Iron is essential for us humans, i.e. indispensable and must be supplied with food or with nutritional supplements. It is often emphasized that iron is best taken together with vitamin C. But is that really true?
Yes, says registered dietitian Devon Peart. In a recent article by the renowned Cleveland Clinic (USA), the expert explains why iron is best taken with vitamin C and how you can get enough of the mineral.
Iron is extremely important for us. It plays a number of crucial roles, such as transporting oxygen in the blood, providing energy and improving brain function.
However, if your body can’t absorb enough iron from the iron-rich foods you eat, adding vitamin C to your meal can actually help you absorb iron better.
Vitamin C supports iron absorption
Many foods contain iron. However, there are two types of iron: Heme iron, which is found in animal foods such as meat, seafood and poultry, is easier for your body to absorb.
It is more difficult for the body to absorb non-heme iron, which is found in plant foods. But vitamin C can help here.
“Eating foods high in vitamin C along with iron-rich plant foods increases iron bioavailability,” explains Peart. “That means you absorb more of it.”
If you eat a food rich in iron, be sure to combine it with a food rich in vitamin C.
Foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, cruciferous vegetables, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes and potatoes.
Risk of iron deficiency
People who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet are at risk of iron deficiency. “If you don’t eat foods of animal origin, it can be particularly difficult to get enough iron,” warns Peart.
It’s all about heme iron versus non-heme iron. Heme iron is the easiest for your body to absorb, but it is only found in animal products – and if you don’t eat animal products, you obviously don’t have access to this easily absorbed heme iron.
If you’re on a vegan or vegetarian diet, or simply don’t eat much meat, you’ll need to rely primarily or exclusively on nonheme iron, which is found in foods like tofu, tempeh, beans, peas, chickpeas, dark leafy greens, and lentils.
Not getting enough iron can lead to iron deficiency anemia, a blood disorder that can cause fatigue, lightheadedness, and other symptoms.
Can vitamin C help with anemia?
“If you’re not getting enough iron, your doctor may recommend a diet change or iron supplementation,” says Peart. It is usually recommended to take an iron supplement with a glass of orange juice as it is rich in vitamin C.
But at least one recent study suggests that the combination of vitamin C and iron may not help as much in people with anemia as previously thought.
The scientific study of nearly 500 people with iron deficiency anemia found that taking iron supplements alone was just as helpful as taking iron supplements with vitamin C.
If you suspect that you are not getting enough iron from your diet – for example, if you don’t eat meat and feel very lethargic – seek medical help.
“Iron supplements can cause indigestion or constipation. Therefore, seek the advice of a doctor before starting to take any dietary supplement,” advises Peart.
This is how you get enough iron
Most people need 8 to 18 milligrams (mg) of iron daily. However, Peart explains that it’s not always that easy because much of the iron we consume isn’t absorbed.
It is always better to get vitamins and nutrients from food than from supplements. If you eat a plant-based food rich in iron, be sure to pair it with something high in vitamin C to help your body absorb it.
“For example, if you eat spinach, try sprinkling some lemon juice on top or adding vitamin C-rich strawberries, orange wedges or red peppers,” suggests Peart. “All of this will help increase iron absorption from the spinach.” (ad)