I’ve never been anemic (as far as I know), but when I found out I was pregnant last winter, I rushed out to buy prenatal vitamins with a hefty dose of iron. Obstetricians often recommend supplements with iron, so I didn’t think twice about taking the giant pills—until the first trimester nausea continued on a daily basis well into my second trimester. As I found out, nausea is a very common complaint of anemic patients who start iron therapy by taking over-the-counter iron pills.
No one enjoys feeling their stomach turn on a daily basis. The side effects of iron pills can be even more distracting than the effects of anemia (which include fatigue, weakness, lightheadedness and confusion). That’s why, when anemia rears its ugly head, many people would prefer to fight it with food.
To make the “food fight” more practical for people who don’t want to make beef liver and oysters part of their daily diet, nurses Linda Grooms, RN, CPON, and Michelle Walsh, PhD, CPNP, at the outpatient adolescent hematology clinic at Nationwide Children’s Hospital made handouts designed for the average family. Although I initially interviewed them to ask about special diets for teenage girls with bleeding disorders, I found out that their lists offered great advice for boys and girls (and pregnant writers!) of all ages.
Perhaps best of all, their lists can help teens and young adults manage their iron levels without regular prescriptions, pills or micromanagement from Mom and Dad. Even for picky eaters, like many teenage girls, the handouts offer practical suggestions for getting enough iron. Dry cereal as a snack, a chicken breast for dinner, a handful of nuts before soccer practice—the simple possibilities go on and on.
The best dietary sources of iron include:
Other great options include:
Fortified cereals (such as Total, Kix, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Chex, Multi-Grain Cheerios and Cocoa Krispies)
Enriched grains (breads, pastas, etc.)
Just remember to pair iron sources with foods or drinks that are high in vitamin C, since this helps your body absorb the iron better. For example, have a glass of orange juice with your dry cereal, broccoli with your steak, and a few strawberries with your peanut butter sandwich. The nurses also recommend avoiding caffeine and calcium (such as coffee or milk) when eating iron-rich foods, as these can make it harder for your body to use the iron.
Always consult a physician if you suspect someone in your family has anemia or another health problem. If you get the go-ahead from the doctor, fight anemia with food. And for the general iron-related health of your family, try keeping these suggestions in mind the next time you go grocery shopping, or post a list on the refrigerator. Before you know it, a balanced dinner might just make your anemia concerns a thing of the past!
Katie Brind’Amour, MS, CHES is a former senior science writer and editor for Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
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