Opposites Attract – A Love Story
As mentioned in a previous article, my wife and I have both undergone weight loss surgery. Along the way, we have encountered a few struggles, but, just as in our dieting lives prior to surgery, our post surgery trials are different.
Once a person has had bariatric weight loss surgery, getting labs done and eagerly awaiting the results will have become an ever more important part of their life. A lot of vitamins and minerals are prescribed at the time of surgery. We need to check, on a regular basis, how our bodies are absorbing these nutrients as well as those consumed in foods.
We were both told by our respective doctors to take Vitamin C with Iron at bedtime. No other bedtime supplements.
So that begs the question:
Does Vitamin C help with Iron Absorption?
Two weeks ago, my wife and I had appointments for a full checkup. Her lab results came back first, appearing to be normal, but the doctor called and explained that her Iron levels were low. My labs came back three days later, also appearing to be normal, but the doctor called to explain that my Iron levels are high.
Now, we have some theories that we have to address regarding why I would have higher Iron levels than she does, but there really isn’t an explanation for either of our Iron levels being out of the acceptable range.
It is actually this most recent event that made me decide to start a blog about this because I thought I was doing everything right, and I was wrong. I want to share my thoughts on what I’ve learned while trying to find out about what affects Iron absorption.
Today, I am addressing the relationship between Iron and Vitamin C.
It turns out that I have a gene that causes my body to absorb as much as four times the Iron that it should. This condition is called hemochromatosis. I don’t know a lot about this condition, but it is something I will learn a lot about and write about it later.
We Consume Two Types of Iron – Where Do They Come From?
When considering whether you should increase your Vitamin C intake to boost your Iron absorption, it’s important to know that there are two types of Iron and that, while Vitamin C is a vital nutrient, not all Iron absorption is improved by Vitamin C intake.
- Heme Iron: This type of Iron has a real simple explanation; it comes animal meats like beef, chicken, pork, poultry and fish. This type Iron also comes from animal products such as yogurt, eggs and milk.
- Non-heme Iron: This is any Iron that does not come from animals. This type Iron comes from fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and even from animal meats and products*.
*While some non-heme Iron can be derived from animals, heme Iron cannot be derived from non-animal sources. The Iron levels in animal-based food can be around 50% non-heme Iron.
Vitamin C – Where Does it Come From?
Ascorbic acid and Vitamin C are the same thing. Medical studies use the term “ascorbic acid.” I choose to use the term “Vitamin C.”
Simply put, you can get Vitamin C in pill form just about anywhere, but there are many, many other sources for Vitamin C. This availability makes it hard for most modern day humans to have a Vitamin C deficiency.
Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines…all citrus are great sources of Vitamin C, but there are many other fruits and vegetables that provide more. One medium-sized orange delivers about 75% of all the Vitamin C that a person needs in a day, but a cup of strawberries offers almost 100%!
When we think about getting Vitamin C, we don’t think about red peppers, green peppers, brussels sprouts, asparagus or kale, but the truth is that all of these foods offer more vitamin c per serving than an orange, and there are lots more, but hey, I love orange juice, so I’ll just get my Vitamin C from orange juice!
You Need to Know This!
The short answer to your question is “Yes.” Vitamin C does help with Iron absorption. That answer certainly is short, but it leaves out a lot of information about the relationship between Iron absorption and Vitamin C. Now that I’ve provided just enough knowledge to tell you the rest, here goes!
Vitamin C does a GREAT job of boosting non-heme Iron absorption (from plant-based sources) but it does nothing to affect heme Iron absorption (from animal sources). That’s right, nothing.
So, if you are the person getting all of your protein from meat products, you really don’t have to worry about consuming extra Vitamin C with your meal. That’s great news because, if you love beef, you probably aren’t loving kale, right?
Alright, so maybe that’s just me.
If you are, however, a vegetarian or you just don’t eat a lot of meat and are getting most of your Iron from non-animal sources (which includes Iron supplements) you NEED to consume Vitamin C at the same time in order to take advantage of the enhanced absorption that Vitamin C offers.
It is estimated that more than 90% if our Iron intake comes from non-heme Iron sources and as long as we’re talking about percentages, this is a great time to mention that our bodies only absorb about 10 of the amount of non-heme Iron sources than it would from heme iron sources. (I realize that’s a difficult sentence to read, but it will make sense in a moment)
Now, let’s do the math on that!
Our bodies absorb 10-15 percent of heme Iron but only 10 percent of non-heme Iron. My little calculator tells me that we are absorbing only 1-1.5% of the Iron we eat from 90 percent of our food. That’s where the Vitamin C comes in, folks!
How Much Iron and Vitamin C Do You Need?
OK, so let’s talk very briefly about Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) because there is a lot of confusion here which can lead to consuming too much Iron. Too much Iron is a bad thing and it’s not hard to do. If you’ll recall, it was my high Iron level that caused me to start researching Iron and how to control it.
The RDA is how much of a nutrient that is recommended for a human to EAT, not ABSORB. We absorb between 10 and 15 percent of heme Iron that we consume.
We don’t absorb all the nutrients that we consume and the RDA chart accounts for average absorption rates for all nutrients.
- If you are an adult male, the RDA of iron is 8mg*
- If you are a pre-menopausal adult female, the RDA of iron is 18mg* (If pregnant, 27mg)
- If you are a postmenopausal woman, the RDA of iron is 8mg*
Vegetarians Take Note: Vegetarians need to consume about 1.8 times the amount of Iron that your non-vegetarian counterpart does.
As for Vitamin C, adding 25-50mg to a meal will enhance absorption of non-heme Iron. It will also provide all of the vitamin C that you need in a day (65-90mg)
Conclusion – Eating Through the Statistics
Vitamin C is proven to enhance absorption of non-heme Iron. In some foods non-heme Iron is absorbed 4 times as much when accompanied by Vitamin C, but Vitamin C does nothing to enhance the absorption of heme Iron.
In order to absorb more Iron from the 90 percent of the non-heme iron that we eat, one should include foods in their meal that provide sufficient amounts of Vitamin C as this effect only takes place when Vitamin C is consumed at the same time as the Iron.
There are foods, such as teas, wines and cheese that can also slow the absorption of Iron. It is suggested that increasing Vitamin C intake with these foods can help to counteract their effect on Iron absorption.
This article was meant to provide a rudimentary knowledge base on the subject of Vitamin C and its effect on Iron absorption. In many cases, knowledge like this is enough for a person to tweak their diet just a little bit in order to solve a problem. Sometimes, however, medical advice or treatment is needed.
This was not medical advice. Here’s how to get some:
If you believe that you have unexplainable Iron issues, contact your doctor.
I did contact my doctor and learned that I have a hereditary disease of which I am a carrier. I learned that there is a 100% chance that I passed it down to my children, just as it was passed on to me and as it will be passed down to my
grandchildren. I’ve not known about this condition for 52 years. The sooner someone knows about it, the less damage the untreated condition will cause.
ALWAYS contact your doctor if something isn’t working right in your body! With changes from bariatric surgery, we need to become downright vigilant about the way our body works.
If you have any questions, or even suggestions of things I might ad to this article, please write and I will get back to you.