Iron deficiency is the leading cause of female fatigue. It’s the world’s most common nutrient deficiency.
These four things make it hard to absorb iron. Do you recognize some bad habits?
Washing your meals down
Water dilutes stomach acid, (more on this later!), so drinking during meals is never great. However, the real culprits here are tea, chocolate drinks, and coffee.
Compounds like polyphenols, oxalates, tannins, and chlorogenic acids in black and green teas, coffee (including green coffee extracts), and cocoa impede iron absorption. Coffee and cocoa can hinder absorption by 60-90%1 and black teas can block your rate of absorption by a whopping 94%1!
Space these beverages at least an hour before your iron-rich meals and supplements2. For best results, reduce the worst offenders altogether. The Framingham Study showed ferritin levels dropped as coffee consumption rose3.
Beverages with concentrated minerals, including effervescent electrolyte drinks, are a no-go as well; as minerals may compete with iron for absorption in the small intestine. A little dairy shouldn’t be a problem but avoid washing iron down with a calcium and phosphorus-rich glass of milk.
The wrong breakfast
While a green smoothie or poached eggs may seem like the perfect healthy breakfast, it may be working against you if you take your iron prior to the meal.
Oxalate in spinach may reduce absorption of non-heme iron somewhat4. Whey powder has enough calcium to compete with iron for absorption. Worst of all, eggs contain phosvitin, a compound that impairs absorption of iron5, and a single egg can reduce absorption of iron in a meal by as much as 28%6.
Low stomach acid
Stomach acid frees nutrients from food, so it affects your ability to extract nutrients from food. Conversely, low hydrochloric acid is a contributor to poor iron absorption, as it affects the stomach’s ability to break down the compound iron into usable pieces.
Ulcer medications that block H2 receptors could worsen absorption7. If your stomach acid is very low (do supplements give you nausea?), taking apple cider vinegar before meals may help.
This is a catch-22. Massive doses of iron in hard-to-digest forms—like the tablets most people are prescribed—can create constipation, because the unabsorbed excess iron gets passed out in stool (green, grey or black poops, anyone?). However, huge doses of fiber are not the best remedy.
Fiber can irritate or clog the “pipes” and can pass through your digestive tract absorbing nutrients8, including iron. The worst part is that many fibers like wheat bran contain phytate9, a compound that blocks iron absorption by up to 65%10. Instead, consume some fiber-rich tubers. Their prebiotic fibers feed the good bacteria and help increase nutrient availability.
Don’t worry if you are committing a lot of these “don’ts”. Just like with the fiber, there are little adjustments you can make to get your iron, and your energy, up in no time! Tune in for part two where I share 5 iron “Do’s”.
Dana Green Remedios, RHN, RNCP, is a Vancouver-based educator and coach. She is a regular contributor to the FloraHealthy blog and can answer your questions in English, French, and Spanish as a Product Information Specialist at Flora.
- Inhibition of non-haem iron absorption in man by polyphenolic-containing beverages.
- Inhibition of food iron absorption by coffee.
- Dietary determinants of iron stores in a free-living elderly population: The Framingham Heart Study.
- Oxalic acid does not influence non-haem iron absorption in humans: a comparison of kale and spinach meals.
- Egg yolk protein and egg yolk phosvitin inhibit calcium, magnesium, and iron absorptions in rats.
- Prediction of dietary iron absorption: an algorithm for calculating absorption and bioavailability of dietary iron
- Proton Pump Inhibitor and Histamine-2 Receptor Antagonist Use and Iron Deficiency.
- Dietary Fiber |Effects of Fiber on Absorption
- Phytates and the inhibitory effect of bran on iron absorption in man.
- Hallberg, L. (1987). Wheat fiber, phytates and iron absorption.