I’m a dietitian, and I myself was diagnosed with haemochromatosis in 2022. Since then, I have become an expert in diet and haemochromatosis.
Normally, a healthy person absorbs 1-2mg of iron per day, but people with haemochromatosis absorb much more. This excess iron can accumulate in the body and cause issues if not addressed. While diet alone cannot cure haemochromatosis, making certain dietary changes can be helpful.
In this article, I’ll discuss everything you need about diet and haemochromatosis.
If you would prefer to sit back and listen/watch this information you can check out the YouTube video below!
- 1 What is Haemochromatosis?
- 2 What Are The Symptoms Of Haemochromatosis?
- 3 What Are The Causes Of Haemochromatosis?
- 4 What Is The Treatment For Haemochromatosis?
- 5 The Role Of Diet In Haemochromatosis
- 6 Alcohol Intake with Haemochromatosis
- 7 Pregnancy & Haemochromatosis
- 8 Haemochromatosis & Supplements
- 9 Raw shellfish & Haemochromatosis
- 10 Fortified foods
What is Haemochromatosis?
Haemochromatosis is an inherited disorder that causes the body to absorb excess iron from the diet. It can lead to severe health problems when the excess iron accumulates in vital organs such as the liver, pancreas, joints, and heart. In Ireland, one in five people are carriers of the gene, while one in 83 are at risk of developing the condition. As someone with hemochromatosis, I would love to hear your experience with this condition in the comments below.
What Are The Symptoms Of Haemochromatosis?
Symptoms typically start between ages 30-40 and include tiredness, weakness, headaches, joint pain, and sometimes weight loss. Some may have no symptoms for a long time.
What Are The Causes Of Haemochromatosis?
Haemochromatosis is a condition caused by a defective gene that affects how your body absorbs iron from the food you eat. If both of your parents have the defective gene and you inherit one copy from each, you can develop hemochromatosis. However, inheriting only one copy of the defective gene will not cause hemochromatosis, though there is a possibility of passing the gene to your children. Even if you inherit two copies of the gene, it does not necessarily mean you will develop haemochromatosis. It can be confusing, so do speak to your GP about testing. It’s just a simple blood test, so there is no excuse.
What Is The Treatment For Haemochromatosis?
Hemochromatosis has no cure, but regular venesection or blood removal can reduce iron levels and the risk of damage. Several venesections may be required initially, but maintenance levels require only occasional procedures.
The Role Of Diet In Haemochromatosis
Haemochromatosis can’t be treated by diet alone. Blood removal or venesections are the primary treatment. Some dietary changes can help limit iron storage between treatments. However, venesection has a more significant impact than diet changes. Remember that dietary changes can’t prevent iron overload. However, there are very different things that we can look at:
- The amount of iron in your food
- How easy or difficult is it for your body to absorb that iron
- Adding in foods that reduce iron absorption
- Avoiding or limiting foods that increase iron absorption.
The amount of iron in the food
Iron is an essential nutrient, so you don’t need to eliminate all iron-rich foods if you have haemochromatosis. However, it’s best to limit your consumption of high-iron foods. A list of commonly consumed foods with high iron content can be found on the Irish Hemochromatosis Society’s website.
Iron in meat is easily absorbed, whereas iron in plant-based foods is tougher for the body to absorb. Haem iron is found in meat and is readily absorbed, while non-haem iron is found in plant-based foods and is harder for the body to absorb. People with haemochromatosis should eat more foods with non-haem iron.
Inhibitors are foods that reduce iron absorption. They work by binding to or competing with iron. Common inhibitors are:
- Phytates (found in nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and whole grains)
- Polyphenols (found in tea and coffee)
- Calcium-rich foods (like milk and yoghurt)
- Dietary fibre (found in whole-grain bread, bran-based cereals, fruits, and vegetables)
- Oxalates (found in green leafy veggies, almonds, beetroot, berries, soy foods, and rhubarb)
These increase the amount of iron your body absorbs. It is best to avoid eating these foods or nutrients when you are eating foods high in iron (haem and non-haem). This helps to reduce the amount of iron that you are absorbing.
Iron Enhancers include:
- Fructose (found mainly in fruit juices), which can increase absorption of iron – limit fruit juices to 150 ml per day and have them around 1 hour before or after meals.
- Alcohol: Limit alcohol.
- Vitamin C in fruits and vegetables: No need to avoid.
- Vitamin C supplements: Best to avoid. If you do need to take a vitamin C supplement, have them at least 1 hour before or after eating.
Alcohol Intake with Haemochromatosis
Alcohol is a concern for those with hemochromatosis as it’s an enhancer that increases iron absorption. Alcohol can damage liver and heart health, which are already affected by iron overload. It’s worth noting that alcohol is a source of iron. Cider, in particular, is very high in iron.
Pregnancy & Haemochromatosis
If you have hemochromatosis and become pregnant, inform your medical staff. Pregnancy changes how your body handles iron, so consult your doctor for individual advice. Avoid iron-rich foods and supplements, and check the labels on any prenatal supplements. Venesections may be paused during pregnancy. Women with hemochromatosis may become iron deficient during pregnancy, so follow your doctor’s or dietitian’s advice if you find yourself low in iron.
Haemochromatosis & Supplements
Don’t take iron supplements; if you are taking a multivitamin, check that it doesn’t contain iron; this can actually be quite difficult if you are a female, as most will have iron in them.
Raw shellfish & Haemochromatosis
People with haemochromatosis should avoid raw shellfish like oysters, mussels, and clams, as they may contain Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that thrive on iron and can be fatal. Cooking shellfish at high temperatures destroys these bacteria. Be careful handling raw shellfish, and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterwards.
We advise people to limit or avoid iron-fortified cereals where possible. If you must consume them, try to find ones that are not fortified.
Hi there! My name is Maria, and I am a Registered Dietitian practising in Ireland and Bermuda. I have extensive experience in helping clients improve their health through the power of good nutrition. I hope you enjoyed this article. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me. Additionally, if there are nutrition topics or recipes you would like me to make in future posts, please let me know. I would be more than happy to help.
To your health and vitality,
Your Registered Dietitian
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