Iron-rich Food for Cancer Patients

Iron is an important trace mineral in our body. Iron represents approximately 35 mg/kg of body weight in adult women and 45 mg/kg of body weight in men.

Iron in the body exist in four major classes:

  1. Iron-containing heme proteins (i.e. haemoglobin and myoglobin)
  • Important for oxygen transport and storage
  1. Iron-sulphur enzymes (i.e. heme-flavoproteins)
  • Involved primarily in energy metabolism
  1. Iron storage and transport proteins (i.e. transferrin and ferritin)
  • Involved in iron uptake, transport and storage in the body
  1. Other iron-containing or -activated enzymes (i.e. sulphur, non-heme enzymes)


Iron also involved in some cellular processes such as:

  • Synthesis of DNA, RNA and proteins
  • Electron transport
  • Cellular respiration
  • Cell proliferation and differentiation
  • Regulation of gene expression

Iron plays a crucial role in maintaining cellular iron homeostasis by regulating gene expression at the post-transcriptional level. Iron homeostasis is critical for normal brain function, especially in learning and memory.


Iron from food

There are two types of iron in food:

  1. Heme iron is derived primarily from the haemoglobin and myoglobin of animal flesh such as meats, fish, and poultry.
  2. Non-heme iron is found in plant food such as breads, cereals, dark leafy vegetables (such as spinach, fern shoots, kangkung), legumes and eggs.

Grain products like flour, pasta and breakfast cereals are fortified with iron.  Human body absorbs this type of iron better when taken along with meat, chicken, fish or a source of vitamin C.  Vitamin C rich food include citrus fruits and juices, cantaloupe, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes and bell peppers.

Vegetarians need double-up their dietary intake of iron compared with non-vegetarians.  Iron from plant-based food is not absorbed as well by our bodies as animal food sources.


Iron deficiency anemia in Cancer patients

Iron deficiency and iron deficiency associated anemia are common complications in cancer patients. Most iron deficient cancer patients present with functional iron deficiency, a status with adequate storage of iron, but insufficient iron supply for red blood cells and other iron dependent tissues.

Cancer patients can reduce the risk of iron deficiency anemia by choosing iron-rich food during cancer treatment. Our body absorbs more iron from animal sources than it does from other sources. Iron-rich food from animal sources like meat are good sources of protein too. You can enhance your body’s absorption of iron by drinking juices rich in vitamin C at the same time when you eat iron-rich food.


Further reading: Food Sources of Iron. 2016. Dietitian of Canada.

Reference: Recommended Nutrient Intakes (RNI) for Malaysia. 2015. National Coordinating Committee on Food and Nutrition. Ministry of Health Malaysia.

Marcus Lee, Dietitian