Anemia: fight back with foods

Anemia is a fairly common condition that results when the body doesn't have enough iron to produce the hemoglobin needed to make red blood cells. Luckily, certain foods can help!

Anemia: fight back with foods

What causes anemia

  • Proper production of red blood cells helps to supply and transport oxygen to the body's tissues and organs.
  • If your cells don't have a normal supply of oxygen, you feel tired and weak, symptoms associated with iron deficiency anemia (the most prevalent type of anemia), which is a reversible condition.
  • In addition to iron deficiency anemia, there are folate deficiency anemia, pernicious anemia and more rare types of anemia, such as aplastic anemia, hemolytic anemia, thalassemia and sickle cell anemia.
  • Iron deficiency anemia can result from either an iron-poor diet (more often found in vegetarians), intestinal problems that interfere with proper iron absorption, or blood loss (from an acute incident, such as a hemorrhage; from benign causes, such as hemorrhoids or menstruation; or from gastrointestinal bleeding).
  • Young children and pre-menopausal women are at highest risk for developing iron deficiency anemia.
  • Pregnancy can also increase the risk for anemia because the iron requirements of the fetus can potentially deplete the mother's stores of the mineral.

How food may help

  • To produce red blood cells, the body requires, among other nutrients, iron, folate and vitamin B12.
  • For iron deficiency anemia, you can help build up your iron stores by eating foods rich in either "heme" or "nonheme" iron.
  • Heme iron, which is absorbed by the body more effectively than nonheme iron, is available in meat, poultry, fish and shellfish.
  • Interestingly enough, heme iron promotes the absorption of nonheme iron from other food when eaten at the same time.
  • It is important for vegetarians to eat ample amounts of nonheme iron (found in certain plant foods) along with foods rich in vitamin C, which improves nonheme iron absorption.
  • To enhance your iron stores, cook in iron pots and pans. Vitamin C also improves folate absorption, which is important in managing folate deficiency anemia.
  • Folate is required for the body's metabolism of amino acids, as well as for the formation of healthy red blood cells.
  • Foods rich in this important B vitamin should be consumed on a regular basis, because folate is water-soluble and the body cannot store a lot of it.
  • Vegans and vegetarians may be at risk for developing pernicious anemia, which results from a chronic lack of vitamin B12.
  • It may also be useful to eat foods rich in beta-carotene, since this carotenoid is converted in our bodies to vitamin A, which may help to mobilize stored iron from the liver.
  • Foods rich in vitamin B6, which assists in the formation of hemoglobin, are also beneficial.
  • Make sure you consult a physician before you embark on a nutritional plan to correct your anemia.

Foods to avoid

Note that some foods contain substances that may reduce your body's ability to absorb iron:

  • Tannic acid in tea
  • Calcium phosphate in dairy products
  • Oxalates in spinach, rhubarb, Swiss chard and chocolate
  • Phytates in bran, peas, seeds and soybeans

All of these may hinder the entry of iron into your digestive system. A high-fibre diet in general may act as an iron inhibitor.

Foods to eat

  • Asparagus
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Chicory
  • Lentils
  • Pinto beans
  • Amaranth
  • Clams
  • Oysters
  • Quinoa
  • Tofu
  • Mackerel
  • Nonfat plain yogurt
  • Sardines
  • Trout
  • Broccoli
  • Citrus fruit
  • Peppers
  • Strawberries

Although anemia is a relatively simple problem to correct on its own, you should definitely consult your doctor if chronic problems occur.

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