Nutrition for Anemia
One of the simplest ways to improve anemia is through the consumption of foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and elements specifically identified as therapeutic for this condition. Because a cardinal symptom of anemia is the existence of weak or insufficient levels of red blood cells in the body (which transport oxygen), therapeutic nutrition focuses on building stronger blood. To achieve that, a dietary intake rich in iron, vitamins B6 and B12, and other specific nutrients is key to improvement.
What is Anemia?
Only a qualified medical professional can diagnose true anemia, due to the necessity of blood tests in identifying the condition. Anemia is a disorder in which there are either low levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells (RBCs) or weak/defective RBCs resulting in low oxygen-carrying function. A third cause of anema can be actual loss of blood volume through bleeding.
Poor dietary intake of vital nutrients can result in low RBC production, while chronic illness or disease may result in both decreased production and high levels of destruction of red blood cells (RBCs). Symptoms of anemia include weakness, pallor (pale complexion), low energy, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headache. Often, the hands and feet are cold to the touch, and body temperature may be below normal.
What Dietary Nutrients Can Improve Anemia?
For general anemic conditions, the following foods are considered beneficial and often therapeutic (i.e., capable of reversing and/or stopping further decline):
Kale and kelp
All red meats
Iron-deficient Anemia (“iron-poor blood” or “tired blood”)
The World Health Organization has identified iron deficiency as the most common nutritional deficiency in the world, affecting some 30 percent of all people. This seems paradoxical, since iron is one of the most abundant metals on earth and is essential to most life forms. Iron gives blood its characteristic red color.
There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin, the blood protein that delivers oxygen to cell tissue.
Accordingly, heme iron is found in animal foods that contain hemoglobin, such as:
- Red meats
- Fish (tuna, bluefin, halibut)
- Poultry meat (chicken liver contains high amounts)
- Shellfish such as oysters, clams, crabs and shrimp
Nonheme iron is essentially plant-derived and abundant in:
- Beans (pinto, lima, navy, kidney, black)
- Nuts and seeds
- “Iron-enriched” and “iron-fortified” foods, such as breads, cereals, grits, oatmeal, etc
Folate (folic acid)-deficient Anemia
Folic acid is a B vitamin necessary for the growth of healthy new cells and especially blood cells. Good food sources of folic acid are:
- Beef liver
- Black-eyed peas or dried beans
Other Vitamin-deficient Anemias (“Pernicious Anemia”)
Vitamin B12 is considered important in building and fortifying blood cells. Good sources include:
- Breakfast cereals fortified with B12
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Animal meats (beef, liver, poultry, fish, shellfish)
Vitamin B6 performs a variety of functions in the body, notably, red blood cell production and enhancement of hemoglobin function. Common foods rich in Vitamin B6 include:
- Fish (salmon, tuna)
- Peanut butter
- Fortified breakfast cereals
Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron. Fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables and juices have more Vitamin C than canned sources. Highest levels of Vitamin C can be found in:
- Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, tangerines)
- Kiwi fruit
- Melons (cantaloupe, watermelon)
- Leafy green vegetables
How Does Nutrition Work to Improve Anemia?
Irrespective of the particular type of anemia or its causative factors, nutritional therapy can improve anemia symptoms. This is because anemia generally manifests in weak or reduced red blood cells, and the above foods are specifically identified as enhancing the production and function of blood cells.
Therapeutic nutrients can only be effective in improving anemia if they are properly absorbed in the body. Heme iron (animal/protein-based) is considered superior for iron-deficient anemia and is readily absorbed by the body. Cooking with iron pots and pans also increases the amount of consumed iron. For vegetarian diets, Vitamin C can enhance the amount of non-heme iron absorbed in meatless meals. Some food compounds may slightly decrease iron absorption, such as oxalic acid in spinach, phosphates in milk products and egg whites, phytates in beans, and possibly tannins in tea.
Are Supplements as Effective as Food in Improving Anemia?
Because many foods are already enhanced with vitamins and minerals, it is best to assess the amounts already consumed from foods and beverages before relying on supplements. Notwithstanding, Vitamin B6, B12, and folate are common supplements used to address dietary needs for anemia.
Iron supplements should be taken only if prescribed by a medical professional. Excessive amounts of iron are stored in organs such as the liver and heart rather than excreted from the body, which may lead to iron toxicity. In persons genetically sensitive to iron, iron overload may lead to hemochromatosis, resulting in liver cirrhosis and heart failure.
Are There Foods to Avoid if You Have Anemia?
Generally, black teas are not recommended for persons with anemic conditions. Calcium intake interferes with iron absorption, so the two nutrients should not be consumed together.
Can Nutrition Alone Cure Anemia?
The short answer is no, unless the anemic condition has been medically identified as being caused by deficient nutritional intake. Anemia is often a symptom or manifestation of another underlying problem, including defective absorption or metabolism of nutrients. Under those circumstances, high intake of therapeutic nutrients will be of little value without treating the underlying cause.
Finding a Nutritionist
Professionally trained nutritionists can assist in developing therapeutic diets specifically catered to individual needs. Their knowledge of nutrition and the nutrient value of foods allow them to adjust dietary plans to accommodate food dislikes or likes and to recommend substitutions. Local hospital or medical centers are good resources for finding local nutritionists, as are county or state public health facilities.
The U.S. Government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers a wealth of information on anemia and nutritional therapies.
The Mayo Clinic also offers information on amenia.
“Anemia: Treatments and Drugs.” from the The Mayo Clinic.
“FAQ: Folic Acid.” From the National Women’s Health Information Center.
“Iron and Anemia.” from Rutgers University.