Hemochromatosis causes the body to absorb too much iron from foods. By modifying their diet in specific ways, people with hemochromatosis can minimize the symptoms and reduce the risk of complications.
There are two types of hemochromatosis: primary and secondary. Primary hemochromatosis is genetic, while secondary hemochromatosis can result from health conditions, such as liver disease and anemia.
Most people absorb and lose about 1 milligram (mg) of iron per day. People with hemochromatosis can absorb up to 4 mg of iron each day.
An excessive buildup of iron in the organs can be toxic and cause damage. However, it is possible to maintain healthy iron levels through dietary changes.
In this article, we discuss the foods that a person with hemochromatosis might wish to eat or avoid.
The goal of treating hemochromatosis is to reduce the amount of iron in the body to normal levels.
As well as eating only foods that are low in iron, there are other factors to consider. For example, some dietary components affect how much iron the body absorbs.
- Iron type: Heme iron is easier for the body to absorb than nonheme iron. Plant-based foods contain only nonheme iron, whereas meat, poultry, fish, and seafood contain both heme and nonheme iron.
- Vitamin C: This vitamin enhances nonheme iron absorption.
- Calcium: This mineral can reduce iron absorption.
- Phytates, tannins, and polyphenols: These dietary components limit the absorption of nonheme iron.
In addition to dietary changes, doctors can treat hemochromatosis with medication and therapeutic phlebotomy, a treatment that removes blood from the body.
There are no formal dietary guidelines for people with hemochromatosis, but some foods that may be beneficial include:
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are an important part of any healthful diet. They are rich in vitamins and minerals that are vital for the body to function properly.
Some fruits and vegetables, including spinach, mushrooms, and olives, are high in nonheme iron. As nonheme iron is harder for the body to absorb, they are unlikely to affect iron levels significantly.
People with hemochromatosis have higher levels of oxidative stress that can be damaging. Eating foods that contain antioxidants can counteract the oxidation and protect the cells from damage.
Many fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, such as vitamin E and selenium.
Plants also contain phytochemicals or plant compounds that provide protective properties. Examples of phytochemicals include:
- lutein in dark leafy greens
- lycopene in tomatoes
- anthocyanins in beets and blueberries
Lean protein is an essential part of a healthful, balanced diet, but many sources of lean protein contain iron.
Although there is no need for people with hemochromatosis to avoid animal protein completely, it is best to choose animal proteins that contain lower amounts of iron, such as fish and chicken, over iron-rich animal proteins, such as red meat.
Grains, beans, nuts, and seeds
All grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts contain phytic acid, or phytate, which reduces iron absorption.
Eating foods high in phytates, such as beans, nuts, and whole grains, reduces the absorption of nonheme iron from plant foods. As a result, it may reduce total iron levels in the body.
Tea and coffee
Tea and coffee contain tannins, which are types of polyphenol plant compounds.
The tannins in tea and coffee may reduce iron absorption. Drinking these beverages is another way for people with hemochromatosis to manage their iron levels.
Calcium can inhibit the absorption of both nonheme and heme iron.
Examples of calcium-rich foods include:
- green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli
Research also suggests that eggs can help inhibit iron absorption.
Eggs contain a protein called phosvitin that binds to iron and prevents absorption.
Doctors generally advise people with hemochromatosis to avoid iron-fortified foods and supplements. Other foods to consider avoiding include:
Most red meats, including beef, lamb, and venison, are a rich source of heme iron. Chicken and pork contain lower amounts of heme.
As heme iron is easy for the body to absorb, people with hemochromatosis may wish to avoid most red meat.
Red meat also enhances nonheme iron absorption.
Pairing red meat with foods that reduce iron absorption might also help control iron levels.
Shellfish, such as mussels, oysters, and clams, sometimes contain Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. These bacteria can cause a serious infection called vibriosis.
People with hemochromatosis are more susceptible to vibriosis infection. Therefore, it is important to cook any shellfish thoroughly to kill the bacteria. People can also reduce their risk of infection by discarding any raw shellfish that have open shells and avoiding eating any shellfish that remain unopened after cooking.
Vitamin C increases the absorption of nonheme iron. Due to this, people with hemochromatosis should avoid vitamin C supplements.
The amount of vitamin C in fruits and vegetables is generally too low to have a significant effect on iron absorption. These foods also contain a variety of other nutrients that are important in a healthful diet.
However, eating foods or drinking beverages high in vitamin C alongside iron-rich foods may enhance iron absorption. For this reason, pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods may not be the best choice for those with hemochromatosis.
People should speak with a doctor to find out how much vitamin C they should be consuming each day.
Fortified and enriched foods contain added vitamins and minerals to improve nutrition. Many cereal products are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and iron.
People with hemochromatosis should avoid iron-fortified foods.
Digesting alcohol causes the body to produce substances that damage the liver.
A doctor may suggest to a person with hemochromatosis that they limit their alcohol intake.
Diet can affect iron absorption, but whether it has much of an effect on hemochromatosis is unclear. Dietary changes could be unnecessary in people with hemochromatosis.
According to the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, dietary changes have only a small effect on iron levels compared with standard treatments for hemochromatosis. Although dietary changes may help reduce iron levels in small amounts, they are not nearly as effective as medications or phlebotomy.
- iron supplements
- vitamin C supplements
- raw shellfish
- high alcohol use
Treatment for hemochromatosis usually involves:
Doctors remove excess iron by drawing about 1 pint of blood at a time. They will regularly order blood tests to check iron levels.
Chelation therapy removes iron using pills or injections. These treatments are necessary for people who are unable to undergo blood removal due to conditions such as anemia or heart problems.
Chelation therapies are less effective than phlebotomy in removing iron.
Hemochromatosis causes people to absorb too much iron from foods.
The goal of treating hemochromatosis is to remove excess iron from the blood through phlebotomy or chelation therapy. Avoiding vitamin C supplements, raw shellfish, and high alcohol use may also be helpful.
Eating foods that are lower in iron or reduce iron absorption may also help keep iron levels within normal limits. However, reducing dietary iron is not as effective as other hemochromatosis treatments.