How to Fight Lead Exposure with Nutrition

By Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, FAND
running faucet - How to Fight Lead Exposure with Nutrition


Although exposure to lead has reduced within the last two decades, it is still a concern and caution is advised, especially for children who have access to toys with lead-based paint or individuals who live in older homes. In some instances, lead can leach from the main water pipes and into the household water supply. If exposed to lead, eating a healthy diet can help reduce its absorption by the body.

What Are the Dangers of Lead?

When lead is consumed, research shows it can cause learning and behavior problems; as it accumulates, it can cause lasting problems with growth and development. Infants and children are at a higher risk because they absorb lead more quickly than adults, in addition to being more likely to put non-food items that might contain lead in their mouth.

How to Avoid Lead

Lead is most likely to be consumed as lead-based paint in and outside the home — peels, chips or cracks — and ends up being consumed because it is on toys or other surfaces that kids put in their mouth. When lead is present in the water system, it can become more difficult to avoid (visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on lead in the water supply). To minimize exposure to lead:

  • Always wash your hands and ensure children wash their hands with uncontaminated water before eating.
  • Do not use imported pottery or leaded crystal to store or serve food.
  • Use an NSF-certified filter on your faucet for drinking water, food preparation and cooking, and be sure to change the filter cartridge by the date printed on the package. If a filter or bottled water are unavailable, visit the CDC's source on lead to reduce or eliminate lead in tap water by using only cold tap water that has been thoroughly flushed from the pipes. Boiling water will not reduce the presence of lead.
  • Regularly clean toys, pacifiers, floors, windowsills and other surfaces using liquid cleaners that control dust.
  • Wipe or remove shoes before entering your home.
  • Get your home tested for lead if it was built before 1978.

Eat a Healthy Diet to Help Decrease Lead Absorption

Eat small, healthy mini-meals throughout the day. Follow the 2015 Dietary Guidelines to include a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat or fat-free dairy. When there is healthy food in the body, it is more difficult for lead to be absorbed. Make sure your diet is rich in important nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin C.

Calcium keeps your bones strong and the lead out. Calcium-rich foods include:

  • Milk and milk products, such as yogurt and cheese
  • Green leafy vegetables, including spinach, kale and turnip, mustard and collard greens
  • Calcium-enriched foods, such as orange juice, soy milk and tofu
  • Canned salmon and sardines

Iron also blocks lead from being absorbed. Try these iron-rich foods:

  • Lean red meats
  • Iron-fortified cereal, bread and pasta
  • Dried fruit, such as raisins and prunes
  • Beans and lentils

Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron better, but also may help with getting rid of lead. Foods rich in vitamin C include:

  • Citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruit
  • Other fruits such as kiwi, strawberries and melon
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Peppers

Here is a sample menu to help incorporate these nutrient recommendations into your daily diet.

  • Breakfast: Iron-fortified cereal made with low-fat or fat-free milk and topped with raisins
  • Snack: Orange slices
  • Lunch: Lean hamburger on an iron-fortified bun with red bell pepper strips
  • Snack: Low-fat or fat-free yogurt topped with fruit
  • Dinner: Chicken with brown rice, a spinach salad and a glass of low-fat or fat-free milk
  • Snack: Peanut butter on whole-grain crackers

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