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Dietary changes for anaemia treatment

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Anaemia is an umbrella term for having either fewer red blood cells than average or having an unusually low amount of haemoglobin in each red blood cell. There are various types of anaemia, the causes of which are complex and multifaceted.
Anaemia often arises from a nutritional deficiency of iron, vitamin B12, or folic acid. The most effective way to prevent anaemia, therefore, is to increase your dietary intake of one or more of these nutrients. 

If you’ve already been diagnosed with anaemia, your GP will advise you to make similar dietary changes with the help of supplements or injections.
 

Iron-deficiency anaemia: iron rich foods
 

To prevent or treat iron-deficiency anaemia, you should focus on upping your intake of dietary iron. 

A vital trace mineral, iron is found in two different forms: haem (abundant in meat, fish and poultry) and non-haem iron (abundant in plant foods).
 

Haem iron sources

  • Beef (red meat contains more haem iron than poultry)

  • Lamb

  • Pork

  • Poultry

  • Liver (although you should avoid this if you’re pregnant since it contains vitamin A, which may harm your baby)

  • Fish – mackerel, canned tuna, and sardines

  • Seafood, such as clams, oysters, and mussels 
     

Non-haem iron sources

  • Pulses – beans, peas, and lentils

  • Dark leafy vegetables, like kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, and parsley

  • Dried fruit, such as dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, and dried prunes

  • Whole grains – brown rice, oats, and spelt

  • Nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts

  • Seeds, like sunflower seeds and sesame seeds

  • Fortified breakfast cereals

  • Tofu 

Haem iron is more bioavailable (readily absorbed) than non-haem iron, which may be challenging for vegetarians and vegans who mainly obtain dietary iron from non-haem sources. Fortunately, vitamin C is known to support the absorption of iron (1). To increase your iron intake, consider eating a vitamin C source with non-haem iron:
 

Vitamin C-rich foods

  • Oranges

  • Cauliflower

  • Berries

  • Kiwi fruit

  • Cauliflower

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Parsley

  • Potatoes

It’s also worth mentioning that foods high in copper – cheese, egg yolks, seafood, liver, green vegetables and dried figs – may also improve iron absorption (2).

Try to limit your intake of tea and coffee (even decaffeinated versions), particularly at a meal, as this can reduce the amount of dietary iron your body can absorb.
 

Iron supplements

Taking a daily iron supplement is one of the most effective and convenient ways to prevent iron-deficiency anaemia. GPs also use supplements to treat cases of diagnosed iron-deficiency anaemia. Iron supplements are widely available without a prescription.

Although you can buy single iron supplements, this mineral is also often included in quality multivitamin and mineral formulas, should you wish to take that instead.

It should be noted, however, that some types of iron may cause stomach upsets and constipation. With this in mind, always choose iron citrate, which is easy on the digestive system.

Since vitamin C helps with iron absorption, you may wish to take your iron supplement with a glass of orange or grapefruit juice.
 

Vitamin C supplements

A vitamin C deficiency doesn’t cause anaemia. But, as we’ve already mentioned, taking vitamin C in combination with an iron supplement may support iron absorption.

Evidence suggests vitamin C helps store non-haem in a form that can be better absorbed by the body (3).
One study revealed that supplementing with 100mcg of vitamin C increased the iron absorption of a meal by 67 per cent (4).
Vitamin C is often included as part of a multivitamin and mineral – and can be found in our specialist NutriHair® iron formula for women. 
 

Treatment for vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia: eat more vitamin B12

A lack of vitamin B12 is also known to cause anaemia. If the body falls short in this vitamin, it produces disproportionately large red blood cells that are unable to function properly (5). (Link to article: Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia: signs and symptoms)
Besides supporting normal red blood cell formation, vitamin B12 also releases energy from the food you eat and processes folic acid.
 

Vitamin B12 is mostly found in the following animal foods:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products

Some plant-based foods also contain vitamin B12, such as:

  • Yeast extract spread (Marmite)

  • Fortified foods – breakfast cereals and dairy-free milk

However, plant foods contain much smaller quantities of vitamin B12 – and certainly not enough to support overall health. As such, vegans may struggle to get enough vitamin B12 from dietary sources alone and will need to supplement.
 

Vitamin B12 supplements

Supplementing with vitamin B12 is a simple way to prevent and treat vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia. You can choose to take vitamin B12 as a single supplement or part of a multivitamin or mineral formula.

If you’ve been diagnosed with vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia, your GP will decide if you need injections or supplements to replenish your vitamin B12 stores. In some instances, you may need injections for the rest of your life.
 

Folate deficiency treatment: eat folate

As with a shortage of iron and vitamin B12, a folate deficiency can also result in anaemia.

Another B vitamin, also known as vitamin B9 or folic acid, folate works with vitamin B12 to produce healthy red blood cells in the body.
Unlike vitamin B12, folate can be found in a wider variety of both animal and plant foods.
 

Animal-based sources of folate include:

  • Liver (once again, it’s important to avoid liver if you’re pregnant)

  • Kidneys

  • Chicken giblets

  • Egg yolks

  • Cheese

  • Salmon

  • Beef

Plant-based sources of folate include:

  • Leafy green vegetables, like broccoli and Brussels sprouts

  • Asparagus

  • Peas

  • Chickpeas

  • Brown rice

  • Citrus fruits and juices

  • Oats

  • Potatoes

  • Fortified foods
     

Try to avoid overcooking foods containing folate, as it can deplete the nutritional value. Consider steaming, stir-frying, or microwaving vegetables instead to help them retain as much folate as possible.
 

Folic acid supplements

Taking a daily folic acid supplement – as a single B vitamin or as part of a multivitamin or mineral – is an effective way to prevent any nutritional shortfalls from developing into folate deficiency anaemia.

If you’ve been diagnosed with folate deficiency anaemia, your GP will ask you to take folic acid tablets for at least four months to restore your folate levels.  Quality folic acid supplements are widely available without a prescription.
 
Living with any anaemia can leave you exhausted and depleted. But with the right dietary changes, supplements, and guidance from your GP, you can safely prevent or treat anaemia that may arise from a nutritional deficiency.
To learn more about anaemia, please head back to our dedicated blog .

 

References

  1. Hurrell R, Egli I. (2010) Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. Am J Clin Nutr. 91(5): 1461S-1467S.
  2. Reeves PG, DeMars LC. (2004) Copper deficiency reduces iron absorption and biological half-life in male rats. J Nutr. 134(8): 1953-7.
  3. Hurrell R, Egli I. (2010) Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. Am J Clin Nutr. 91(5): 1461S-1467S. 
  4. Hallberg L, Hulthén L. (2000) Prediction of dietary iron absorption: an algorithm for calculating absorption and bioavailability of dietary iron. Am J Clin Nutr. 71(5): 1147-60.
  5. nhs.uk. 2021. Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamin-b12-or-folate-deficiency-anaemia/
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