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Iron-Deficiency Anemia and Your Diet

Iron-deficiency anemia occurs when you don’t have enough iron in your body. This is a common problem. In some cases, it’s caused by not getting enough iron from foods. In other cases, it’s caused by blood loss or a health condition. If you have iron-deficiency anemia, your healthcare provider may tell you to eat more iron-rich foods.

What is the iron-deficiency anemia diet?

This diet focuses mainly on foods that are good sources of iron. It also includes foods rich in vitamin C, which helps your body absorb iron better.

How can this diet help you?

Iron is a key nutrient. Your body uses it to make hemoglobin. This is a part of red blood cells that picks up oxygen from your lungs and carries it around your body. Your body also needs iron to make a protein that provides oxygen to your muscles.

Lack of enough iron may cause fatigue, paleness, weakness, dizziness, headache, and other symptoms. If the problem isn’t treated, it may even lead to heart failure. Eating a diet that provides plenty of iron is one of the steps that helps treat or prevent such problems.

Does this diet have any risks?

Eating a nutritious diet is important. But if your body’s stores of iron have fallen too low, increasing the iron you get from foods might not be enough to restore them. Your provider may also advise iron supplements or medical treatments.

Which foods should you eat?

Iron comes in two basic forms: heme and nonheme. Animal-based foods contain both heme and nonheme iron. Plant-based foods contain nonheme iron only.

Your body absorbs the heme type of iron more easily than the nonheme type. But both forms can help build up your body’s stores of iron.

Heme iron is found in meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, and organ meats. Sources include oysters, beef liver, lean beef, chicken, turkey, salmon, and sardines.

Nonheme iron is found in beans, dark green leafy vegetables, and other plant-based foods. Sources include white beans, tofu, baked potatoes, cashews, raisins, and spinach. This type of iron is also added to iron-fortified cereals and enriched bread and other grains.

Your body absorbs nonheme iron better when you consume it (in the same meal or snack) along with:

  • Meat, poultry, fish, or shellfish

  • Fruits or vegetables that contain vitamin C

Among the best sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruit, citrus juices, kiwifruit, and green and red peppers. Other sources include cantaloupe, strawberries, baked potatoes, broccoli, and tomatoes. Some foods and drinks also have added vitamin C. Check the labels on food products.

Aim for a heart-healthy eating style. This helps improve your overall health. It may also reduce your risk for heart complications. Eat a variety of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Include healthy protein foods, such as lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, and nuts. Choose low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy products.

Which foods should you pass up?

Coffee and black tea reduce the absorption of iron. Don't have these, especially with meals.

Limit foods that are not part of a heart-healthy eating style. That includes foods high in sodium, saturated fat, trans fats, and added sugars. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.

Tips for following this diet

Getting enough iron is possible on a vegetarian diet. But you need to choose your foods carefully. If you are unsure how to do this, a registered dietitian nutritionist can help.

Cooking decreases the vitamin C content of foods. Luckily, many vitamin C-rich foods can be eaten raw. If you do cook them, steaming or microwaving them for short periods may reduce the vitamin loss.

Along with diet changes, iron supplements are sometimes prescribed for treating iron-deficiency anemia. But you should only take a supplement under your provider’s guidance. Too much iron can be harmful.

Cook your food in a cast iron skillet. Doing this can increase iron content.

Suggestions for planning meals

  • For breakfast, have iron-fortified cereal with strawberries, a grapefruit half, or a glass of 100% orange juice.

  • For lunch, have a bowl of chili made with lean ground beef (optional), beans, and tomatoes.

  • For dinner, pair grilled salmon with lightly steamed spinach that has been tossed in lemon juice and olive oil.

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