To assess the nutritional relevance of absorption studies that use extrinsically labeled single meals, we developed a method for measuring nonheme-iron absorption from the diet and compared the results with absorption from single meals. When subjects consumed their usual diet, there was good agreement between dietary absorption (6.4%) and representative single meals fed in the laboratory (6.1%). Nonheme-iron availability, as estimated by a model that incorporated the effect of both enhancers and inhibitors, correlated significantly with absorption from single meals but not with dietary absorption. When the diet was modified to promote iron absorption maximally, dietary absorption increased only slightly (8.0%) and remained significantly lower than it was from single meals (13.5%). With an inhibitory diet, the decrease in absorption from single meals was similarly exaggerated. These results indicate that in the context of a varied Western diet, nonheme-iron bioavailability is less important than absorption studies with single meals would suggest.