Iron 101: Heme Iron vs Non-Heme Iron

We talk a lot about heme iron and non-heme iron and I know that it can get a little confusing at times. With all the iron supplements and iron-rich foods out there, it can be hard to keep track of what’s what and why some are better than others. So, let’s break it down and quickly compare heme iron vs non-heme iron.


What’s the Difference?

Heme and non-heme refer to the form of iron you get in certain foods, and each type offers a different amount of available iron for absorption. Heme iron is found in animal tissue (when we eat meat, we are consuming the blood proteins and hemoglobin from the animal) and non-heme iron is found mostly in plants. By virtue of the types and amounts of food we typically eat, non-heme iron comprises the majority of our dietary iron (fruits, vegetables, beans, wheat, rice, etc.).

In general, heme iron is slightly more easily absorbed by the body (25% absorption) when compared to non-heme iron (16.8%). However, the majority of iron that your body requires on a daily basis will be absorbed primarily from non-heme iron (approximately 90%) and the remainder from heme iron (Dietary Reference Intakes 2001).

Some good sources of heme iron include:

  • Red meat in general, including liver
  • Poultry (particularly the dark meat, legs and thighs)
  • Turkey
  • Fish
  • Oysters and clams

Some good sources of non-heme iron include:

  • Eggs
  • Tofu
  • Beans and legumes
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Dark leafy greens, such as spinach and kale
  • Iron-fortified cereals

Read more about the Top 12 Iron-Rich Foods to Add to Your Diet →


How Can I Enhance Absorption?

To absorb as much iron as possible from iron-rich foods or iron supplements, here are a few tips:

  • Consume non-heme iron foods with a good source of vitamin C (orange juice, grapefruits, broccoli, tomatoes)
  • Eat non-heme iron foods with animal tissue
  • Avoid drinking tea, coffee, and cola with your non-heme foods
  • Avoid consuming large amounts of calcium or dairy close to your iron-rich meals or iron supplement (heme iron or non-heme iron)

Learn about more ways to enhance absorption by avoiding these “iron absorption inhibitors” here →

This article was last updated on 1.26.2015

Content and advice provided on The Iron Maiden is for information purposes only and should not serve as a substitute for a licensed health care provider, who is knowledgeable about an individual’s unique health care needs

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