Iron Deficiency and Food: Five Things We Learned

Meaty goodness. Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan.

It took passing out at work for me to acknowledge that something was really wrong. My primary care noticed after the fact that my iron level had been steadily declining. But it was never an issue until I was taken away in an ambulance. Admittedly, I don’t sleep enough, nor eat as healthy as I’d like (both of which I’ve been working on ever since the incident). I attributed my exhaustion to late nights of typing and mornings hitting the gym hard. To think that I had a condition besides asthma was not a thought that had ever crossed my mind. Yet here I was, diagnosed as anemic.

What I’ve learned about my condition isn’t some huge revelation. Yet the more I confided in people, the more I discovered how commonplace iron deficiency actually is– especially in women. While I’m neither a nurse nor science/biology whiz, sharing a handful of things I’ve learned might help you or a person you know with the same medical condition. As someone who usually spends many meals outside of the home, I wanted to know what foods would benefit me the most when I cooked in my own kitchen.

Dairy Doesn’t Help

I wanted to start off with something I wasn’t expecting to learn. See, it’s easy to list a bunch of iron-rich foods. What I thought was more valuable was how foods high in calcium actually negate iron absorption. A friend said her pal took iron pills for anemia. The same pal also has a regular hankering for milk tea boba drinks. While she may be taking a supplement for her condition, it isn’t nearly as effective when also downing her beverage. This leads us to my next finding.

Orange Juice Is Your Friend

One way to help with absorption is to consume items rich in Vitamin C while ingesting iron. The easy fix is a simple glass of OJ. However, you have to make sure you don’t buy the kind with calcium added, or you’re back at square one. Leafy greens and bell peppers are also on the C list.

Pepitas, Too!

One of the highest ranking foods with regards to iron content is the humble pumpkin seed. Yes, these popular snacking bits can be found roasted and salted at Trader Joe’s, or sold in bulk at Sprouts. I keep a stash in my car inside a glass Mason jar for those moments I need extra energy. Incorporate them into recipes for some variety, because eating them plain does get kind of boring after a while.

Bison Is Tasty

Lower in fat content and calories than chicken, but still quite high in iron, ground bison is a great alternative to beef. Buffalo meat is so mainstream, you can find it at Costco! That’s what a magazine editor told me over dinner; she likes making burgers with them. Someone I met on a press trip mentioned finding pre-made bison burger patties at Trader Joe’s in the frozen section. Her favorite thing to do is fry one up in a pan, then use the pan juices to cook chopped kale as a side to her meal. It’s a double dose of iron on a plate. I also spotted a seasonal bison meatloaf from Lazy Dog Restaurant (pictured) over the weekend, and it was pretty damn good.

Remember That Supplements Supplement

An easy fix for anemia is to take iron meds. While this is fine, it can also have its disadvantages. The recurring piece of advice given to me was to hydrate often if I planned to go this route. Why? In a word: constipation. Also, taking the recommended daily value isn’t enough, because apparently your body doesn’t absorb all the iron that you take in. That’s why most over-the-counter medicines list their iron content to be 150% or higher. The fine line is ingesting too much iron, which can put you in the emergency room. One friend experienced that first hand.  Don’t overdo it, people!

Everybody’s insides react a little differently from others, so it’s best to incorporate small changes to see how your body responds before carrying on. I mostly rely on supplements, but spend more of my time at the grocery store reading labels. There is no perfect combination of foods,  but being aware of your options does make a difference.

A contributing writer for OC Weekly, Anne Marie freelances for multiple online and print publications, and guest judges for culinary competitions. A Bay Area transplant, she graduated with a degree in Hospitality Management from Cal Poly Pomona. Find her on Instagram as brekkiefan.

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