Dietary Ways to Manage Iron Deficiency Anemia

Eating the right foods can help you treat anemia

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Different types of anemia can occur during cancer treatment. The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia. In iron deficiency anemia, your red blood cells don't have enough iron to carry oxygen efficiently. This lack of iron can leave you feeling fatigued, breathless, tired, and appearing pale, among other symptoms.

If your doctor suspects you are anemic, they will do a complete blood count (CBC) and check your hemoglobin and hematocrit levels.

 

Incorporating Iron-Rich Foods Into Your Diet

If you know your anemia is related to low iron, certain food choices can help your body get the iron it needs. Even if your medical team advises against using an iron supplement, eating a healthy, iron-rich diet is safe and can help your body heal and recover.

Beef and other animal foods contain plenty of iron. The darker the meat, the better the source of iron. For example, a steak that is dark red steak before cooking will have the most iron. Dark turkey meat has more iron than light turkey meat. Most animal foods contain some iron. If you do eat beef, pork, poultry, fish, or any other meat, cook the meat completely to minimize the risk of food poisoning. 

If you can't or don't want to eat animal foods, you can focus on eating more iron-rich plant foods such as:

  • Vegetables. Look for leafy greens such as broccoli, spinach, kale, turnip greens, and collards; potatoes with the skin; lima beans; green peas; beans like kidney, black, navy, etc.; and tomato sauce.
  • Fruit. Pick fruits such as dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, prunes, and prune juice.
  • Grains. Choose iron-fortified whole-grain bread, pasta, rice, and cereal. Scan food labels and look for bread and cereals that contain 20 percent or more of the daily value for iron.
  • Nuts and seeds. All nuts and seeds contain some iron. Try peanuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and almonds. Nut butters also contain some iron.
  • Blackstrap molasses. While not a common food choice, blackstrap molasses contains plenty of iron. Try it on hot cereal, such as oatmeal. If you like the taste, have a spoonful anytime to boost the iron in your diet.

Other Ways to Get More Iron

Beyond changing up your diet, there are other ways to get ​more iron to your red blood cells, these include: 

  • Cooking with cast-iron. Believe it or not, your food absorbs iron from cast iron pots and pans. This works especially well with acidic foods, such as tomatoes, and tomato-based sauces.
  • Go for the "C." Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron from the foods you eat. For example, having orange juice (not calcium-fortified) with a meal will help your body absorb more iron.
  • Keep your calcium in check. Calcium makes it harder for your body to absorb iron. Do not take an iron supplement or eat iron-rich foods with milk, other calcium-rich foods, or a calcium supplement. It's OK to eat calcium-rich foods, just be sure to have them at different times than your iron-rich meals and supplements. 
  • Limit coffee, tea, and soda. These beverages make it harder for your body to absorb iron. Do not take an iron supplement or eat iron-rich foods with coffee, tea, or soda.
  • Skip the high-fiber cereals. Fiber-rich cereal, such as bran cereals, make it harder for your body to absorb iron. Do not take an iron supplement or eat iron-rich foods while eating high-fiber cereals.
  • Easier iron supplements. If your doctor has prescribed iron supplements and they constipate you or upset your stomach, try taking the slow-release form of iron. Look for one labeled "Slow Fe" or "Slow Iron."

When to Take an Iron Supplement

If you have anemia, ask your health care team if you need an iron supplement. If you are prescribed an iron supplement, be sure to take the type of iron your body can use best.

Good iron supplements contain ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous ascorbate, or ferric ammonium citrate. Check the label and pick a supplement that contains one of these types of iron. In some cases, iron can be repleted intravenously (IV).

Not all anemias are related to iron deficiency, so consult your doctor before taking an iron supplement. In general, you should always discuss any dietary supplements and over-the-counter medications you use with your doctor. This is incredibly important since some supplements and medications can interfere with other medications you may be taking. It's best to be safe and get your doctor's seal of approval before using these products. 

The most important thing you can do to treat any anemia you may experience during cancer care is to take your medications as prescribed. Your health care team will determine which medications, if any, are appropriate to treat your anemia. If you are prescribed a medication and experience side effects that make it impossible to continue taking it, call your doctor right away and let them know. 

Sources

American Dietetic Association, Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. The Clinical Guide to Oncology Nutrition, 2nd Edition. Eds. Elliott L, Molseed LL, McCallum PD, Grant B.

USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

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