The most common nutritional deficiency worldwide is iron (1) Even without anemia, iron deficiency affects cognition in adolescent girls and reduces work capacity in adults (2, 3). Children suffering from iron deficiency anemia are at risk for impairments to motor and mental development (4)
It is possible to boost your absorption of nutrients like iron from diet and “build your blood” by following Asian medicine dietary principles. These include:
- Treat eating like a meditative practice. Eat in a relaxed manner and focus on your food, studying its taste, color, and smell before and while you eat it. This promotes function of the vagal nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and is responsible for the bodily functions of rest and digest.
- Restrict intake of ice-cold water with meals, and more optimally, consume water about 20 minutes away from meals.
- Consume warm, well-cooked foods, such as soups and stews. Avoid cold and raw food, especially in the winter season. If you are consuming a salad be generous with your use of salad dressing such as apple cider vinegar to aid in proper digestion.
- Increase your intake of root vegetables, including: sweet potato, squash, and carrots, especially in the fall and winter seasons.
- When cooking food, use warming spices. These may include: fennel, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and red pepper
- Increase your intake of foods that traditionally build blood and increase iron stores. These include: goat/lamb stews, molasses, black beans, chickpeas, and beets
- Eat meat, poultry or fish at the same time as green veggies or beans. The meat, as well as containing iron itself, helps absorb iron from other foods containing iron if eaten at the same time.
- Avoid eating dairy with iron-containing foods. Studies in humans have shown that calcium in supplements & dairy inhibits iron absorption (5). So skip the cheese on your burger.
- Include fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C as part of your meals. Vitamin C enhances absorption of iron, and counteracts some of the constipating action of iron.
- Avoid drinking black tea at mealtimes and for half an hour after meals. Tannins in tea reduce the amount of iron absorbed from food.
- Cook meals on cast iron skillets. Or, use the ‘Lucky Iron Fish,’ a small iron cooking tool to infuse your meals with iron.
If you suffer from iron deficiency, it is important to determine the cause and consult a doctor. In women, blood loss, pregnancy or lack of meat in the diet are the leading causes of iron deficiency. Other more rare causes include: malabsorption, fibroids, bleeding disorders and cancer.
For my patients, I determine risk of iron deficiency through an assessment of diet, digestion, and current symptoms. Where relevant, I order labs, which may include: CBC, Ferritin, and an Iron panel to come to a diagnosis. When interpreting blood-work, I seek optimal values, such as a target ferritin level of 60ng/mL for adult women.
Ask your doctor before starting any treatment, including dietary and nutrient recommendations. If you have a hemoglobin variant such as Hemochromatosis, these recommendations could cause iron overload.
- Killip S, Bennett JM, Chambers MD. Am Fam Physician. 2007 Mar 1;75(5):671-678. Available online: https://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0301/p671.html
- Halterman JS, Kaczorowski JM, Aligne CA, Auinger P, Szilagyi PG. Iron deficiency and cognitive achievement among school-aged children and adolescents in the United States. Pediatrics. 2001;107:1381–6.
- Haas JD, Brownlie T IV. Iron deficiency and reduced work capacity: a critical review of the research to determine a causal relationship. J Nutr. 2001;131(2 suppl):676S–88S; discussion 688S–90S.
- Algarin C, Peirano P, Garrido M, Pizarro F, Lozoff B. Iron deficiency anemia in infancy: long-lasting effects on auditory and visual system functioning. Pediatr Res. 2003;53:217–23.
- Zamzam K (Fariba) Roughead, Carol A Zito, Janet R Hunt. Inhibitory effects of dietary calcium on the initial uptake and subsequent retention of heme and nonheme iron in humans: comparisons using an intestinal lavage method. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 82, Issue 3, September 2005, Pages 589–597, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/82.3.589