Anemia occurs when the body does not have enough red blood cells.
In some cases, the body does not produce a sufficient number of these cells. In others, anemia results from an underlying health problem, such as a disease that destroys red blood cells. Significant blood loss can also cause anemia.
A person with anemia may benefit from adding iron-rich foods to the diet. Also, certain foods can help the body to absorb iron, while others can block this process and make anemia worse.
In this article, we explore the foods that can help or harm people with anemia. We also provide sample meal plans designed to boost iron levels, plus other dietary tips.
What causes anemia?
Anemia can result from many factors, including:
- a lack of iron in the diet
- heavy menstruation
- a lack of folate or vitamin B-12 in the diet
Bleeding in the stomach and intestines can also cause anemia. This type of bleeding is sometimes a side effect of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Or, it may result from:
- swelling in the large intestine or esophagus
- certain cancers
People who are pregnant have an increased risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia, which occurs when iron levels are too low. In these cases, doctors usually advise people to take iron supplements.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron depends on a person’s age and sex. A baby younger than 6 months old only requires 0.27 milligrams (mg) of iron a day, while a male aged 19–50 years old requires 8 mg a day, and a female in the same age range needs 18 mg of iron a day.
During pregnancy, a person should increase their daily iron intake to 27 mg.
People with iron-deficiency anemia need a significant boost and require 150–200 mg of iron a day.
Many foods contain high levels of iron. A person may find it easy to combine them and make tasty, nutritious meals that help to boost the intake of iron.
Fruits and vegetables
- curly kale and other varieties
- collard greens
- dandelion greens
- Swiss chard
- citrus fruits
- red and yellow peppers
However, some dark, leafy greens also contain oxalates, which can inhibit iron absorption. Rather than relying solely on vegetables, a person should aim to get iron from a variety of sources.
Nuts and seeds
- pumpkin seeds
- hemp seeds
- pine nuts
- sunflower seeds
Meat and Fish
- raw milk
Beans and pulses
- kidney beans
- black-eyed peas
- pinto beans
- black beans
- lima beans
Also, it may be a good idea to choose iron-fortified cereals, bread products, orange juice, rice, and pasta.
The following foods can interfere with iron absorption:
- tea and coffee
- milk and some dairy products
- whole-grain cereals
- foods that contain tannins, such as grapes, corn, and sorghum
- foods rich in gluten, such as pasta and other products made with wheat, barley, rye, or oats
- foods that contain phytates or phytic acid, such as brown rice and whole-grain wheat products
- foods that contain oxalic acid, such as peanuts, parsley, and chocolate
Tips for getting more iron in the diet
The best way to add iron to the diet is to eat more foods that are rich in iron. However, the following strategies can maximize a person’s iron intake:
- refraining from drinking tea or coffee with meals
- refraining from eating foods rich in calcium with those rich in iron
- eating iron-rich foods alongside those rich in vitamin C
- cooking with a cast-iron skillet
- cooking foods for shorter periods
If a person has tried changing their diet and their levels of iron remain low, they should speak with a doctor or dietician, who may recommend a supplement.
Doctors often recommend choosing a supplement containing ferrous salts such as ferrous fumarate, ferrous gluconate, or ferrous sulfate. These formulations all contain anywhere from 15–106 mg of elemental iron in a tablet or oral solution.
People with iron-deficiency anemia can benefit from adding iron to their diet. The foods and strategies listed above can help a person to manage the condition.
Eating certain dark, leafy greens, seafood, beans, nuts, and seeds can help a person to boost their iron intake. It may also be a good idea to use a cast-iron skillet, and cooking meals for shorter periods, when possible.
Iron supplements can benefit people who do not receive enough iron from their diets. It is essential to follow dosage instructions carefully. An excess of iron can cause iron toxicity. This can be dangerous and, on rare occasions, fatal.
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