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Everything You Need to Know About Heme Iron

11th Dec, 2020  |  Claire O'Brien  |  News

Heme iron is a form of iron that’s rarely talked about. You can only find heme iron in animal meat, poultry, seafood, and muscle tissue. But let’s rewind a little bit. 

There are two types of iron:

  • Heme iron – found in meats.
  • Non-heme iron – found in plant-based foods.

Your body absorbs heme iron quicker than non-heme iron. That’s why some vegans and vegetarians may struggle to get the right amount of iron on a daily basis.

In this article, we are going to discuss everything you need to know about heme iron, including…

  • The different types of iron.
  • The health risks of heme iron.
  • Foods that have heme iron.
  • Foods that have non-heme iron.
  • Supplementing with iron.

Let’s start with differentiating between the two types of Iron.

What are the Different Types of Iron?

Like we said, there are two types of iron – heme and non-heme iron. Most people think meats are the primary source of iron, but many plant-based foods also contain iron. 

The best source of heme iron is red meat because it has blood proteins and hemoglobin. The name “heme iron” comes from the heme protein that’s attached to a lone iron atom. 

The primary source of non-heme iron is plant-based food. The majority of the iron we consume is non-heme iron. Foods like rice, oats, wheat, nuts, fruits, beans all have high amounts of non-heme iron.

Your body absorbs heme iron at a higher rate compared to non-heme iron. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, you should keep in mind that your body only absorbs 2-20% of non-heme iron. Heme iron from animal-based sources has a 15-35% absorption rate.

That means vegetarians and vegans have to consume twice as much iron in their diet as meat-eaters, to absorb the same amount of iron. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t good sources of non-heme iron. 

Foods like beans and leafy greens are one of the best vegetarian/vegan sources of iron. Whole-grain foods like cereals have plenty of iron in them, which makes them another attractive option for vegetarians.

Certain foods can reduce non-heme iron absorption. Dairy products, eggs, fiber, as well as tea and coffee, can all interfere with the way you absorb non-heme iron. 

The good news is that you can improve your absorption of non-heme iron from food by taking vitamin C.  

The most common form of supplementary iron is non-heme iron, if you are unsure when to take iron, you can check out our post on the best time to take iron.


What are the Health Risks of Heme Iron?

While iron is an essential mineral for your body, massively increasing your absorption of heme iron can cause a few problems. Too much iron can lead to problems like inflammation and even DNA damage because of the production of a dangerous free radical that’s called hydroxyl

It’s all about striking the right balance. If you don’t have enough iron in your system, you’re risking not giving your body the resources it needs to function properly. 

Your body can naturally regulate the iron you absorb from plant-based foods which prevents iron overload. Heme iron from animal-based foods is more easily absorbed, but your body does not regulate it very well.

Which Foods Have Heme Iron?

All heme iron comes from animal-based sources. Red meat and organ meats, in particular, have high amounts of heme iron. Also, foods like clams, oysters, mussels, venison and lamb chops all have a healthy amount of heme iron (between 2-23 mg). Red meat is not only an excellent source of heme iron, it is also a source of high-quality protein as well.

If you want to increase your intake of iron and specifically heme iron, you should aim to include more animal-based foods in your diet. 


Which Foods Contain Non-Heme Iron? 

For vegetarians and vegans, there are plenty of good options to get enough iron from plant-based sources. 

Here are some of the best sources of non-heme iron:

  • Legumes 

Foods like tofu, tempeh and soybeans are packed with high-quality iron. They are rich in fibre as well as protein, so they can definitely support your healthy lifestyle. Other great sources of non-heme iron are lentils and beans.

  • Nuts

Nuts and seeds are not only packed with iron but with high-quality protein and fats as well. They can help you increase your iron and omega-3 fatty acids intake.

  • Veggies

Vegetables including leafy greens, potatoes, tomatoes and mushrooms are all non-heme iron-rich foods. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach contain oxalates which can make the iron in these foods difficult to absorb. Eating non heme iron rich foods with heme iron rich foods such as meat can also help increase absorption.

  • Fruits

Most people aren’t aware that fruits have high amounts of iron. Foods like prunes, olives and mulberries are all great sources of iron. They are also rich in fiber and other vitamins which means that adding them to your diet will help your healthy lifestyle.

  • Whole Grains

Whole grains are incredibly beneficial as long as they aren’t processed. When they are processed, they lose fibre, antioxidants and minerals like iron. That’s why whole grains typically have more iron than processed grains.

  • Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is high in fat and it’s also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals like magnesium, copper, manganese and iron.

  • Dark Chocolate

One of the most delicious foods containing non-heme iron is dark chocolate. It’s full of nutrients like magnesium, copper and iron. Also, dark chocolate has a lot of fiber which will keep you full.

What About Iron Supplements?

Now that you know all about heme and non-heme iron, it’s time to discuss iron supplements. In an ideal world, you should get most of your iron intake from your diet. However, some people may be unable to do this or may decide that they need to compliment their dietary intake of iron. That’s where iron supplements come in.

They provide an easy and convenient way for people to increase their iron intake. But there is a problem with some iron supplements – they are hard to absorb.

To get the most out of most iron supplements, you need to take them along with a meal or vitamin C to better your absorption. However, it’s still not guaranteed that you won’t upset your stomach, especially if you have a sensitive one. 

This is where Active Iron comes in. It’s a ground breaking iron supplement that works in tune with your body, so you can easily absorb iron. With Active Iron, you won’t need to take vitamin C or eat a small meal just to increase your absorption of iron. You can take Active Iron on an empty stomach, with a glass of water or juice. Active Iron is absorbed quickly and easy on your stomach.


To summarize, you can find heme iron in animal-based foods like red meat, chicken and fish. 

Plant-based foods, on the other hand, contain non-heme iron (which is harder to absorb).

Your body has systems in place to regulate your non-heme iron intake, but it doesn’t regulate the intake of heme iron as easily. It’s all about getting the right balance between eating animal and plant-based foods. 

Excellent sources of non-heme iron are foods like nuts, whole grains, leafy greens and dark chocolate.

Another great way to ensure you get a healthy amount of iron is by taking iron supplements. 

They come with their own problem, however. Many are hard to absorb and can cause stomach upset, nausea, and reflux. One way to combat this problem is taking vitamin C along with your iron supplement.

However, Active Iron doesn’t have this issue. Active Iron works synergistically with your body to ensure you get the right amount of iron while being gentle on your stomach. 

If you want to learn more about iron, feel free to explore the following articles: 

Foods High in Iron

How to Take Iron Supplements for Best Absorption

Iron for Vegetarians: Plant Based Iron Sources to Maintain Iron Intake

When is the Best Time to Take Iron?

Best Time to Take Vitamins


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