Happy Herbivore Blog

January 3, 2012

Living with Iron Deficiency Anemia

Hi, it's Courtney, Lindsay's sister. I want to talk a little bit about iron deficiency anemia. There are different types of anemia, but iron deficiency is the most common.  I was diagnosed by my doctor as an iron deficient anemic before I was ever a herbivore.  Since becoming a herbivore,  I've found that vegans are no more likely to be deficient in iron than omnivores, and a well-balanced vegan diet has plenty of iron.

Before being diagnosed, I would always run my errands before arriving home at the end of the day since I know that once I sat down I was done for the evening. I thought me being tired all the time was just me over extending myself. I had a full- and part-time job as well as going to the gym regularly. 

Maybe I was just doing too much ... then I had my annual physical and found out I was anemic. I really didn't want to take pills, so I tried for about 8 months to eat better and add more iron rich foods to my diet, but that didn't work for me.

There are many reasons someone may become anemic, some are kidney disease, ulcers, a long-term chronic illness. I was tested for all the serious causes, and thankfully I am otherwise healthy.

Being anemic has taught me a lot about how our bodies process foods and how just because something has a high content of iron doesn't mean we will absorb it. For example, the amount of iron in 1 cup of cooked kidney beans is about 5 mg. This does not mean that you will absorb all 5 mg of iron!

There are several factors that come into play with the absorption of iron (not just for kidney beans, but for any food). One factor would be your current level of iron, which varies from person to person; another would be the other vitamins/minerals you are consuming at the time, as well as phytic acid.

Let me go into a very brief detail here, phytic acid is naturally found in nuts, seeds and legumes. It prohibits our bodies from absorbing iron when eaten. The phytic acid level can be reduced by soaking, sprouting, or fermenting the nuts, seed or legumes. Cooking alone does not eliminate phytates.

Another big factor in absorption of iron is vitamin C and tannins. Vitamin C helps with absorption, whereas tannins hinder it. Tannins are found in coffee and tea. That means, if I want to absorb the iron in my food, I should add vitamin C, like a half of an orange, and avoid having coffee or tea with my meal. 

I don't have to avoid these things entirely, I can still have tea in the afternoon, and an iron rich meal in the evening. I just can't have the tea with my meal.

I do currently take an iron supplement, but under close supervision of my doctor. A well balanced vegan diet is sufficient in iron, but there are still several things affecting iron absorption, and I don't absorb iron well.

If think you may be anemic or are considering taking an iron supplement, I would suggest having your iron levels tested before doing so. Too much iron can be toxic and deadly. 

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