Do you have a low hemoglobin count? Hemoglobin is an essential protein in the human body for normal function. You can increase your hemoglobin levels in several ways, including by consuming a healthy diet and taking supplements.
Learn more about foods to eat that can increase your hemoglobin count.
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Hemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells. It’s responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood. It also helps transport carbon dioxide — a waste product produced by every cell in the body — out to the lungs so it can be exhaled.
The body must have enough hemoglobin to ensure that your tissues get enough oxygen to continue functioning.¹
A blood test is needed to determine whether you have low hemoglobin.
Male and female bodies typically have different hemoglobin levels, which is believed to be related to the effects of sex hormones (such as testosterone and estrogen). Because of this, the definition of a low hemoglobin count depends on the person’s biological sex.²
You’re considered to have low hemoglobin if your hemoglobin is less than:³
14 grams per deciliter (g/dL) for adult males
12 grams per deciliter (g/dL) for adult females
A dangerously low hemoglobin level can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms and may result in severe health issues like heart problems.
The most common cause is iron deficiency anemia, when your body doesn’t have enough iron to make all of the hemoglobin you need. In such cases, doctors may recommend a special diet to increase hemoglobin.⁴
Here are the foods your doctor may recommend if you have a low hemoglobin count.
Iron forms an important part of the hemoglobin structure, so your body can’t make hemoglobin without iron. If you have iron deficiency, you may need to increase your iron consumption.
Iron-rich foods include the following:⁵
Meat (especially red meat) and fish
Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale
Legumes (such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas)
Tofu and other soy products
Tomato products (such as tomato paste or stewed tomatoes)
Fortified grain products, such as cereals, bread, and pasta
Hemoglobin is present in red blood cells, so you need enough red blood cells to carry hemoglobin in order to transport oxygen.
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, is important in the production of red blood cells. Not having enough folate can lead to the formation of abnormal red blood cells that don’t function properly. You may also have insufficient blood cells.⁶
Folate-rich foods include the following:⁷
Fortified grain products, such as cereals, bread, and pasta
In general, there are three main causes of anemia:⁸
Your body isn’t producing enough red blood cells
Red blood cells are being destroyed faster than your body can produce them
You’re experiencing bleeding, and your body can’t produce enough red blood cells to make up for those being lost
There are a number of different reasons for why your body isn’t producing enough red blood cells.
It might be due to a lack of iron, folate, or vitamin B12. Chronic inflammatory diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, can also interfere with red blood cell production. Liver and kidney disease can both cause this issue as well, as can cancer and certain medications. In people with a condition called aplastic anemia, the bone marrow fails to make enough blood cells, including red blood cells.
Red blood cells may be destroyed more quickly than usual if you have an enlarged spleen, or an inherited condition like sickle cell anemia or thalassemia.
If bleeding is causing your anemia, it might be due to heavy periods, diseases of the gastrointestinal tract (including cancer, gastric ulcers, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease), or donating blood too frequently.
Determining the cause of your anemia is very important as this will impact your treatment. If you have anemia, don’t simply assume that eating a more iron-rich diet will fix the problem. It’s important to get a medical evaluation to determine what’s causing your hemoglobin levels to be low.
In general, iron is not absorbed very well in the digestive system. However, there are ways to help improve the body’s absorption of iron.⁹
There are two kinds of iron found in your diet: heme and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is found in animal foods, while non-heme iron is found in plant foods. 95% of the functional iron in the human body is heme iron. It’s much easier for the body to absorb heme iron than non-heme iron. This means you’ll need to consume much more iron in order to ensure that you absorb enough if most of your iron intake comes from plant foods.¹⁰
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is known to help enhance iron absorption. If you consume your iron along with some vitamin C, this will help your body absorb more of the iron.¹¹
In addition, there are a few different substances that may inhibit iron absorption.
Iron bioavailability is the extent to which iron is absorbed from the diet and used for normal body functions. Substances that may decrease iron bioavailability include the following:¹²
Phytates: primarily found in seeds, nuts, legumes, and whole grains
Polyphenols: found in a variety of foods and beverages, including coffee, tea, chocolate, berries, nuts, and seeds
Calcium: a mineral found at high levels in dairy foods, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt (some plant foods also contain significant levels of calcium, including soy foods)
Proteins: animal proteins, such as those found in eggs and milk, and proteins from soybeans, can inhibit iron absorption
On the other hand, these substances may have other benefits. For example, polyphenols have been associated with a decreased risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.¹³
Avoiding these substances completely isn’t recommended. If you’re trying to boost your iron levels, you may want to separate your consumption of iron from your consumption of foods that contain these substances.
For example, you could choose to have tea in between meals instead of alongside your meals, helping to ensure that the polyphenols in the tea don’t interfere with the absorption of iron from your food. If you take iron supplements, you should wait at least two hours after taking them before eating foods from this list.
In order to treat anemia properly, it’s very important to determine the underlying cause. Several tests, including blood tests, can be used. The diagnosis will determine the appropriate treatment, which may be:
Your doctor may prescribe iron supplements to increase your hemoglobin levels if your anemia is caused by iron deficiency. You might also need to take supplements of other nutrients, such as folate and vitamin B12.
Aerobic exercise helps stimulate the body to produce more red blood cells, and may help with anemia.¹⁴
Examples include walking, dancing, swimming, cycling, or using an elliptical trainer. While moderate levels of exercise are beneficial, excessive exercise can actually cause, so don’t push yourself to extremes.¹⁵
Hemoglobin is a protein that’s important for transporting oxygen in the bloodstream. Normal hemoglobin levels are necessary for proper body function.
People with anemia have low hemoglobin levels, and may experience symptoms like fatigue and weakness.
If you have low hemoglobin levels, eating foods rich in nutrients like iron and folate may help. Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes, like making sure that you get enough exercise. Some people also benefit from iron supplements.
Before you attempt to treat your anemia with diet, lifestyle changes, and supplements, it’s very important that you visit a doctor for a medical evaluation. Anemia can sometimes indicate a serious underlying condition, so you shouldn’t attempt to treat it yourself without consulting a medical professional.
ABIM laboratory test reference ranges ̶ January 2023 | American Board of Internal Medicine
Iron deficiency anemia (2023)
Iron | National Institute of Health
Folic acid deficiency (2023)
Folate | National Institute of Health