Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.
What is Iron Deficient Anemia?
Iron deficiencies are common in the US and around the world. Women are particularly prone to having iron deficiencies during their reproductive years because they loose blood fairly frequently and with it goes a lot of iron. This can cause anemia—a blood condition that prevents blood from delivering oxygen to the rest of the cells in the body. It can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, pale skin, dizziness, head aches, fast heart rate, irritability, restless legs, and can occasionally cause some bizarre symptoms such as the desire to eat dirt. That last symptom harkens back to our primitive ancestry. Many animals eat dirt because its often high in minerals, and sometimes iron. In severe cases, iron deficient anemia can kill. Today it is an easily diagnosed disease with the help of a blood test, and most physicians will prescribe iron supplements. However iron supplements are harsh on the digestive system. They're often burped up and make patients feel nauseous. There is an answer to this. People who are chronically anemic due to iron deficiencies can add iron rich foods to their diet to reduce the need for supplements. Of course, if you want to try this make sure your doctor or physician knows what you're doing and can take blood tests to measure your progress, or lack there of.
Breads and Grains
Who knew something so simple could have iron in it. Really, not all breads and grains have much, if any iron, but a few are pretty rich. For instance rye bread, whole wheat bread, corn bread, and enriched white bread, all contain decent amounts of iron. Are you also gluten intolerant? Don't fret. Buckwheat is also an amazing iron rich food. It makes for amazing pancakes, breads, and dumplings. Just be forewarned buckwheat will make whatever batter you're mixing up look like you're making mud pies. That's OK though because in the end it'll taste wonderful with a very light flavor, not unlike white flour. If breads aren't your thing consider starting your day out with a bowl of oatmeal, bran cereal, or cream of wheat. Do note that many of these foods, although rich in iron, also have phytic acid which reduces your body's ability to actually absorb the iron you've ingested. Because of this, they are not the best way to get more iron into your system, but it is a start.
There are a lot of vegetables that are high in iron and easy to find and eat. Many green leafy vegetables contain iron such as spinach, kale, beet greens, dandelion greens, bok choy, brussel sprouts, chard, and collards. Remember cooking vegetables destroys many of their nutrients so consider making a salad (make sure to add iron rich tomatoes!) and eating some of these things raw—or steam the vegetables instead of boiling them. Definitely avoid microwaving them since this removes almost all their benefits. If things like kale are too strongly flavored for you, consider making kale chips. They're lightly flavored, very easy to make, have a nice crunch, and are a great replacement for potato chips. You can also cook the kale, chop it up into bits, and mix it in with some mashed potatoes as the Dutch often do. It takes a lot of the bitterness out of it. Other green foods like broccoli, peas, and string beans, can be great for iron. Sweet potatoes aren't green but they are absolutely delicious and, like regular potatoes, they do have some iron in them. Dried beans can make for great soups and your own baked beans.
Dried fruits often have great iron content. Things like raisins, figs, dates, prunes, dried apricots, and dried peaches can make for delicious deserts, and even salads. If fresh fruit is more your thing try some watermelon, strawberries, or walnuts. And if you're really hard core try some prune juice. Not just great for iron content it can also really clean you out! Of course if you're like me, a nice glass of warm apple cider mixed with cinnamon (another iron rich food) is a lot more palatable.
I know many women are anemic because they don't eat a lot, or sometimes any, meat. That being said meat can be a good source of iron and not all of it is red meat. Even eggs have a good amount of iron in them. Eggs: they're not even meat! And you can actually get iron out of many types of seafood such as shrimp, haddock, scallops, and even tuna. I mean, a tuna salad sandwich is nice and light and has the added benefit of having great nutrients for your brain. If you really like seafood try some of the less commonly enjoyed seafoods like sardines, oysters, and clams. And hey, if you want some nice land-based meat that's OK too. Liver probably has the best reputation for its iron richness, but there are a lot of other (somewhat taboo) parts you could try like heart, kidney, tongue, or brains. If you're not quite that adventurous stick to more common meats like beef, pork, chicken, turkey, or lamb.
Yes, some desserts and sweets are high in iron. Of course, I don't recommend this is all you eat to boost your iron. It'd be pretty destructive to trade anemia for diabetes, but a good dessert now and then can certainly be appreciated. Of course desserts with the fruits I mentioned earlier are high in iron like fig bars, figgy pudding, oatmeal raisin cookies, date cake, strawberry shortcake, or watermelon sorbet. Another great source of iron is molasses. Molasses cookies anyone? How about molasses bread? And we can't forget maple syrup—the real stuff, not the fake maple syrup they sell. My favorite way to serve maple syrup is to dribble hot maple syrup onto a platter of clean snow. It instantly freezes to make little maple candies. Or you can cook maple syrup to make molded candies.
Foods to Avoid
Some foods can actually make it much harder for the body to absorb iron. Unfortunately, the worst offenders are coffee and tea. Bizarrely, orange juice and milk are also bad. You should also avoid junk foods which are high in saturated and trans fats as well as sugar—all of which are not great for anemic individuals. Goodbye soda, chips, and other junk foods. Hello healthier lifestyle! And finally, try to avoid soy products. They do in fact block iron absorption so no more tofu for you, sorry! All and all, I don't think these fast guidelines are particularly difficult. Eat a salad, drink less caffeine and sugar—you've heard these things before.
It's not as hard as it sounds!
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Deborah from Las Vegas on September 26, 2012:
Interesting hub and very useful to people with anemia. Voted up and shared.