Iron Deficiency Anemia & Iron-Rich Foods

Iron deficiency anemia, IDA, is a common symptom among cancer patients. It can be the result of the inflammatory process of cancer or by its treatment. Many patients come into the oncologists office with a history of anemia. From my research I see that iron deficiency is a common problem world wide. Treating IDA varies by cause. Depending on the diagnosis, it can be helped or corrected with nutrition. In this post I am going to discuss dietary sources of iron exclusively. Eating a diet rich in iron can be done alongside any treatments your healthcare team has decided upon.


The National Institute of Health states on their Iron Supplement Fact Sheetstate that “People in the United States usually obtain adequate amounts of iron from their diets” & “Isolated iron deficiency is uncommon in the United States. Because iron deficiency is associated with poor diet, malabsorptive disorders, and blood loss, people with iron deficiency usually have other nutrient deficiencies.”  Hmm…

The Iron Disorders Institute states: “Iron deficiency is a condition resulting from too little iron in the body. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the world. In the USA, despite food fortification, iron deficiency is on the rise in certain populations.” Diet plays a huge part in this. Poor diets are not just an economical problem. The SAD, standard american diet, is woefully lacking nutrients the body needs to stay healthy.


This is an informative resource about Iron Deficiency Anemia. This was written in January 2017 & it states that IDA is a common nutritional deficiency in the USA. I wanted to share this paragraph regarding the symptoms of anemia. 

Academy of Nutrition& Dietetics, EatRight: Foods to Fight Iron Deficiency By Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN, Published January 06, 2017

“If the body doesn’t absorb its needed amount of iron, it becomes iron deficient. Symptoms appear only when iron deficiency has progressed to iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which the body’s iron stores are so low that not enough normal red blood cells can be made to carry oxygen efficiently. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the United States. 

Symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Pale skin and fingernails
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Glossitis (inflamed tongue)

Iron is an import mineral the body needs. As explained in the Patient & Caregiver Handout from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: Iron in Your Diet  “Iron is an essential mineral that your body needs to create red blood cells, which store and carry oxygen throughout your body. Iron is also part of many proteins and enzymes that help you stay healthy.

Iron Deficiency Anemia   “If  your body isn’t getting enough iron, you can develop iron deficiency anemia. This can happen if you:

  • Don’t have enough iron in your diet
  • Have had chemotherapy
  • Have had radiation therapy
  • Have a chronic illness
  • Have lost some of your blood, such as during surgery or an accident

How much iron you need to stay healthy is decided by age & gender. The handout has a graph for you to use set up by both age & gender. “Common side effects of taking higher amounts of iron include stomach irritation and constipation.”

The article brings up two important points: do not take iron supplements without speaking with your healthcare team & don’t forget to read the labels on all foods & supplements. Many are fortified with iron & you can easily go over the recommended daily amount. 

I would recommend that you look at & print out this handout if you or someone you knows is anemic or has been diagnosed with Iron Deficiency Anemia.


Sources of iron in your food are divided into two types. There is some controversy surrounding whether or not vegan’s & vegetarians can get enough iron in their diets, in particular the vegan.

  • Heme: from an animal source which includes dairy, fish & poultry.
  • Non-heme: from plant-based foods

The above mentioned handout has a list of both animal & plant-based foods rich in iron. Here is a list for meat-eaters from WebMD: Iron-Rich Foods “Some foods can help your body absorb iron from iron-rich foods; others can hinder it. To absorb the most iron from the foods you eat, avoid drinking coffee or tea or consuming calcium-rich foods or drinks with meals containing iron-rich foods. To improve your absorption of iron, eat it along with a good source of vitamin C — such as orange juice, broccoli, or strawberries — or eat nonheme iron foods with a food from the meat, fish, and poultry group. I have a problem with all the lists I found for people who eat meat. They all start with beef, making you think that is the only way to get a good source of iron. Keep reading & take a look at the veggies list. 

