Fighting Lead with Nutrition
Heather Lee, Educational Resource Development and Support Manager
September 2016; reviewed September 2016 by Teri Burgess-Champoux, Director — Health and Nutrition Special Projects, and Mary Shroeder, Extension Educator — Health and Nutrition.
Lead is a serious issue for many families. Lead is a heavy mineral that is not normally found in our bodies — when lead is in our body, it can cause serious, long-term health issues. (For general information on lead and lead poisoning, see Protect Against Lead.)
There are lots of things that you can do nutrition-wise to help prevent lead from affecting you or your family. Review these healthy eating tips below to minimize lead absorption and reduce your risk of lead toxicity.
1. Eat regular meals.
An empty stomach absorbs more lead. By feeding your family healthy meals and snacks every day, your bodies will absorb less lead should you be exposed to it.
Do you and your family need food assistance? Here are some resources in Minnesota that can help connect you and your family to food. If you are not in Minnesota, contact your department of health for more information on food assistance.
- Combined Application Form — Minnesota Department of Health — Use this form to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other cash assistance programs.
- Minnesota Food HelpLine — Hunger Solutions Minnesota — Phone line and website that helps assess your situation and provide solutions to your family's food needs. Visit the website or call 1-888-711-1151.
- Searchable Food Help Map — Hunger Solutions Minnesota — Find a food shelf, Meals on Wheels, Summer Food Service Program, food support office, or WIC program near you.
- Women, Infants, & Children (WIC) Program — Minnesota Department of Health — Supplemental food program for pregnant women, infants and children. Find an office near you: English | español | Lus Hmoob | Soomaali
2. Eat iron-rich foods.
Everyone needs iron in their diet. Children, women, vegetarians, and athletes in particular need to make sure they are eating iron-rich foods.
To the body, iron and lead look very similar — when there is more iron than lead, the body will absorb the iron. This means if you eat more iron, you’ll be less likely to get lead poisoning.
What foods contain iron? Iron is found in:
- Meat such as beef, bison, venison, pork, chicken, turkey, and seafood.
- Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, Swiss chard, and kale.
- Dried fruit such as raisins, apricots, dates, and prunes.
- Peanuts and peanut butter.
- Iron-fortified cereals, breads, and pasta.
To eat more iron, try one of these new recipes.
- Cowboy caviar — Turn canned beans, corn, and tomatoes into a tasty dip. This really jazzes up tacos, eggs, chicken, and more.
- Pinto Beans Beef Tacos — Use a savory combination of beans, beef, and seasonings for a delicious taco filling. This recipe serves 12...think about trying it at your next family gathering!
- Breakfast Egg Burrito — Make a large batch of these burritos and freeze them for a quick, satisfying mid-week breakfast. This burrito will help your kids start their school day out right!
3. Eat foods high in vitamin C.
Eating foods high in vitamin C helps enhance your body’s absorption of iron. (Remember: More iron equals less chance of lead poisoning!)
What foods contain vitamin C? Vitamin C is found in:
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, collards, and red and green cabbage.
- Leafy greens such as kale, mustard greens, dandelion greens, and romaine lettuce.
- Pea pods.
- Sweet potatoes and potatoes.
- Summer squash such as zucchini, crookneck, and patty pan.
- Onions and garlic.
- Citrus such as oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, lemons, and lime.
- Melons such as cantaloupe.
- 100% juices from one or more of the fruits or vegetables listed above.
To eat more vitamin C, try one of these new recipes.
- Roasted Root Vegetables — Roast a pan of root vegetables as they are in season. Root vegetables are delicious in any combination! (en español)
- Extreme Zucchini — Turn simple summer ingredients into a tasty side dish. This is a great recipe to keep handy as you harvest from your garden or visit farmers markets (en español)
- Easy Greek Salad — Toss yourself a big bowl of this delicious salad. It's a great way to use readily available summer produce. (en español)
4. Eat foods high in calcium.
We all need calcium in our diet, but children and women in particular need calcium-rich diets. Eating food high in calcium can also help the body absorb less lead.
What foods contain calcium? Calcium is found in:
- Dairy such as milk, cheese, and yogurt.
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, turnip greens, kale, and bok choi (Chinese cabbage).
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as such as spinach, Swiss chard, and kale.
- Salmon and sardines.
- Calcium-fortified orange juice and soymilk.
To eat more calcium, try one of these new recipes.
