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Why Some Iron-Rich Foods Are Less Effective Without Vitamin C, From A Neuroscientist

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October 28, 2020

Ever notice when you order an omelet for breakfast or brunch, the chef will garnish it with a single sliced orange? Well, turns out that orange is there for more than just presentation. It can actually boost the iron content of the entire meal.

About 2.8 million people visit the doctor each year with concerns about anemia1, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports. While symptoms of anemia are often confused with less-concerning issues like sleepiness, dizziness, cold hands and feet, etc.—iron deficiencies can be serious when left unmanaged. While introducing iron-rich foods to the diet is critical, pairing them with vitamin C may be equally important.

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The connection between iron and vitamin C.

It's a common misconception that vegetarians and vegans can't possibly get enough protein or iron into their diets. While meat-based iron is more naturally and readily absorbed by the body, pairing vitamin C with plant-based irons can make them just as effective2.

To break it down further, there are two types of irons: heme and non-heme. Heme iron describes the more traditional sources of iron that people imagine, such as red meat, chicken, or seafood. Non-heme iron describes egg yolks and plant-based sources, including beans, seeds, nuts, vegetables, and fortified grains. In order for non-heme iron to effectively absorb into the body, it's important to pair it with a source of vitamin C.

How much iron is needed each day?

The recommended daily value of iron3 for men between 18 and 50 years old is 8 mg, while the recommended daily value for women of the same age is 18 mg. This is why women tend to be more iron-deficient than men—they simply require more of it all around, and even more so when pregnant.

Aside from avoiding anemia, eating plenty of iron (or iron and vitamin C) helps the kidneys function properly, maintains healthy pregnancies, and plays an essential role in red blood cell functioning. More specifically, iron makes up about 70% of hemoglobin, a red blood cell that helps oxygen transfer throughout the body.

For meat-eaters, getting enough lean proteins and seafood in the diet is important. For plant-based eaters, getting enough beans, nuts, seeds, and grains in the diet—while also adding a vitamin C source—can help prevent these unwanted health issues related to iron deficiency.

Not everyone can get all of the iron they need from food, due to the fact that they might not be absorbing all that is consumed or they simply aren't eating the right combinations of heme and non-heme iron sources, along with vitamin C. If that is the case, a supplement might be recommended. 

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Nicole Avena, Ph.D.
Nicole Avena, Ph.D.

Nicole Avena, Ph.D., is a research neuroscientist, author and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She received a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology from Princeton University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at The Rockefeller University in New York City. She has published over 70 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters and a book, on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She also edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (2012), Hedonic Eating (2014) and the popular books Why Diets Fail (2014, Ten Speed Press), co-written with John R. Talbott, and What To Eat When You’re Pregnant (2015, Ten Speed Press).

Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association. She also maintains a blog, Food Junkie, with Psychology Today.