Does Cooking in Cast Iron Help Iron Deficiency?

Cooking in an iron pot or pan may add some iron to your blood, but it is not a reliable way to treat or prevent iron deficiency.

cast iron cookware

Cast iron pans usually come pre-seasoned, but they require special care.

© Elena Veselova | Dreamstime

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, iron deficiency anemia affects from 4 to 5 million Americans. It is most common in children and women. Worldwide, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency. [1]

Iron is essential for health because it is needed to form proteins called hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin carries oxygen to your body in red blood cells and myoglobin carries and stores oxygen in your muscles. Iron deficiency causes symptoms like fatigue, weakness, lightheadedness, and confusion. [1]

In third-world countries, where iron deficiency is very common, there has been some interest in encouraging the use of iron cookware as a way to prevent or treat iron deficiency, since food sources, medical care, and supplements may be limited. However, research shows that although cooking in iron may increase iron in your blood, it is not a reliable substitute for diet or supplements. [2]

What the Research Says

According to a recent review of studies on iron-containing cookware for the reduction of iron deficiency anemia, published in the journal PLOS ONE, there is some evidence that using iron cookware may reduce iron deficiency anemia in children, but more research is needed regarding the safety and effectiveness. Researchers from the University of Arizona Medical School found that the effects of iron absorption from cookware depends on your age, the size of the pot, the type of food you cook, how long you cook, and even the age of the cookware. [2]

The researchers reviewed eight studies on increasing hemoglobin from iron cookware. Forty percent of these studies found some increase in hemoglobin. In six studies that looked at increased iron levels in blood from iron cookware, 50 percent found some significant increase. These increases were most common in children. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that iron benefits from iron cookware are not highly significant, require more research, and would probably be most effective if combined with food-based strategies. [2]

Research also shows that the amount of iron you can absorb depends on the type of food you cook. Acidic foods and moist foods may absorb more iron. For example, you would get more iron from cooking spaghetti sauce for a long time than you would frying meat for a short time. The Arizona researchers caution that there has not been enough research on safety. Too much iron can cause iron toxicity with symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, and bleeding. This may be a risk for young children if they eat a lot of food cooked in iron. [2,3]

Foods that Prevent Iron Deficiency

Eating a balanced diet is the best way to prevent iron deficiency. There are two types of iron, heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from animal foods like meat, poultry, and fish. These are the richest sources of iron and the easiest to absorb. Non-heme iron is found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy green vegetables. Adding vitamin C to non-heme foods increases iron absorption. Iron is often added (fortified) to cereals and breads. [1]

Highest iron animal and plant foods include:

  • Shellfish
  • Beef or chicken livers
  • Canned sardines or tuna
  • Dark chocolate
  • Beans
  • Dried fruit
  • Spinach
  • Lentils [1,4]

What’s the Best Treatment for Iron Deficiency?

If you suspect you have iron deficiency or your doctor diagnoses iron deficiency with a blood test, the best treatment is an iron supplement. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should let your doctor prescribe iron supplements. Iron deficiency is not something you should try to treat on your own. There are several types of iron supplements and the dose has to be adjusted for your age, medical condition, and iron level. Treatment should be combined with repeated blood tests. Too much iron can cause side effects and can be toxic to your liver. [4]

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

You could be at risk for iron deficiency if you lose too much blood for any reason, don’t get enough iron in your diet, are unable to absorb iron, or you use up too much iron. If you are a vegetarian you may not get enough iron. If you have a digestive disease, like celiac disease, you may not absorb enough, or if you are pregnant, you may use more than you take in. Let your doctor know if you have these signs or symptoms:

  • Fatigue, weakness
  • Lightheadedness, headache, dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Pale skin
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat or chest pain
  • Sore tongue
  • Brittle nails or loss of hair [1,4]

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SOURCES

  1. Harvard School of Public Health, Iron | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  2. PLOS ONE, Iron-containing cookware for the reduction of iron deficiency anemia among children and females of reproductive age in low- and middle-income countries: A systematic review – PubMed (nih.gov)
  3. Columbia.edu, Does cooking with cast iron pots and pans add iron to our food? | Go Ask Alice! (columbia.edu)
  4. Mayo Clinic, Iron deficiency anemia – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic

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Chris Iliades, MD

Chris Iliades has an MD degree and 15 years of experience as a freelance writer. Based in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, his byline has appeared regularly on many health and medicine … Read More

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