Food as Medicine—RX-Anemia
By Emily Yin
You take a deep breath, air fills your lungs, and oxygen travels efficiently to every part of your body, restoring energy and vitality. Not so for those with anemia. People with this condition lack sufficient red blood cells and/or hemoglobin to carry enough oxygen to muscles and other tissues. The result? Fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath, and trouble concentrating. Anemia transforms molehill tasks into mountains.
Although many factors can cause anemia, the most common culprit involves not getting enough iron in your diet. Iron forms the critical part of hemoglobin to which oxygen binds. No iron, no oxygen transport.
In the US, iron-deficiency anemia more often afflicts menstruating or pregnant women, children under 2 who are not breastfed, athletes, and people with kidney failure or intestinal absorption problems. Vegetarians also face a higher risk, says Bob Kingelheber, DO, of the Poudre Valley Health district in Colorado. “A plant-based diet with limited animal products can lead to a deficiency in iron,” he explains, in part because the body absorbs plant-based iron less efficiently.
How much iron do you need? US dietary guidelines recommend the following daily amounts:
Men ages 19 to 50: 8 mg;
Women 19 to 50: 18 mg;
Pregnant women: 27 mg;
Lactating women: 9 mg; and
Vegetarians: 32.4 mg.
Fortunately, you can up your iron intake with foods such as lentils, beans, dried fruit, green leafy vegetables, blackstrap molasses, almonds, yams, and fortified grains. “Eating these foods with vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, berries, mangos, pineapples, and melon, boosts the absorption of iron,” Kingelheber adds. Other smart strategies include cooking in cast-iron pans and steaming your vegetables so they retain more of their natural minerals.
You should also cut back (or eat separately) those foods that interfere with iron absorption: tea, coffee, red wine, calcium-rich foods, wheat bran, and unfermented soy.
Because the causes, symptoms, and treatment of anemia are complex—and overdosing with iron can be toxic—talk to your doctor before piling on the supplements or switching your diet. Even if you show no symptoms, you may want to get your iron levels checked anyway since you can eat an iron-deficient diet for five years before signs of anemia start to appear.
The bottom line: Don’t let frailty be thy name. Make sure you get the most out of the foods you eat, and you’ll be pumping iron in the gym, not getting it from a supplement bottle.