Anemia is a common blood disorder that affects about three million people in the US. When a person has anemia, their body cannot properly provide oxygen to their tissues due to a lack of red blood cells, hemoglobin, or both. The effects and symptoms that arise from anemia can range from minor to severe, depending on the underlying cause of the anemia.
Although dietary choices alone cannot eliminate the impacts of anemia, making healthy and appropriate choices when you have the condition can improve how your body functions and improve how you manage the illness.
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While iron deficiency does not cause all types of anemia, iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia experienced by people in the US as well as globally. Targeting the root cause of the anemia is the best approach to managing the condition. Still, your diet can also help you with the condition and how you feel. Iron is a vital mineral that helps produce hemoglobin, the necessary protein that carries oxygen through your body.
The diagnosis of anemia occurs after a blood test shows a decreased hemoglobin level in your blood. Adapting to an iron and nutrient-rich diet can help your body increase the production of hemoglobin and, in turn, improve your anemia. Heme iron, i.e., iron from meat, is better absorbed than non-heme iron (from vegetables and other sources), and those on vegetarian diets are more likely to be iron deficient.
It is very unlikely to be iron deficient due to dietary factors alone, but diet may contribute to the prevention or development of iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia.
The darker the green, the better for you from an iron perspective. Dark leafy greens carry some of the highest iron content in plant sources. Adding dark leafy greens to your everyday diet can help you bolster your iron levels and hemoglobin production. When choosing greens for your anemia diet, it is best to choose the darker variety rather than lighter varieties, such as iceberg lettuce and cabbage, which may not contribute much to your diet in terms of iron.
Examples of iron-rich vegetables include:
Although there are several plant-based sources of iron, the iron found in meats and poultry is significantly higher per portion and easier for the body to absorb. If you want to increase your iron intake to combat anemia, incorporating meat and poultry into your diet can help you increase your iron and hemoglobin levels.
Common types of iron-rich meats and poultry include:
The greatest amounts of iron are typically found in the loin, sirloin, tenderloin, picnic cuts, and offal.
When planning out a diet to help with your anemia, it is important to find a variety of foods that can help boost your iron levels and maintain a healthy balance.
While red meats may be an excellent source of iron, they may not be the best choice to eat daily, as increased consumption of red meat has been consistently associated with an increased risk for numerous diseases such as type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer, as well as premature mortality. Some types of seafood can also serve as an excellent source of iron when prepared and eaten in a safe manner.
Seafood options with higher iron content include:
If you are following a plant-based diet or want to add different healthy options and food groups to your daily diet to improve your anemia, nuts and seeds can provide the nutrition and iron content you need.
Nuts and seeds that can be helpful in a diet plan for iron deficiency anemia include:
Adding fruit to your diet can add much-needed fiber and iron, but it can also help you absorb iron into your blood. There are many fruits high in vitamin C that, when eaten with other iron-rich foods, can help your body absorb as much iron as possible from the food source into your body. Fruits can directly provide iron into your diet and can work in conjunction with the nutrients in other foods to boost the iron your body absorbs from your diet.
Top fruits to add to an anemia diet include:
Dried peaches or apricots
Certain dried fruits can be great sources of iron. Dried prunes and apricots, for example, have a similar iron content to some servings of meat. However, dried fruit can also have high sugar content. If you are watching your sugar intake, make sure to add these iron sources into your diet in moderation.
In addition to these dried fruits, fruits high in vitamin C can help with your iron absorption, such as strawberries, citrus, melons, tomatoes, and peppers.
While there are beneficial foods that can help manage your anemia by boosting iron in your blood or helping your body absorb the iron in foods, some foods can have a detrimental effect. Some food has properties that, instead of helping you absorb iron, can work to reduce the amount of iron you absorb or block it entirely.
It is best to avoid foods that inhibit iron absorption when eating foods high in iron to ensure you benefit from your iron-rich choices. This does not mean you should avoid the food entirely, as many of these foods have their own health benefits. Instead, plan and space out your meals so that you do not combine iron-rich foods with foods that block the absorption of iron.
Foods you should avoid when trying to increase iron levels include:
Those rich in phytates, such as bran, oats, rye fiber
Those rich in polyphenols, such as tea and cereals
Food rich in calcium
The amount of iron an individual needs to consume varies depending on gender, age, and medical conditions. Your doctor can give you the best estimate of the amount of iron you should consume each day through your diet, as well as consider any prescribed supplements.
On average, most adult males need about 8mg of iron intake per day, while adult females may need up to 18mg per day or more or less iron if they are aging, pregnant, or breastfeeding. An iron deficiency can also affect these amounts, as well as certain other medical conditions and whether you take iron supplements.
It is important to discuss with your doctor how much iron you should consume on a daily basis, as too much iron can have a detrimental impact on your health.
All types of anemia do not occur due to the same causes. When anemia occurs because of nutritional deficiencies, then a diet can play a significant role in improving your body's iron levels. Although diet cannot cure anemia outright, it can play a part in helping you manage your iron levels. Many things can influence your body's hemoglobin levels.
Your doctor will work with you to devise a treatment plan to manage your condition best. Choosing a diet that focuses on elevating iron levels and iron absorption can help you combat the effects of anemia and help improve your health.
To raise your body's iron levels, you must increase your iron intake through diet or supplements recommended by your doctor. Increasing your iron is not as simple as just eating foods high in iron. When you have anemia, you must plan what you eat and when you eat it to maximize the benefits of iron-rich foods. Pairing foods high in iron with foods high in vitamin C is an excellent way to ensure you get the iron you need from your diet. Also, avoid mixing iron-rich foods with iron-blocking foods, so you do not waste the benefits of the foods you eat.
Another great way to add in some extra iron is to cook in iron cookware such as cast-iron pans and skillets. Iron cookware naturally infuses the foods cooked in it with traces of iron. Iron ingots, typically shaped like fish, have also been used in resource-limited countries to prevent iron deficiency.
Anemia can have an effect on your health and how you feel. Taking proactive measures to help boost your iron and hemoglobin levels under the guidance of your doctor can help you manage your anemia. Modifying your diet to include foods rich in iron and foods that help the absorption of iron can improve your anemia and overall health.
Iron deficiency anaemia (2016)
Iron-rich food | Central California Blood Center
A review of nutrients and compounds, which promote or Inhibit Intestinal Iron absorption: Making a platform for dietary measures that can reduce iron uptake in patients with genetic haemochromatosis (2020)
Iron | National Institute of Health
Anemia | Patients