- Cream Soup Mix — Mix up a batch of this soup mix to keep on hand. It will help you make homemade soups, sauces, and meals in less time.
- Crispy Salmon Patties — Turn canned salmon into a delicious main dish that the whole family will love. This recipe includes lots of variations.
- Broccoli mandarin orange salad Pair orange peel and juice with broccoli for a tasty salad. It will even get kids to eat their broccoli! (en español)
5. Make sure your food is free from lead-contaminated
soil and dust.
It is possible for soil to be contaminated with lead. If the soil is near a building that had lead paint, or is near heavy traffic, it’s possible that it is full of lead.
Soil-related lead poisoning rarely occurs from people eating plants that have absorbed lead. Rather, people get lead poisoning form ingesting lead-contaminated soil.
You can prevent this issue by making sure that you thoroughly wash all produce before eating it.
If you have lead paint on your walls and paint dust gets on your preparation surfaces, cooking surfaces, or dishes, you could be unknowingly ingesting lead. Make sure food-related surfaces are clean BEFORE preparing food.
Likewise, if your food falls on your floor and your floor contains lead paint dust, you could be (unknowingly) eating lead contaminated food. If food falls on the floor, throw it away!
For more information see Lead in the Home Garden and Urban Soil Environment.
6. Use lead-free water while preparing food.
Lead is not normally found in water. Lead usually gets into water from lead-based pipes or solder.
If you have reasons to believe that your water is contaminated with lead, have it tested.
If you know that your water is contaminated with lead, take the necessary precautions to make sure that that water is not contaminating the food you eat. This includes being mindful of the water that you use to:
- Wash your hands before cooking.
- Rinse produce.
- Make food and baby formula.
Find out more at Drink lead-free water.
7. Use only food-safe containers to store your food.
If you use food that came or was stored in lead-soldered cans, glazed ceramic dishes, or crystal, the lead can leach into the food and be ingested by you. Only store your food in food-safe containers.
Also note that lead inks are sometimes used on printed plastic bread bags. Do not reuse food bags to store other food. Throw them away after the original food is gone, or reuse them for some other non-food use.
8. Do not willingly eat anything that contains lead, and make
sure your children don’t either.
Some imported candy, such as imported Mexican candy made with tamarind or chili powder, contains lead. Do not eat candy with lead! Get to know more about this from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Lead in Candy.
Also, some folk medicines, such as Greta, Azarcon, Ghasard, Ba-baw-san, and Daw Tway, have been shown to contain lead. Do not use folk medicines with lead! Get to know more about this potential risk from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Lead in Folk Medicines.
And remember, small children and those with intellectual disabilities do not necessarily differentiate “food” from “non-food.” Here are some things to be mindful of.
- Make sure that your children and others in your care do not put non-food items in their mouths when possible.
- Regularly clean (wet-wipe) your children’s play things — especially pacifiers and teething toys — and play surfaces, to make sure that they stay clear of lead-contaminated dust and soil.
- Make sure that toys and other things that might end up in children's mouths are lead-free.
- Teach children about the dangers of lead so that they can be their own advocate.
- Get more tips at Engage in healthy habits and activities that minimize children’s lead exposure.
Massachusetts Health and Human Services. (n.d.). What types of foods can help prevent lead poisoning?
Media Consumer HealthCare, Inc.. (2006). Who needs iron?
Mayo Clinic. (2014, January 2). Iron deficiency anemia.
Michigan State University Extension. (n.d.). Fight lead with nutrition.
Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. (2011). Nutrition and lead poisoning prevention.
Office of Dietary Supplements. (2016, June 1). Calcium. United States Department of Health and Human Services.United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2001, November). Fight lead poisoning with a healthy diet: What can you do to protect your child?
Lead Poisoning and Nutrition — SNAP-Ed Connection, United States Department of Agriculture — Explore information on lead poisoning for children and women who are pregnant, get low-cost recipes, and more.
Fight Lead Poisoning with a Healthy Diet: What Can You Do to Protect Your Child — United States Environmental Protection Agency — Get tips for preventing lead poisoning in your family, as well as healthy recipes that help protect against lead. English | español
5 Things You Can Do To Help Lower Your Child's Lead Level — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Follow these simple five steps to lower your children’s lead level. English | español
The recipe box — Quick, simple recipes using easy-to-find ingredients that work in even the tightest budgets.