificing your favourite foods.

What happens when your body absorbs iron? 

First: a quick lesson in iron absorption. Iron is used to produce hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that helps move oxygen throughout the entire body. If your body is struggling to absorb enough iron, you can develop iron deficiency anemia. This might cause frustrating and painful symptoms, like fatigue, dizziness, headache, cold hands and feet, shortness of breath, and more.

The recommended iron intake for the average person is 7 to 18 mg per day. And for most of us, the number one way to get this iron is through our diet. 

What foods are high in iron? 

Iron is most often found in meat, fish, and poultry. These foods contain heme iron, which is one of the best iron forms because your body can absorb up to 40% of it. 

Good news for the vegetarians: you can also get iron from plant-based foods like grains and vegetables. This type of iron is called non-heme and makes up about 90% of the average dietary iron intake. Ironically, non-heme iron is far more difficult for your body to absorb than heme iron. 

On top of that, many natural sources of non-heme iron have also been shown to interfere with iron absorption. But more on that in a minute.

What foods and vitamins help you absorb more iron? 

Some foods might be a little light on iron, but they can help your system absorb iron from other foods. For example, foods that are rich in vitamin C are proven to boost iron absorption. That’s why the highest-quality iron supplements are infused with vitamin C—to make absorption levels as high as possible. Foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, bell peppers, dark leafy greens, and strawberries. 

Vitamin A and beta-carotene have also been shown to boost your body’s iron absorption capabilities. Foods high in these vitamins include carrots, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, red peppers, and oranges. 

What prevents iron absorption?

All sorts of factors can stand in the way of your iron levels. Blood loss, inadequate intake, and health conditions like celiac disease, IBS, or Crohn’s disease can all play a part. For most people, a wide range of foods and vitamins are to blame for poor iron absorption. 

What foods and vitamins can interfere with iron absorption?

1. Phytates or phytic acid 

Most often found in plant-based foods like whole grains, cereals, soy, corn, nuts, and legumes, phytates are proven to block the absorption of non-heme iron. Walnuts are especially high in phytates. 

In some cases, phytates can be removed before eating. Make sure to soak beans and lentils thoroughly (typically overnight) to get rid of any phytic acid—and take full advantage of all the wonderful natural iron hiding inside. 

And if you know you’re going to be eating foods with phytates, pair them with a food that helps boost iron absorption, like vitamin C. 

2. Calcium 

Sad news for all you cheese lovers. Research shows that calcium—although an essential mineral for healthy bones—can interfere with short-term iron absorption.

Calcium-rich foods include dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt, as well as sardines, tofu, canned salmon, broccoli, figs, and more. 

That doesn’t mean you have to give up your favourite gouda. If you consume less than 50mg of calcium, it has little to no effect on iron absorption. You can also time your calcium intake so that it doesn’t interfere with your iron intake. That way your body can absorb all the iron and all the calcium, without canceling each other out.

3. Polyphenols 

Several studies show that consuming polyphenols with iron-rich foods can interfere with iron absorption.

Chances are, your diet is already packed with polyphenols. They can be found in vegetables, fruits, cereals, legumes, cocoa, tea, wine, and coffee. According to the Iron Disorders Institute, just one cup of coffee can prevent iron absorption by up to 60%. That’s one unfortunate latte. 

Polyphenols are a healthy plant compound with powerful antioxidant qualities. That’s why you don’t want to completely erase these goods from your diet. Instead, pay attention to the timing of your meals in relation to iron-rich foods or iron supplements. Doctors typically recommend taking iron supplements at least two hours before or after drinking coffee, tea, or eating polyphenol-rich foods. 

4. Oxalic Acid 

Like most of the watch-outs on this list, oxalates are most often found in plant-based foods like spinach, soy, wheat, nuts, and nut butters. It’s especially common in tea. And, of course, oxalic acid has been shown to reduce iron absorption. 

Hot tip (pun intended): oxalic acid doesn’t love the heat. If your diet is full of these foods, cooking them might help lower the oxalate content.

5. Egg yolks

All about the omelettes? It might be standing in the way of your iron absorption. Egg yolk contains a protein compound called phosvitin, which can inhibit iron absorption by up to 30%.

If you’re not ready to give up eggs, try eating egg whites only for a while until you can raise your iron levels. Egg whites don’t contain phosvitin, so they are less likely to block iron absorption. 

If you take an iron supplement, make sure it’s at least two hours before or after you eat your tasty egg yolks. This will decrease your chances of blocking the iron absorption. 

What iron supplement has the highest absorption rate? 

Ferosom Forte has one of the highest absorption rates out there. Why? It’s microencapsulated in Liposomal form and infused with vitamin C. It also has a proprietary LCE Coat™ that protects it from acid breakdown as it moves through the stomach. That means more iron gets absorbed into your body, and less gets dissolved into your GI tract. 

The bioavailability of liposomal iron is 3.5 times greater than the free pyrophosphate iron, 2.7 times higher than iron sulfate, and 4.1 times higher compared with iron gluconate. In other words, this supplement is specifically designed for max iron absorption. 

Navigating a diet of foods that both enhance and deplete iron can be tough. Ferosom Forte ensures you’re getting the iron you need along the way. Discover more here.