Iron-Rich Foods for Anemia
There are several different types of anemia, but iron deficiency is the most common. This article explains what causes the condition, its symptoms, and how diet plays a role. We will also discuss the best iron-rich foods for anemia and how they can help. Here’s all you need to know.
What is Anemia?
Anemia is a condition that affects red blood cells. There are several different types, but iron deficiency anemia is the most common. It is sometimes known as iron-poor blood.
Other nutrient deficiencies that can cause anemia include folate and vitamin B12. Anemia can also result from insufficient red blood cell production or red blood cells breaking down too quickly.
What Causes Anemia?
Anemia is usually caused by a lack of iron in the diet or difficulties absorbing it from food. However, it can also be a sign of a more severe condition. Therefore, anyone suffering from anemia should see a physician to determine the underlying cause.
Some of the most common reasons people develop anemia include:
Lack of Iron in the Diet
If a person does not consume enough iron-containing foods, they may eventually develop anemia. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide and the only one that is prevalent in economically developed countries like the United States.
Women of reproductive age need to consume more iron than men, especially if they are pregnant. Vegetarians and vegans must also plan their meals carefully to ensure they get enough.
Poor Iron Absorption
Some people have difficulty absorbing iron from food, which can also lead to anemia. For example, people with conditions like celiac disease may absorb fewer nutrients from food than healthy individuals.
Blood loss is another common cause of anemia. It may result from heavy menstruation or internal bleeding from a stomach ulcer, colon polyp, or cancer.
People who donate blood regularly may also be at a higher-than-average risk of developing anemia.
The most common anemia symptoms include:
- Pale skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Brittle nails
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat or palpitations
- Cravings for non-food items, such as ice, paper, or dirt
How is Diet Related to Anemia?
Iron is an essential nutrient that people must get from their diets. It has a range of vital functions in the body, including forming a protein called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is necessary for red blood cells to bind with oxygen and carry it from the lungs to the rest of the body.
Therefore, if a person does not consume enough iron, their cells cannot get the oxygen they need. This is a significant issue since cells require oxygen to produce energy from food.
Doctors typically treat anemia with high-strength iron supplements. Patients usually take this medication for approximately six months. However, it is also important to consume more iron-rich foods. This will not only help to treat the condition but should also prevent it from reoccurring in the future.
For reference, the recommended daily values are as follows:
- Children: 7–16 milligrams
- Men of all ages and women over 50: 8 milligrams
- Women of reproductive age: 18 milligrams
- Pregnant women: 27 milligrams
The maximum recommended daily intake is 40 milligrams for children and 45 milligrams for adults.
The Best Iron-Rich Foods for People with Anemia
Many different foods contain a healthy dose of iron. However, not all are created equal.
There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is present in meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs and is easier to absorb than non-heme iron from plant-based sources. However, that is not to say that it is not possible to get enough iron from a vegetarian or vegan diet. It may just require a little more planning and hard work.
Certain foods can also help or hinder iron absorption. Read on for the complete list of iron-rich foods and other items that people with anemia should indulge in or avoid.
Meat, especially red meat, is one of the richest sources of heme iron. For example, 3.5 ounces of ground beef contains 2.7 milligrams of iron. Meanwhile, the same amount of dark turkey meat contains 1.4 milligrams.
However, organ meats are probably one of the best dietary sources of iron. Just 3.5 ounces of beef liver contains a whopping 6.5 milligrams.
Fish and shellfish are another great iron-rich food. Clams are one of the best options, containing a generous 3 milligrams of iron per 3.5 ounces. Canned tuna is another good choice with 1.4 milligrams per 3 ounces.
Other types of seafood that contain a decent amount of iron include oysters, mussels, mackerel, and mahi-mahi.
Eggs are one of the only non-meat sources of heme iron, making them a great addition to vegetarian diets. Two eggs contain approximately 1.7 milligrams.
Dark Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens, including spinach, kale, broccoli, collard greens, and Swiss chard, are great plant-based iron sources. For example, 3.5 ounces of spinach contains 2.7 milligrams, while a cup of cooked broccoli contains 1 milligram.
Leafy greens also contain vitamin C, which aids iron absorption. However, some varieties, such as spinach and kale, are also high in compounds called oxalates. Oxalates can reduce iron absorption, meaning that you should not rely on these vegetables as a sole source of iron.
Pulses such as peas, beans, and lentils are all good sources of iron. Lentils are one of the best, with an impressive 6.6 milligrams of iron per cup. Tofu is another fantastic iron source for people following plant-based diets, with 3.4 milligrams per half-cup.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are wonderful as an iron-rich snack or meal addition. Pumpkin seeds are one of the top choices, with 2.5 milligrams of iron per 1 ounce serving. Other good options include cashews, pistachios, and hemp seeds.
Dried fruit is another excellent source of iron. Apricots are especially beneficial as they also contain beta-carotene, which assists with absorption.
However, dried fruit is high in sugar and should be eaten in moderation.
Many foods such as bread and breakfast cereals are fortified with iron and other essential nutrients. As a result, they are one of the most convenient ways to incorporate extra iron into the diet.
Foods Containing Vitamin C
Vitamin C aids iron absorption. Therefore, it is a good idea to consume some vitamin C at the same time as an iron-rich meal. Some examples of vitamin C-rich foods include:
- Citrus fruit
- Leafy greens
- Bell peppers
Foods to Avoid
Some foods and medications can hinder iron absorption. Therefore, it is best to leave a few hours between consuming them and iron or avoid them altogether. Examples include:
- Tea and coffee
- Milk and other dairy products
- Foods with a high phytic acid content, such as wholegrain cereals
- Foods with a high oxalic acid content, including peanuts, parsley, and chocolate
- High-gluten foods, including wheat, barley, bread, and pasta
- Foods containing tannins, including grapes, corn, and sorghum
- NIBLI, NIH (Anemia)
- MedlinePlus (Anemia)
- NHS (Iron deficiency anaemia)
- Mayo Clinic (Iron deficiency anemia: Symptoms & Causes)
- Mayo Clinic (Iron deficiency anemia: Diagnosis & Treatment)
- Healthline (12 Healthy Foods That Are High in Iron)
- Healthline (Anemia: Best Diet Plan)
- Everyday Health (10 Healthy Foods That Are Great Sources of Iron)
- Medical News Today (Foods and meal plans for iron deficiency)