How to Prevent Iron Deficiency on a Gluten-Free Diet

Nutrition Tips for Those at the Highest Risk for Iron Deficiency

Steak and broccoli
Steak and broccoli are both rich in iron. Claudia Totir / Getty Images

Children and adults with Celiac disease are at risk for iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia (IDA), a particularly severe form of iron deficiency. Iron from food is absorbed mainly in the upper intestines, the same part of the intestines damaged by gluten.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world and children, and women of child-bearing age are at highest risk of iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency anemia occurs when the body doesn't have enough iron to make healthy red blood cells.

Iron is a part of "hemoglobin," a protein which carries oxygen in the blood. It's necessary to transport oxygen to cells, for energy metabolism, normal human growth, reproduction and immune system health.

Children and adults who are iron deficient suffer from fatigue, the risk for chronic infections, weakness, get chilled easily, have a tendency to be pale and have difficulty concentrating which can lead to learning disabilities.

In the United States and Europe, wheat flour is fortified (enriched) with iron to make up for the loss of iron when wheat is refined to flour. But very few gluten-free flours and starches are fortified with iron.

Absorption of Iron

There are two forms of iron in foods - "heme" iron is found in animal sources and "non-heme" iron is found in plant sources. Heme iron is better absorbed than non-heme iron, and the absorption of both forms is enhanced by foods high in vitamin C.

Foods high in vitamin C include green and red peppers, citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, winter squash, leafy greens and parsley, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, papaya, mango, watermelon, and pineapples.

Good Food Sources of Iron:

  • Meats - beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats
  • Poultry - chicken, duck, turkey, liver (especially dark meat)
  • Fish - shellfish, including clams, mussels, and oysters, sardines, anchovies
  • Leafy greens of the cabbage family, such as broccoli, kale, turnip greens, and collards
  • Legumes - lima beans, green peas, dry beans and peas including pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and canned baked beans
  • Yeast-leavened gluten-free whole grain bread and rolls

Source: University of Maryland Medical Center - Blood Diseases

Iron Content of Gluten-Free Grains and Pseudo Grains:

1 cup of raw grain

  • Amaranth 15 mg
  • Teff 14.7 mg
  • Sorghum 8.4 mg
  • Quinoa 7.7 mg
  • GF Oats 7.4 mg
  • Millet 6 mg
  • Buckwheat 3.7 mg
  • Brown Rice 2.7
  • White Rice 1.5 mg

Source: USDA-ARS Nutrient Data Laboratory

Dietary Reference Intakes / Recommended Dietary Allowance for Iron (RDA)

  • Infants 7 - 12 months..........11 mg
  • Children 1 - 3 years..........7 mg
  • Children 4 - 8 years..........10 mg
  • Children 9 - 13 years..........8 mg
  • Adolescents 14 - 18..........Males 11 mg / Females 15 mg
  • Adults 19 - 50..........Males 8 mg / Females 18 mg
  • Adults 51+..........Males 8 mg / Females 8 mg
  • Pregnant women all ages..........27 mg
  • Breastfeeding women 18 and younger..........10 mg
  • Breastfeeding women 19 and older..........9 mg

Source: USDA / IOM Dietary Guidance DRI Tables