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Nickel is a silvery-white metal found in soil, water, and the biosphere.
It’s used in combination with other metals to form alloys used in the production of coins, jewelry, batteries, and stainless steel.
Most foods also contain nickel in small amounts.
Many people are sensitive or allergic to the metal and develop a variety of symptoms that affect the digestive tract and skin, especially in response to eating nickel-containing foods.
Fortunately, limiting nickel in your diet can help provide symptom relief.
This article explains what to eat and avoid on a low-nickel diet and provides a sample low-nickel diet menu.
Nickel allergy symptoms
Allergic contact dermatitis is a form of eczema that occurs when a substance to which you’re sensitive — in this case, nickel — triggers an immune reaction in your skin.
Symptoms associated with allergic contact dermatitis include (3):
- dry, scaly, flaky skin
- skin redness
- extreme itching
- bumps and blisters
Women are more likely to be allergic to nickel compared with men, possibly due to greater contact with nickel-containing items, such as jewelry, buttons, and certain shampoos and detergents (1).
Although limiting dietary nickel is a common treatment strategy in people with allergic contact dermatitis, doing so likely has no benefits since the symptoms are related exclusively to skin contact and not dietary intake (3).
However, this is not the case for people with a more severe form of nickel allergy called systemic nickel allergy syndrome (SNAS), which is characterized not only by skin inflammation or eczema but also other symptoms in response to dietary nickel (3).
SNAS can develop at any age and tends to persist lifelong.
Symptoms of SNAS include (3):
- stomach pain
- runny nose
- joint pain
The severity of nickel allergy symptoms typically occurs in a dose-dependent fashion, meaning the more nickel you consume, the worse your symptoms become (4).
However, because plants and animals take up nickel from soil and humans take up nickel from eating plants and animals, completely avoiding dietary nickel is impossible and unnecessary.
Instead, avoiding high nickel foods is a better approach for managing SNAS.
Interestingly, a low-nickel diet may be beneficial for people who have recurrent digestive symptoms, such as those with: gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), celiac disease, gastritis, and endometriosis (5, 6, 7, 8).
High-nickel foods to avoid
A low-nickel diet is recommended for people with SNAS to provide symptom relief and improve their quality of life.
However, there are no standardized or agreed-upon guidelines for what defines a low-nickel diet.
This is partly because the maximum amount of nickel from the diet that can be tolerated without producing any symptoms varies widely among people with SNAS (3).
Additionally, the nickel content of many foods can vary widely depending on the concentration of nickel in the soil, which is influenced by the type of soil, the season, use of fertilizers and pesticides, and the distance of the soil from nickel processing plants (9).
This means that the nickel content of the same foods can vary from place to place and even in different batches of the same food.
Still, many foods tend to be high in nickel, regardless of the soil content.
These foods include (9):
- whole-wheat products
- cocoa and chocolate
- soy products
- seeds and nuts
Animal products generally contain less nickel than plant-based foods, but some types of seafood contain high concentrations.
Seafood to limit or avoid include:
You should also limit or avoid canned foods since stainless steel machinery used for processing can contribute nickel and nickel can leech from the metallic can.
Cooking using stainless steel pots, pans, and utensils contributes negligible amounts of nickel, but cooking acidic foods like tomato paste using them can cause nickel to leech into the food.
Low-nickel foods to eat
While ubiquitous in food, most foods contain small amounts of nickel.
Low-nickel foods to eat include:
- Fruits: apples, avocados, bananas, berries, cherries, grapes, oranges, pears, watermelon, etc.
- Vegetables: arugula, asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, mushrooms, onions, peppers, etc.
- Grains: cereals, rice, refined wheat or corn products
- Dairy: butter, cheese, cottage cheese, milk, yogurt
- Poultry: eggs, chicken, duck, turkey
- Meats: beef, bison, buffalo, pork, sheep
- Oils: canola and extra-virgin olive oil
- Beverages: coffee and tea in moderation
In addition to being low in nickel, foods like sweet peppers, oranges, broccoli, coffee, and tea contain compounds like vitamin C and tannins, which decrease nickel absorption.
Nickel exposure from water and other beverages is likely minimal but drinking water can be contaminated with nickel from pipes and taps.
The plumbing pipes from older homes or buildings may be galvanized steel and contain nickel.
Letting the initial water flow from the tap before use in the morning can help decrease the amount of nickel that may have been released overnight (9).
3-day sample low-nickel diet menu
It may take up to eight weeks of following a low-nickel diet before you experience symptom relief (10).
You may have to maintain a low-nickel diet long-term to prevent your symptoms from returning or worsening.
Here’s a 3-day sample low-nickel diet menu:
- Breakfast: scrambled eggs and white toast with avocado
- Lunch: grilled chicken salad
- Snack: Greek yogurt and orange slices
- Dinner: pork tenderloin, mashed potatoes, and roasted carrot slices
- Breakfast: spinach omelet and cornflakes
- Lunch: tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich
- Snack: cottage cheese and peaches
- Dinner: spaghetti and meatballs and grilled zucchini
- Breakfast: white toast with cottage cheese, tomato, and cucumber slices
- Lunch: chicken fajita
- Snack: string cheese and apple slices
- Dinner: baked tilapia, white rice, and asparagus
Because plant-based foods tend to be the richest sources of nickel, following a strict vegan diet can be difficult to limit your intake of nickel while also ensuring that you get enough nutrients and protein.
If you’re vegan, plant-based protein powders like pea, rice, or soy can be a good option to meet your protein needs and likely contain less nickel than their whole-food form since they’re heavily processed.
Other tips to lower your exposure to nickel
Here are some other tips for limiting your exposure to nickel:
Cigarettes and other tobacco products contain a significant amount of nickel.
One study found that the nickel content in the blood and urine of smokers was greater than in non-smokers (11).
Exposure to nickel as well as the other chemicals from cigarettes also increases the risk of lung and nasal cancer (12).
Get enough iron
Low levels of iron can increase nickel absorption from the foods you eat.
This is because low iron levels increase the expression of a gene that signals the uptake or absorption of nickel (13).
As such, maintaining normal levels of iron can reduce nickel absorption and allow for a more liberalized diet.
The best sources of iron that are low in nickel include meats and poultry (14).
In some cases, an iron supplement may be needed to maintain healthy iron levels, especially for people who are at risk for an iron deficiency, such as vegetarians, menstruating females, and those with malabsorptive disorders like celiac disease and Crohn’s disease (15).
Be careful of supplements
Nickel is a common trace element in several popular multivitamin supplements.
As such, if you take a multivitamin supplement, make sure it doesn’t contain nickel on the supplement facts panel like this one from Nature Made.
Taking a multivitamin supplement as well as a fiber supplement may be necessary due to the exclusion of whole-grain products and other nutrient-rich foods like beans, seeds, and nuts on a low-nickel diet.
The bottom line
Nickel is a metal widely distributed in the environment and food.
A severe form of a nickel allergy called SNAS can cause eczema and other symptoms such as fatigue and digestive issues in response to dietary nickel.
Because the nickel content of foods can vary depending on several factors, it’s best to routinely limit foods high in nickel, including cocoa, grains, beans, peas, seeds, and nuts.
Not smoking, getting enough iron, and avoiding supplements that contain nickel are other ways to limit your exposure to nickel.