Very good sources of heme iron, with 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • 3 ounces of beef or chicken liver
  • 3 ounces of clams, mollusks, or mussels
  • 3 ounces of oysters

Good sources of heme iron, with 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • 3 ounces of cooked beef
  • 3 ounces of canned sardines, canned in oil

Other sources of heme iron, with 0.7 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • 3 ounces of chicken
  • 3 ounces of cooked turkey
  • 3 ounces of halibut, haddock, perch, salmon, or tuna
  • 3 ounces of ham
  • 3 ounces of veal

Other sources of heme iron, with 0.3 milligrams or more per serving, include:

  • 3 ounces of halibut, haddock, perch, salmon, or tuna

Rodales Organic Life… 14 Vegetarian Foods That Have More Iron Than Meat: Your best meat-free options to boost your iron levels. November 18, 2016

Check out their comprehensive list with the amounts of iron per serving.

  1. Spinach
  2. Broccoli
  3. Lentils
  4. Kale
  5. Bok Choy
  6. Baked Potato
  7. Sesame Seeds
  8. Cashews
  9. Soybeans
  10. Chickpeas
  11. DARK CHOCOLATE 🙂
  12. Swiss Chard
  13. Tofu
  14. Kidney Beans

This list adds a few more. One Green Planet: 10 Plant-based Foods Packed with Iron Take a look at the article for the amount of iron in each.

  1. DARK CHOCOLATE & COCOA POWDER 🙂
  2. Dried Fruit
  3. Blackstrap Molasses
  4. Dark Leafy Greens
  5. Spirulina
  6. Tofu
  7. Whole Grains
  8. Legumes
  9. Nuts
  10. Seeds

I have had a problem with Anemia my entire life. It isn’t bad, just low. I have never been able to give blood because of it. My doctors have always blamed my being a vegetarian as the problem. But here is the kicker 🙂 When I am following a strict vegan diet my numbers improve & I am no longer anemic. I don’t know why & my doctors just shake their collective heads. I think it is because I increase the veggies, fruits & whole grains in my diet & stop all dairy including eggs. This would decrease the chronic inflammatory process & would make sense.

I am not suggesting that you become a vegan if you are anemic. I am making a case for increasing the iron rich veggies, fruits & whole grains in your diet & not relying on just meat, poultry & fish for iron.

For those of us who are vegan, on the Forks over Knives website, What Is a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet?  BY , the erroneous idea of eating for just one nutrient is explained.

The idea of eating a particular food for one nutrient is pervasive in our culture. We have been led to believe we should eat meat for protein, dairy for calcium, fish for omega-3 fatty acids, and even tomatoes for lycopene, among many others. This sort of thinking is misguided and has caused grave harm to human health. The quest for protein, for example, has steered us toward meat consumption. In this quest, we not only consume protein in excess of our needs, but also many harmful substances like dietary cholesterol that are only present in animal foods.

No food is a single nutrient, and we should never think of foods in that way. Any given food has countless nutrients. What matters most is the overall nutrient profile, i.e., the whole package. Whole, plant-based foods contain all the essential nutrients (with the exception of vitamin B12), and in proportions that are more consistent with human needs than animal-based or processed foods. So our question is really this: Why waste any of what we eat on inferior packages? As long as—over time—we choose a variety of whole, plant-based foods, we will easily meet our nutritional needs.

Even on this diet, people sometimes tend to worry about eating a certain type of green vegetable for calcium, beans for protein, nuts for fat, and so on. We ask you to let go of that kind of thinking. The most important thing in this lifestyle is to choose the whole, plant-based food you enjoy most!” I have discussed how a whole food has thousands & maybe more pathways of information. The nutrients in each food works synergistically within the food & with other foods as well. Isolating one nutrient does not make sense.

Another good website to look at for vegans is Dr. Neal Bernard’s: 21 day Vegan Kickstart  & his Food For Life program.


Before I sign off, I want to share part of an email I received from our NUT, Terrie M, about last weeks post: Organic Imposters  I followed up on what she says & she is correct. This is a good example of store brands being legit. “I have checked out the Organic veggies when I find them at the 99 cent store. They are the same packages I see at Sprouts and Frazier Farms. The local company is identified on the package and invites a “check us out.” I did,  it is not day old, it is over picked and packaged surplus. Helps me greatly. I buy what they have, Spinach or other “greens…”  Thank you Terrie!

Until next week…Mary 🙂


Additional Resources