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Topic summary contributed by volunteer(s): Ivy

Heme iron is a form of iron found only in blood and muscle tissue. Although heme iron from meat is more readily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron, people who do not eat animal foods get adequate iron from plant-based sources like whole grains, legumes, beans, dried fruits, nuts, seeds and dark green leafy vegetables. Iron supplementation is not recommended unless medical tests reveal a serious iron deficiency (anemia).

Why is Heme Iron a Concern?

The human body naturally regulates iron absorption from plant-based sources, thus preventing iron overload. Heme iron from animal foods, however, is readily absorbed and not well regulated by the body. Once ingested and absorbed, the body has no mechanism to remove excess iron.

Although adequate dietary iron is required for essential functioning of the body, iron is also a pro-oxidant, and too much of it can induce oxidative stress (inflammation) and DNA damage due to the iron-associated production of a dangerous free radical called hydroxyl (-OH ).  Specifically, heme iron has been linked to metabolic syndrome, coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, stroke, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis,  cancer and other serious medical conditions.

How to Reduce the Risk Associated With Heme Iron

A whole food plant-based diet may naturally control iron in the body.  Phytates found in plants are a powerful natural inhibitor of the iron-associated production of hydroxyl free radicals.  Dietary phytates found in plant foods (particularly beans, legumes and whole grains) appear to inactivate iron in a process called iron chelation.

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