The relationship between iron status and food iron absorption was evaluated in 75 normal volunteers, 15 patients with idiopathic hemochromatosis, and 22 heterozygotes by using double extrinsic radioiron tags to label independently the nonheme and heme iron components of a hamburger meal. In normal subjects, absorption from each of these pools was inversely correlated with storage iron, as measured by the serum ferritin concentration. In patients with hemochromatosis, absorption of both forms of iron was far greater than would be predicted from the relationship between absorption and serum ferritin observed in normal volunteers. Nevertheless, there was still a modest but statistically significant reduction in absorption of nonheme iron with increasing serum ferritin. This relationship could not be demonstrated in the case of heme iron absorption. In heterozygotes, nonheme iron absorption from a hamburger meal containing no supplementary iron did not differ significantly from that observed in normal volunteers. However, when this meal was both modified to promote bioavailability and supplemented with iron, absorption of nonheme iron was significantly elevated. These studies confirm the presence of excessive nonheme iron absorption even from unfortified meals in patients with idiopathic hemochromatosis and suggest in addition that they are particularly susceptible to iron loading from diets containing a high proportion of heme iron. Impaired regulation of nonheme iron absorption was also observed in heterozygous individuals, but a statistically significant abnormality was demonstrable only when the test meal contained a large highly bioavailable iron supplement.

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