This post features gluten-free iron-rich foods, gluten-free iron-rich recipes, and sources of gluten-free iron-fortified foods. Iron out the gaps in your diet with this post because I’ve got you covered in all things gluten-free and iron!
Written by Crystal Ulbrich and Edited by Tayler Silfverduk
People who have celiac disease are sensitive to certain proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. These proteins are known as gluten.
When these grains are consumed by those with celiac disease, an immune response is triggered. This immune response damages the the small intestines. This damage results in the malabsorption of macronutrients and micronutrients.
To prevent this damage, those with celiac disease must follow a lifelong gluten-free diet. Meaning, they must avoid wheat, barley, and rye for the rest of their life. By avoiding these gluten grains they can allow the gut to heal.
But people with celiac aren’t the only people who need to stay gluten-free. So do people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or gluten intolerance).
But gluten intolerance and celiac are not the same. The key differences between celiac and gluten intolerance is that celiac is an autoimmune reaction, life long, and requires avoidance of gluten cross-contact.
Gluten intolerance on the other hand, can be temporary and doesn’t always require avoidance of cross-contact.
Iron is important for both celiac and gluten sensitivity. Iron helps with oxygen transport throughout the body. It is essential for overall life.
The damage of the gut caused by celiac disease lowers how much iron your body can take up. As a result, those with celiac are at risk for low iron status.
Not only that but those who gluten intolerant are also at high risk for low iron status. This is because many iron-fortified foods are not gluten-free. For example many breakfast cereals are fortified with iron but many are not gluten-free.
And low iron status is serious. Having low iron can cause a variety of problems.
Iron deficiency anemia is common in people with celiac. Symptoms of low iron include:
Many of these symptoms overlap with celiac disease which is why the proper follow-up celiac disease testing is important. As a refresher this includes a celiac blood test every 3-6 months after diagnosis until your results normalize, and a nutrient panel as needed until normalized.
If you’re experiencing any anemia with celiac disease, following both complete blood counts, nutrition labs and celiac labs can help you determine which is causing what symptom.
So for example, say you’re still tired on a gluten-free diet. If your celiac labs are normalizing but your iron is still pretty low, you could deduce your symptoms are related to iron deficiency. Versus if your celiac panel comes back high but your iron is normal, you can guess that your symptoms are related to gluten exposure.
Getting enough gluten-free iron-rich foods is important for celiac disease. This is because with celiac, the body struggles to absorb iron due to gut damage from gluten. In this way, gluten interferes with iron absorption as it damages the small intestines of those with celiac. Thus, impacting the intestine’s ability to absorb iron. This impaired absorption puts you at risk for iron deficiency anemia.
Not only that, but a gluten-free diet often lacks iron-fortified foods. This can increase risk of iron-deficiency anemia. Additionally, iron is essential for fertility with celiac disease. With low iron levels being linked to poor egg health and a diminished ability to ovulate in women.
But don’t worry, you can fix your iron status. Sticking to a gluten-free diet can help iron deficiency in celiac disease as it helps heal the small intestine. This in turn, will help the body better absorb nutrients like iron. Additionally, increasing iron intake with gluten-free iron-rich foods can help too.
When it comes to getting enough gluten-free iron-rich food sources, it’s important to understand how much iron people need in general. When looking at how much of a nutrient needs, we often refer to what is known as the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA).
RDAs were first developed in WWII to provide nutrition standards to support nutrient needs of healthy persons. In large part, it was developed to make sure we had a population that was nutritionally sound enough to serve in the army.
The RDA for men and postmenopausal women is 8mg/day and for premenopausal women it’s 18mg/day. The tolerable upper limit (the amount you can consume without relative toxicity), is 45mg/day.
To put this in perspective, to meet the iron RDA for women of 18mg/day, that’s about ~2 cups of fortified cereal (like rice chex) a day, or ~2lb of ground beef a day or around ~3 cups of black beans a day. What I want to make clear is: if properly balanced, a gluten-free diet can supply enough iron.
Gluten-free foods with iron in them include:
Gluten-free iron-rich foods also include gluten-free iron-fortified foods. Common iron-fortified foods include breads and cereals. Fortified foods typically have the highest amounts of iron, but second to them, are oysters.
Additionally, Pairing non-heme iron with vitamin c can increase absorption. Examples of these pairings include adding citrus to your 3 bean salad recipe. Or adding tomatoes to your spinach salad. You might even fluff your enriched rice with some lime juice.
Lastly, increase iron uptake by limiting coffee and tea at meals. Coffee and tea are high in caffeine which can lower iron absorption. Avoid this by drinking caffeinated beverages outside of meal-time.
Unfortunately, gluten-free iron fortified food options are limited. This is one area in the food system that gluten-free folk lack support. And it’s sad because fortified foods have a very important role in your diet.
Here’s a quick history lesson in fortified foods. Around the time of World War II, the nutrition status of Americans was questioned. As the draft started, many men were not deemed fit for service due to nutrient deficiencies. This led to the enrichment of wheat flour in the United States.
And so, the American government began fortifying wheat flour with iron, B vitamins, and folic acid to prevent deficiencies.
This however, did not translate into the fortification of gluten-free flours. Because gluten-free flours are not usually enriched like wheat flours are, those living gluten-free are at higher risk for low iron. Thus, it’s important you to pay attention to your celiac diet.
Meaning, you should be familiar with gluten-free high-iron food. Also be aware of how to fortify your own food. The easiest way to do this is with lucky iron fish.
High iron gluten-free cereals can be a great way to increase your iron intake. Here is a list of iron-fortified gluten-free cereals:
*Note that all of these cereals are listed as gluten-free but may not be suitable for celiac. Always consult your provider to ensure safety if you’re unsure.*
Now that we know what iron is, what it does in the body, why it’s a nutrient of concern for celiac, and what foods to find it in, let’s talk about gluten-free iron rich recipes!
Looking to increase your iron intake in the mornings? Be aware that calcium and coffee and impact iron absorption so try to eat iron-rich breakfast away from your morning cup of coffee or glass of milk. Below are some yummy iron-rich gluten-free recipes to make for breakfast:
Looking for iron-rich and gluten-free lunch or dinner ideas? Cooking a mixture of oysters, turkey, red meats, beans and other iron-rich foods is a good start! Below are some yummy options to try!
Want to increase your iron intake while on the go? Snacking on nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and even roasted beans can be a great way to add in iron while traveling. Check out these snack recipes that are full of gluten-free iron-rich foods!
And if you’re looking for some gluten-free snacks with iron to buy and travel with, here are a few options!
When talking about gluten-free iron-rich foods, I think it’s also important to note that sometimes you won’t be able to get enough iron from your diet. Whether or not you should consider an iron supplement is between you and your gluten-free specialized health care provider. However, should you both decide it’s necessary, let’s talk about gluten-free iron supplements.
First, know that the dietary supplement industry is largely unregulated and there are no gluten-free definitions for products like there are for foods. This means you’re going to want to look for certified gluten-free iron supplements or supplement brands who have statements on what they test their products to.
Below are 3 gluten-free iron supplements that I like (these are all amazon affiliate links):
Living gluten-free, whether for celiac or gluten intolerance, puts you are risk for low iron status. This fact is not meant to scare you but to build awareness.
Because if you know you’re are risk for low-iron, you can take steps to lower the risk. Steps like healing your gut if you have celiac. Or, being more mindful of gluten-free iron-rich food sources.
Above all, if you’re worried about your iron-status, get help.