Helping Your Body Absorb Iron from Your Diet

Just because you include a certain amount of iron in your diet doesn’t mean that that entire amount of iron is available for your body to use. There’s actually a little game of tug-of-war over iron going on in your body. That’s because there are substances in the foods you eat that enhance iron absorption in your body, as well as those that inhibit it.

Meat is a common iron-absorption enhancer. If you are vegetarian, the most potent enhancer from a plant source is vitamin C. When vegetarians eat a rich food source of vitamin C with a meal, they can enhance the absorption of the iron present in the meal by as much as 20 times.

Many fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C. Here are some to keep in mind:

  • Broccoli

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Cabbage

  • Cantaloupe

  • Cauliflower

  • Citrus fruits (and their juices), such as grapefruits, lemons, and oranges

  • Green and red bell peppers

  • Honeydew

  • Kiwi

  • Kohlrabi

  • Papaya

  • Potatoes

  • Strawberries

  • Tomatoes

Other plant components also improve iron absorption, but vitamin C is the most powerful. Using cast iron cookware such as skillets, pots, and pans, can also increase the amount of iron you absorb, especially when you use them to cook acidic foods, such as tomatoes or tomato sauce.

Other substances in your food can inhibit your body’s ability to absorb iron. One of those is the tannic acid in tea. In poor countries where diets are low in vitamin C and iron, a tradition of tea drinking can tip the scales and cause iron deficiency. That doesn’t commonly happen in Western countries, where people generally eat a wider variety of foods and have access to plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Certain spices, the phytates found in whole grains, the calcium in dairy products, and coffee all decrease the availability of dietary iron. The reality is, however, that if you eat a reasonable mix of foods, inhibitors and enhancers of iron absorption offset each other.

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