Know the Difference Between Heme and Non-Heme Iron

by William Munir, guest contributor

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Iron is the primary source of oxygen to body cells for any animals (Ed. note: Per Daily Health Post, vitamin C, copper, calcium, and organic sulfur also improve cellular uptake of oxygen). The iron disorder is a serious health issue which may develop due to an overload of iron in the bloodstream or its deficiency. Such disorder leads to anemia, hemochromatosis and many life-threatening diseases. Besides that, it also hampers a healthy living in daily life.

Hence, balanced iron consumption is essential to run our bodily functions properly. This happens when iron is consumed through food and our body is able to use its own iron-balancing system to place it properly throughout all our cells.

We mainly consume two types of iron – heme and non-heme iron. There are some fundamental differences between these two types of iron, the way we consume them, their sources, functionalities, advantages, and disadvantages, etc.

Let’s get an overview of the differences between these two major types of iron.

Foods which contain heme and non-heme iron

Heme iron is named after its composition of heme protein attached to every single iron atom. The primary oxygen carrier of blood hemoglobin contains this heme. Hence, heme iron primarily locates in our blood and muscle. It is derived from hemoglobin and myoglobin and sourced from animal protein.

On the other hand, non-heme protein is primarily derived from the plants and plant-based foods. Here is a list of sources of both types of iron.

Heme iron source

Non-heme iron source

Red meats like grass-fed beef, chicken,
turkey, and lamb as well as sardines, oysters, tuna, and antioxidant-rich plant foods

Spinach, rice and pea proteins, beans,
fruits, nuts, seeds, lentils, soybeans (including tofu), leafy vegetables,
beets, dairy, eggs, collard and mustard greens, oats, fortified foods, meat, wheat,
supplements, iron pills, and cooking utensils


How do heme and non-heme iron get absorbed into our body?

Our body’s absorption patterns for heme and non-heme iron are different. Heme iron which is mainly animal-based protein comes in bio-available format. Hence it gets absorbed easily. As a result, it works wonders for people who are iron-deficient and the best source of iron for anyone. This is, indeed, the primary source of dietary iron for people.

On the other hand, because non-heme food sources such as green vegetables or rice or wheat are not attached to heme protein, it takes a longer time for them to be absorbed into our system.

However, too much of anything is not good. Similarly, too much heme iron absorption may cause iron overloading in our body which may turn to diseases like hemochromatosis and affect normal metabolism.

Foods that may affect heme and non-heme iron absorption

There are some foods which inhibit the absorption of these two types of iron. To absorb more iron, take the suggested list below into consideration when consuming non-heme foods.

• Animal protein
• Copper
• Vitamin C

• vegetable protein
• phytic acid
• oxalic acid
• zinc
• calcium
• eggs
• tea
• coffee

Calcium also reduces the heme iron absorption. However, if someone is facing health issues due to iron overloading, they can include the foods mentioned above to lower their iron level.

Benefits and disadvantages of heme and non-heme iron

Health Benefits of Heme Iron
• Prevents anemia
• Helps to boost immunity

Disadvantages – Too much absorption of heme iron enhances the chance of:
• Stroke
• Coronary heart disease
• Oxidative stress
• Hemochromatosis
• Affects metabolism
• Gastrointestinal malfunction
• Cancer

Health Benefits of Non-heme Iron
• As it is mostly found in the plants, non-heme iron is healthier than animal flesh
• Less toxic
• Helps to keep iron levels in balance
• Less absorption rate prevents iron overloading
• Plant-based foods always provide better nutrients like antioxidants and are good for overall health

Disadvantages of Non-heme Iron
• It is absorbed slowly. Hence, if someone in need of more iron, it may not be suitable for them.

Bottom line:

A human body needs both heme and non-heme iron in a balanced way. However, despite its low absorption rate and low bioavailability, non-heme iron is considered safe and better than heme iron. As plant-based foods contain vitamin C in most of the cases, it helps in efficient iron absorption rather than faster absorption. In addition to that, consuming non-heme iron foods maintains lower calorie ratio which is also essential to support a healthy life.


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