Dietary iron occurs in two primary forms: including heme iron, found in animal-based foods, and nonheme iron, found in vegetables, grains and fortified cereals. The body’s ability to absorb different types of iron depends on a variety of factors. Inability to absorb iron can lead to iron deficiency anemia.
Heme Iron Absorption
The body absorbs heme iron more efficiently than nonheme iron. Healthy adults absorb 15 to 35 percent of heme iron, but only 2 to 20 percent of nonheme iron. Diet influences the body’s absorption of nonheme iron significantly, but not the absorption of heme iron.
Nonheme Iron Absorption
The body absorbs nonheme iron far less efficiently than heme iron. Certain foods in your diet can enhance or inhibit your body’s absorption of the nonheme iron. Consuming nonheme iron sources along with meat proteins and foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, can improve your body’s absorption of nonheme iron. Some other nutrients food components can decrease the body’s absorption of nonheme iron. Iron absorption inhibitors include calcium, polyphenols, phytates in legumes and whole grains and tannins in tea. When you have increased iron needs, as during pregnancy or when following a vegetarian diet, or increased iron losses, as during heavy menstruation, include more foods that enhance iron absorption in your daily diet.
Causes of Malabsorption
Some conditions and diseases cause chronic malabsorption of iron and other nutrients. Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and recent gastric bypass surgery can all reduce your absorption of iron. Taking antacids regularly can also inhibit iron absorption. If any of these conditions lead to iron deficiency anemia, your doctor may recommend that you take iron supplements to treat the deficiency.
Iron Deficiency Symptoms
Chronic malabsorption of iron or insufficient iron in the diet can cause iron deficiency anemia, or a lack of healthy red blood cells. Without sufficient hemoglobin, a protein in healthy red blood cells, your body cannot provide oxygen to tissues and cells. Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include fatigue, weakness, headache, shortness of breath, irritability, sore tongue, brittle nails and pale skin color.
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