Heme Iron

There is a famous comic character called Popeye. He regularly loads up on spinach. It has a tonne of iron he says. Your body needs iron. Well, he is right, it does. Iron is a mineral required for our bodies to function. It is stored as haemoglobin. This acts as a carrier for oxygen to the rest of your body. There is a catch though. There are two types of iron. Heme and nonheme iron. Turns out there is a vital difference. The difference affects your ability to absorb and consume iron in your body.

Generally speaking, heme iron is found in animal products. It is plant based iron that is referred to as nonheme iron. Plants can contain trace heme iron, but broadly speaking, we don’t consume those plants. Nonheme iron is found in grains such as rice, wheat, oats, nuts fruits, vegetables. A lot of foods on your table come with fortified iron. The soil your food was grown in and the utensils that you cook in also contain nonheme iron. Heme iron is found in meat, especially liver, red meat, chicken and seafood. This contains the haemoglobin and myoglobin contained in the animal. This is easily absorbed by your body. It serves as the best source of iron in your body.

While too much iron can be a cause for worry, our ability to absorb nonheme iron is only about thirty percent. This means that if you live largely on a plant and fruit based diet, you may not be getting sufficient iron. Coffee, tea and dairy consumption further reduces the ability of your body to absorb iron. Excess calcium can also reduce absorption of iron.

So while Popeye has the right message for you w.r.t. iron, he really should have been loading up on meat, not spinach. The human body loves to live in the goldilocks zone where everything is just right. Not too much, not too little. Getting to that point of balance often is where the art lies.


Ritesh is a born again health enthusiast and holds a Certificate in Physiology from Harvard Medical School and a Certificate in Nutrition from Tufts University.

One thought on “Heme Iron

  • April 11, 2017 at 9:48 pm

    Spinach is full of iron, we can have spinach like salad or mix in yoghurt .

Comments are closed.