What is hemochromatosis?
Hereditary hemochromatosis, which you'll also see written as haemochromatosis, affects men and women of northern European descent. In fact, according to the Irish Haemochromatosis Society, it's especially prevalent among Irish and other Celtic people. A gene mutation causes sufferers to store excess iron throughout their lifetimes. For instance, an unaffected man or woman might have four grams of iron in his or her body, while someone with hemochromatosis might have 15 to 60 grams when he or she is diagnosed, says the CHS.
For those with this condition, too much iron can cause liver and heart damage. Symptoms include arthritis of the knuckle and first finger joint, a change in skin colour, chronic fatigue, and joint and abdominal pain. Unfortunately, these symptoms are also indicative of other conditions and are sometimes overlooked. But an easy blood test ordered by your physician can help detect hemochromatosis. Treatment usually includes having blood withdrawn regularly, similar to the process of blood donation.
You might be wondering, is it possible to have too much iron in your diet if you don't have hemochromatosis? An overabundance of iron rarely happens from dietary intake alone, says Health Canada, though it can occur if you're taking too many iron supplements. Check with your health-care practitioner to be sure.
How much iron should you be getting?
Provided you don't suffer from hemochromatosis, men and postmenopausal women need eight milligrams a day, and premenopausal women need 18 milligrams a day. If you have heochromatosis, however, you store an extra gram of iron per year permanently, which means that the condition is usually only detected at midlife or later after decades of accumulation.
Page 1 of 2 - find out what not to eat when you suffer from hemochromatosisWhat not to eat and drink
"This is a hereditary condition which requires some modifications to your diet," says Kim Arrey, a registered dietitian in Montreal. "It's very important to limit the amount of dietary iron that you consume. It's also important to encourage your body to absorb less iron," she says.
• Iron found in animal foods is most easily absorbed by your body and is therefore one place to restrict your intake. "A good rule of thumb is that the darker the meat, poultry, fish or seafood, the more iron they are likely to contain," Arrey says. "Try to stick to pork, chicken or turkey breast, and white fish."
• Avoid all organ meats, oysters, clams and mussels, as they are particularly high in iron.
• You also want to avoid alcohol. It can increase your iron absorption, not to mention put unneeded stress on your liver. Some wines, sherries and ports can be high in iron, Arrey adds.
• Be aware of your vitamin C intake. This essential vitamin increases iron absorption, so you want to make sure you’re getting enough, but not too much. "Some of my clients did not realize that drinking fruit juice that has been enriched with vitamin C or that naturally contains large amounts of vitamin C with their supper, which consisted of some steak, potatoes and vegetables, would increase the absorption of iron from the meat," says Arrey. "A better choice of beverage would be tea, coffee or even milk."
• Watch out for hidden iron. Cereals, pastas, breads and other grain products can be fortified with iron, so look out for it on the labels. "Make sure you check the ingredient list as well as the nutrition facts panel when you are choosing breakfast cereals in particular. They may have had iron added in the processing," Arrey says.
• Don't eat raw fish or seafood. Seafood contains the iron-loving bacteria vibrio vulnificus, which can be particularly dangerous for people with hemochromatosis. "That includes avoiding sushi, as well as ceviche," Arrey adds.
What you can eat
• Coffee and tea hinder iron absorption. "Tea actually does a better job at this, as well as containing a host of antioxidants," says Arrey.
• Dried beans, peas, lentils and soy products contain less iron than their meat and dairy counterparts. "Have a meatless meal on a daily basis or look for recipes that combine a little bit of meat along with some beans," Arrey suggests. This will help you to reduce the amount of meat that you eat, while still meeting your need for protein. "Even though they may contain iron, our body is less able to absorb iron from plant foods, so they will have less effect on your health," she says.
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