Iron levels in the body must be managed appropriately for people with hemochromatosis. Choosing the right foods, drinks, and supplements may help ease symptoms.
Hemochromatosis is a condition that causes the body to absorb and store too much iron from food. This overabsorption leads to high iron levels in the blood that the body can’t get rid of.
Iron deposited into vital organs, such as the liver, heart, and pancreas, can cause long-term tissue and organ damage.
Specific lifestyle measures, including dietary changes, could help manage iron levels in the body.
Let’s look at the best diet for hemochromatosis, including foods to eat, supplements to avoid, and recipes to try.
In a broad sense, the best diet for hemochromatosis involves foods low in iron. Despite this general understanding from researchers and healthcare professionals, there are no established food and nutrition recommendations for managing hemochromatosis.
The amount of iron absorbed from the foods you eat depends on various circumstances. 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 your body more easily absorbs it.
- 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.
- Oxalic acid: Oxalic acid (oxalate) is a compound found in many plant-based foods, including beans, leafy green vegetables, certain nuts and seeds, and many fruits. Mixed evidence exists on if oxalic acid can limit iron absorption.
- Calcium: Various forms of calcium might
decreasethe bioavailability of both heme and nonheme iron.
- Phytate and polyphenols: Phytate, or phytic acid, is a compound found in grains and legumes that decreases iron absorption. Other compounds in plant foods, known as polyphenols, can also decrease iron absorption.
Eating iron-rich foods in moderation is only one element of the best diet for hemochromatosis. Other factors, such as the other nutrients in the foods you eat, might affect your iron absorption.
For people with this condition, choosing certain foods that are naturally low in iron or those that limit the body’s ability to absorb and use iron may be a helpful lifestyle measure to manage symptoms.
But, according to the
In fact, anywhere from only 2-35% of the iron from a diet of mixed foods with both heme and nonheme sources might actually be absorbed by the body. You may not need to make robust changes to your diet to eat less iron if you’re a person with this condition.
You can talk with a doctor and registered dietitian to see how you can eat a healthy, balanced diet if you have hemochromatosis.
Fruits and vegetables
Many of the recommendations for this condition will warn you to stay away from vegetables high in iron. This might not always be necessary.
Vegetables 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.
Grains and legumes
Grains and legumes contain substances that inhibit iron absorption — specifically, phytic acid.
For people with hemochromatosis, phytic acid
Cow’s milk and foods made with real cow’s milk, like cheese or yogurt, generally contain no iron and can be part of a balanced eating plan if you have hemochromatosis. Additionally, a protein in milk called casein has been found to limit the amount of iron absorbed from other foods.
Certain fish are lower in iron. These may include:
For example, a 3-ounce can of light tuna in water has only
Tea and coffee
Both tea and coffee contain polyphenolic substances called tannins, also known as tannic acid. The tannins in tea and coffee
Protein is an important part of a healthy diet. Many dietary sources of protein do contain iron. But 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:
- deli meats like ham
If you have this condition, there are plenty of food options available to form an eating plan that works best for you.
To properly manage iron levels in the body and lessen the chance of aggravating symptoms or complications from hemochromatosis, you might try avoiding or limiting certain foods and drinks.
Excess red meat
Red meat, including beef, is a good source of the type of iron that your body can use very easily. So, you may want to watch out for eating too much if you have hemochromatosis. Red meat can be a healthy part of a well-rounded diet if eaten in moderation.
Organ meat and game meats
You may want to limit organ meats, such as liver or kidney due to their high iron content. Game meats, such as
While foods like raw oysters, mussels, or clams by themselves are high in iron, experts believe there’s something in raw shellfish that might be more concerning. Vibrio vulnificus is a type of bacteria in coastal waters that can
For people with high levels of iron, such as those with this condition, consider avoiding raw shellfish. That’s because some
Foods rich in vitamins A and C
Vitamin C is one of the most effective ways to improve iron absorption. Although vitamin C is a necessary part of a healthy diet, you may want to avoid consuming vitamin C-rich foods in excess.
In addition, vitamin A has also been shown to increase the absorption of iron.
Many leafy green vegetables contain vitamin C, vitamin A, and iron. But, since nonheme iron in vegetables isn’t as easily absorbed, the benefits may outweigh the risks.
Fortified foods have nutrients added to them. Many fortified foods contain high amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as:
If you have hemochromatosis, eating iron-rich fortified foods in excess may increase your blood iron levels. Check the iron content on nutrition labels before eating these foods.
Alcohol consumption, especially chronic alcohol consumption, can damage the liver. Iron overload in hemochromatosis can also cause or worsen liver damage. Try to consume alcohol in moderation.
According to the
If you have existing liver disease and hemochromatosis, you might want to avoid alcohol, which 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 programs for this condition. Still, it may be best to be careful with the following supplements:
- Iron: According to the American Liver Foundation, people with this condition should not take iron supplements. As you can imagine, taking highly absorbable iron in the large amounts found in these supplements could place you at risk of having dangerous amounts of iron in the body.
- Vitamin C: Avoid vitamin C supplements if you have hemochromatosis, even though vitamin C is a popular supplement for iron-deficiency anemia. This is because the high concentration of vitamin C found in these supplements can be easily used by the body to improve iron absorption.
- Multivitamins: If you have hemochromatosis, you may want to speak with a doctor before taking multivitamins or supplements with multiple minerals. Multivitamins may contain high amounts of iron, vitamin C, and other nutrients that can enhance iron absorption. Always check the label and consult with a doctor.
Additional research is needed to better understand the relationship these foods, drinks, and supplements might play in worsening symptoms of hemochromatosis.
Iron from cast-iron pots, pans, or skillets could get into food during cooking. This may be problematic as it might increase the amount of dietary iron available to the body, even when the foods might naturally have little or no iron.
If you are a person with this condition, you may want to avoid cooking with pans made from cast iron.
Dietary recommendations for people with this disease are largely based on the knowledge of iron levels in foods. More research is needed to see how these diets might impact the health of people with this disease.
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.
These recipes could also fit into a vegetarian, Mediterranean, or flexitarian diet.
- 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.
- Whisk the eggs, milk, half of the cheese, and salt and pepper in a mixing bowl 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.
Significant changes to your diet may generally not be needed if you are a person with hemochromatosis, but it could help you manage the amount of iron your body absorbs.
If you’re concerned about getting too much iron in your diet, talk with a doctor or registered dietitian. They can help you figure out the healthiest, most balanced diet for your condition and ensure foods you enjoy are included.