Not all iron is created equally, and if you have an iron imbalance, you should carefully consider which iron is best for your health. Your body recognizes the difference between heme and nonheme iron sources and will absorb each type differently. These types are easy to identify in your daily diet. Heme iron comes from animals, and nonheme iron comes from plants. Here is everything else you need to know about the differences between heme and nonheme iron and how each can affect your health.
What Is Heme Iron?
Heme iron is the type of iron found in blood and meat. Present in animal foods like red meats, fish, and poultry, heme iron is a significant source of the absorbed iron in a typical western diet, though it only makes up about one-third of dietary iron. Heme iron gets its name from the heme protein attached to a lone iron atom. The “heme” in the blood protein hemoglobin refers to this protein-bound form of iron.
Health Benefits of Heme Iron
On average, the human body absorbs about 15% to 35% of heme iron consumed. While the exact mechanism of absorption is unclear, it is clear that the body absorbs heme iron more readily than nonheme iron. However, it’s important to note that heme iron introduces the problems associated with consuming animal products.
Health Risks of Heme Iron
While iron is an essential mineral, the rapid absorption of heme iron is not always a good thing. Keeping the right iron balance is critical. Too little iron puts you at risk for developing iron deficiency anemia; too much can increase oxidative stress. While these concerns can exist with nonheme iron, there are additional health concerns linked directly to heme iron, including the risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, several types of cancer, and gastrointestinal side effects.[