Hemochromatosis is a condition in which the body absorbs too much of the iron consumed from food. This overabsorption leads to high levels of iron in the blood that the body can’t get rid of.
When this iron is deposited into vital organs, such as the liver, heart, and pancreas, it can cause oxidative stress and long-term damage.
For people with hemochromatosis, there are different ways to reduce the amount of iron in the body. One of the methods of keeping iron levels low is through dietary modifications.
Let’s look at the best diet for hemochromatosis, including foods to eat, foods to avoid, supplements to take, and recipes to try.
In a broad sense, the best diet for hemochromatosis involves foods low in iron. However, there are various circumstances that can affect how much iron is absorbed from the foods you eat. Here are some dietary factors that may affect the way your body absorbs iron:
- Heme vs. nonheme iron. There are two types of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is found in meat and seafood. Nonheme is found in plants, meat, seafood, and fortified products. Heme iron is more bioavailable than nonheme iron, meaning that it’s more easily absorbed by your body.
- Vitamin C. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, enhances the bioavailability of nonheme iron. In addition, meat and seafood can also enhance the absorption of nonheme iron.
- Calcium. Various forms of calcium may decrease the bioavailability of both heme and nonheme iron.
- Phytate and polyphenols. Phytate, or phytic acid, is a compound found in grains and legumes that decreases the absorption of iron. Other compounds in plant foods, known as polyphenols, can also decrease iron absorption.
As you can see, avoiding iron-rich foods is only one element of the best diet for hemochromatosis. There are other items, such as the other nutrients in the foods you eat, that can affect your iron absorption.
Fruits and vegetables
With hemochromatosis, excess iron increases oxidative stress and free radical activity, which can damage your DNA.
Antioxidants play an important role in protecting your body from the damage caused by oxidative stress. Fruits and vegetables are a great source of many antioxidants, such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and flavonoids.
Many of the recommendations for hemochromatosis will warn you to stay away from vegetables high in iron. This may not always be necessary.
Vegetables that are high in iron, such as spinach and other leafy greens, contain only nonheme iron. Nonheme iron is less easily absorbed than heme iron, making vegetables a good choice. Talk to your doctor or dietitian if you have concerns.
Grains and legumes
Grains and legumes contain substances that inhibit iron absorption — specifically, phytic acid.
For many people, a diet high in grains may place them at risk for mineral deficiencies, such as calcium, iron, or zinc.
However, for people with hemochromatosis, this phytic acid can help to keep the body from overabsorbing iron from foods.
Eggs are a source of nonheme iron, so are they fine to eat on a hemochromatosis diet? Actually, the answer is yes — due to a phosphoprotein in the egg yolk called phosvitin.
Research has shown that phosvitin may inhibit the absorption of iron, among other minerals. In one animal study, researchers found that rats fed with a yolk protein had lower iron absorption than rats given soy or casein protein.
Tea and coffee
Both tea and coffee contain polyphenolic substances called tannins, also known as tannic acid. The tannins in tea and coffee inhibit iron absorption. This makes these two popular beverages a great addition to your diet if you have hemochromatosis.
Protein is an important part of a healthy diet. Many dietary sources of protein do contain iron. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to cut meat out of your diet completely.
Instead, plan your meals around protein sources that are lower in iron, such as turkey, chicken, tuna, and even deli meat.
Excess red meat
Red meat can be a healthy part of a well-rounded diet if eaten in moderation. The same may be said for those with hemochromatosis.
Red meat is a source of heme iron, meaning that the iron is more easily able to be absorbed by the body. If you continue to eat red meat, consider eating only two to three servings per week. You can pair it with foods that decrease the absorption of iron.
Although seafood itself doesn’t contain a dangerous amount of iron, there’s something in raw shellfish that might be more concerning.
Vibrio vulnificus is a type of bacteria present in coastal waters and can infect the shellfish in these areas. Older research has suggested that iron plays an integral role in the spread of V. vulnificus.
For people with high levels of iron, such as those with hemochromatosis, it’s important to avoid raw shellfish.
Foods rich in vitamins A and C
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is one of the most effective enhancers of iron absorption. Although vitamin C is a necessary part of a healthy diet, you may want to be aware of vitamin C-rich foods and eat them in moderation.
In addition, vitamin A has also been shown to increase the absorption of iron in human studies.
Note that many leafy green vegetables contain vitamin C, vitamin A, and iron. However, since nonheme iron present in vegetables isn’t as easily absorbed, the benefits seem to outweigh the risks.
Fortified foods have been fortified with nutrients. Many fortified foods contain high amounts of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron.
If you have hemochromatosis, eating iron-rich fortified foods may increase your blood iron levels. Check the iron content on nutrition labels before you eat these types of foods.
Alcohol consumption, especially chronic alcohol consumption, can damage the liver. Iron overload in hemochromatosis can also cause or worsen liver damage, so alcohol should only be consumed moderately.
If you have any type of liver condition due to hemochromatosis, you shouldn’t consume alcohol at all, as this could further damage your liver.
There aren’t many recommendations for additional supplements when you have hemochromatosis. This is because research is limited on dietary interventions for this condition. Still, you should avoid or be careful with the following supplements:
- Iron. As you can imagine, taking iron when you have hemochromatosis can place you at risk for extremely high levels of iron in the body.
- Vitamin C. Although vitamin C is a popular supplement for iron-deficiency anemia, it should be avoided in those with hemochromatosis. You can consume your daily recommended value of vitamin C through whole fruits and vegetables instead.
- Multivitamins. If you have hemochromatosis, you should take multivitamin or multimineral supplements with caution. They may contain high amounts of iron, vitamin C, and other nutrients that enhance iron absorption. Always check the label and consult with your doctor.
The following recipes are great examples of how you can still incorporate meat and other foods containing iron into your diet when you have hemochromatosis.
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1/2 cup green onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup zucchini, chopped
- 1 cup spinach
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 1/2 cups shredded cheese
- 1 deep dish pie crust, precooked
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C).
- In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the green onion, onion, and zucchini. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add the spinach. Cook for an additional 2 minutes. Remove the cooked vegetables from the skillet and set aside.
- In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, half of the cheese, and salt and pepper to taste.
- Pour the egg mixture into the pie crust. Top with the remainder of the shredded cheese.
- Bake for 40–45 minutes, or until the eggs are cooked throughout.
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 lb. ground turkey
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 (28-ounce) can red tomatoes, crushed
- 1 (16-ounce) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 2 tbsp. chili powder
- 1 tbsp. garlic, chopped
- 1/2 tsp. each cayenne, paprika, dried oregano, cumin, salt, and pepper
- In a large pot over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add the ground turkey and cook until browned. Add the chopped onion and cook until tender.
- Add the chicken broth, tomatoes, and kidney beans. Add remaining ingredients and stir thoroughly.
- Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
When you have hemochromatosis, dietary modifications can help to further reduce the amount of iron that you absorb from food.
If you’re concerned that you may be getting too much iron in your diet, reach out to your doctor. They can recommend a dietitian or nutritionist who can help you figure out the healthiest, most balanced diet for your condition.