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Heme and Nonheme Iron 

There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that delivers oxygen to cells. Heme iron is found in animal foods that originally contained hemoglobin, such as red meats, fish, and poultry. Iron in plant foods such as lentils and beans is arranged in a chemical structure called nonheme iron.

  • Lean red meat (beef, venison, lamb) contains heme iron that is easily absorbed by the body.
  • Nonheme iron is found in vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains but is not as easily absorbed.

Often mild iron-deficiency anemia can be corrected with either a diet that includes eating red meat or modest iron supplementation, while abstaining from or including certain foods or substances from a meal. Many food products, beverages, vitamins and nutrients play a role in the bioavailability of iron and the body's ability to absorb it.

IRON Buddies

The following nutrients and foods can help you by delivering or increasing the absorption of non-heme iron, and foods containing these nutrients should be INCLUDED with your iron-rich meals:



IRON Bullies

The following foods and medications can interfere with or block the absorption of iron and should be AVOIDED with your iron-rich meals:


What does an Iron Rich Meal (IRM) look like?

By following the rules for at least ONE Iron Rich Meal (IRM) per day, you can significantly improve your iron stores. At this meal, try your best to embrace the "Iron Buddies" and avoid the "Iron Bullies." You don't have to completely cut out the "Iron Bullies" (dairy, coffee, tea) from your diet...just be sure not to have them two hours before and two hours after your IRM. Here are just a few examples to help you identify what kinds of IRM meals you want to be preparing at home or ordering while dining out.


Steak Dinner

Steak (heme iron), potatoes (no dairy/butter or sour cream) or fries, leafy green salad with a citrus vinaigrette (Vitamin C), glass of lemonade (Vitamin C) -- no dairy, coffee or tea


Lamb Gyro

Lamb gyro (heme iron), vegetables (Vitamin C), leafy green salad with a citrus vinaigrette (Vitamin C), fruit glass of juice (Vitamin C) -- no dairy, coffee or tea


Spinach Salad with Grilled Chicken & Fruit

Grilled chicken (heme iron), spinach (nonheme iron and many vitamins including Vitamin C), vegetables and fruits (Vitamin C), citrus vinaigrette (Vitamin C), glass of lemonade (Vitamin C) -- no dairy, coffee or tea


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Buy The Book

Guide to Anemia is an excellent resource for the Iron Deficiency Anemia patient. 

Written by Iron Disorders Institute co-founder and executive director Cheryl Garrison, this book is backed by world-renowned physicians who specialize in the field of iron deficiency and anemia. The book also boasts personal stories, genetics information, and much more. You will find that you refer to it again and again while navigating the management of Iron Deficiency Anemia.

Learn More