Anemia happens when your body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells. The condition is mainly caused by blood loss, the destruction of red blood cells, or your body’s inability to create enough red blood cells.
There are many types of anemia. The most common type is iron deficiency anemia.
Red blood cells contain a protein called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is full of iron. Without sufficient iron, your body can’t make the hemoglobin it needs to create enough red blood cells to deliver oxygen-rich blood throughout your body.
A diet rich in iron, B vitamins, and vitamin C like the plan below is important if you have anemia. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about supplements as well.
Anemia treatment plans often include dietary changes. The best diet plan for anemia includes foods rich in iron and other vitamins essential to hemoglobin and red blood cell production. It should also include foods that help your body absorb iron better.
There are two types of iron in foods: heme iron and nonheme iron.
Heme iron is found in meat, poultry, and seafood. Nonheme iron is found in plant foods and foods fortified with iron. Your body can absorb both types, but it absorbs heme iron more easily.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for iron is 10 milligrams (mg) for men and 12 mg for women.
Although anemia treatment plans are individualized, most require 150 to 200 mg of elemental iron daily. You’ll likely need to take prescription iron or an over-the-counter iron supplement until your levels are replenished.
Add these foods to your diet to get more iron and help fight iron deficiency anemia:
Leafy greens, especially dark ones, are among the best sources of nonheme iron. They include:
- collard greens
- dandelion greens
- Swiss chard
Some leafy greens such as Swiss chard and collard greens also contain folate. A diet low in folate may cause folate deficiency anemia. Citrus fruits, beans, and whole grains are good sources of folate.
When eating dark, leafy greens for iron, there’s a catch. Some greens high in iron, such as spinach and kale, are also high in oxalates. Oxalates can bind with iron, preventing the absorption of nonheme iron.
So while it’s beneficial to eat your greens as part of an overall anemia diet, don’t depend on them solely to treat the condition.
Vitamin C helps your stomach absorb iron. Eating leafy greens with foods that contain vitamin C such as oranges, red peppers, and strawberries may increase iron absorption. Some greens are good sources of both iron and vitamin C, such as collard greens and Swiss chard.
All meat and poultry contain heme iron. Red meat, lamb, and venison are the best sources. Poultry and chicken have lower amounts.
Eating meat or poultry with nonheme iron foods, such as leafy greens, along with a vitamin C-rich fruit can increase iron absorption.
Many people shy away from organ meats, but they’re a great source of iron.
Liver is arguably the most popular organ meat. It’s rich in iron and folate. Some other iron-rich organ meats are heart, kidney, and beef tongue.
Some seafood provides heme iron. Shellfish such as oysters, clams, scallops, crabs, and shrimp are good sources. Most fish contain iron.
Fish with the best levels of iron include:
- canned or fresh tuna
- mahi mahi
- fresh perch
- fresh or canned salmon
Although canned sardines are good sources of iron, they’re also high in calcium.
Calcium may bind with iron and reduces its absorption. Foods high in calcium shouldn’t be eaten at the same time as iron-rich foods.
Other examples of calcium-rich foods include:
- dairy milk
- fortified plant milks
Many foods are fortified with iron. Add these foods to your diet if you’re a vegetarian or struggle to eat other sources of iron:
- fortified orange juice
- fortified ready-to-eat cereals
- foods made from fortified refined flour such as white bread
- fortified pasta
- foods made from fortified cornmeal
- fortified white rice
Beans are good sources of iron for vegetarians and meat eaters alike. They’re also inexpensive and versatile.
Some iron-rich options are:
- kidney beans
- black-eyed peas
- pinto beans
- black beans
- lima beans
Many types of nuts and seeds are good sources of iron. They taste great on their own or sprinkled on salads or yogurt.
Some nuts and seeds that contain iron are:
- pumpkin seeds
- hemp seeds
- pine nuts
- sunflower seeds
Both raw and roasted nuts have similar amounts of iron.
Almonds are also a good source of iron. They’re great as part of a healthy eating plan, but since they’re also high in calcium, they may not increase your iron levels that much.
No single food will cure anemia. But eating an overall healthy diet rich in dark, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, seafood, meat, beans, and vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables can help you get the iron you need to manage anemia.
Be sure to discuss supplements with your healthcare provider because it’s difficult to get enough iron from diet alone.
A cast iron skillet is an anemia diet plan staple. Foods cooked in cast iron absorb iron from the skillet. Acidic foods absorb the most iron, and foods cooked for short periods of time absorb the least.
When following a diet plan for anemia, remember these guidelines:
- Don’t eat iron-rich foods with foods or beverages that block iron absorption. These include coffee or tea, eggs, foods high in oxalates, and foods high in calcium.
- Eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods, such as oranges, tomatoes, or strawberries, to improve absorption.
- Eat iron-rich foods with foods that contain beta carotene, such as apricots, red peppers, and beets, to improve absorption.
- Eat a variety of heme and nonheme iron foods throughout the day to up your iron intake.
- Eat heme and nonheme iron foods together whenever possible to increase iron absorption.
- Add foods rich in folate and vitamin B-12 to support red blood cell production.