“I had anemia when I was a teenager,” recalls Beth. “I was lethargic, I tired quickly, my bones ached, and I found it hard to concentrate. My doctor prescribed iron supplements. I took these, and I also improved my diet. Soon I began to feel better.”
Beth’s health problem is a common one. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), two billion people—about 30 percent of the world’s population—are anemic. In developing countries, an estimated 50 percent of pregnant women and 40 percent of preschool children are anemic.
Anemia can have serious consequences. In severe cases, it can lead to heart problems and even heart failure. In some lands, anemia “contributes to 20% of all maternal deaths,” says WHO. Babies born to mothers with iron-deficiency anemia—the most common form of anemia—may be born prematurely and may be underweight. Anemic children may develop more slowly and be prone to infection. Yet, iron-deficiency anemia can normally be prevented or cured. a
What Is Anemia?
Anemia is a medical condition. Put simply, people with anemia do not have enough healthy red blood cells. The reasons for this vary. In fact, scientists have identified more than 400 kinds of anemia! The condition can be temporary or chronic, mild or severe.
What Causes Anemia?
Anemia has three main causes:
Loss of blood depletes the number of red blood cells in the body.
The body does not make enough healthy red blood cells.
The body destroys red blood cells.
Iron-deficiency anemia is considered the world’s most widespread form of anemia. When the body does not have enough iron, it cannot develop enough normal hemoglobin, the substance inside red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen.
What Are the Symptoms of Iron-Deficiency Anemia?
Initially, anemia may be mild, even unnoticed. Though symptoms may vary, the symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia include the following:
Cold hands or feet
Headaches and dizziness
Chest pain, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath
A poor appetite, especially in infants and children
A craving to eat ice, starch, or even dirt
Who Are at Risk?
Women are prone to iron-deficiency anemia because they lose blood during menstruation. Pregnant women are also at risk if their diet does not provide enough folate, or folic acid, a B vitamin.
Infants born prematurely or with a low birth weight who do not get enough iron from breast milk or formula.
Children who don’t eat a variety of healthful foods.
Vegetarians whose diet has insufficient iron-rich foods.
The chronically ill, such as those with blood diseases, cancer, kidney failure, slow-bleeding ulcers, or certain infections.
How to Treat Anemia
Not all anemias can be prevented or cured. But those caused by a lack of iron or vitamins can usually be prevented or cured with a healthful diet that includes the following nutrients:
Iron. Found in meats, beans, lentils, and dark-green leafy vegetables. b It may also help to use iron cookware because studies suggest that using it can increase the iron content of food.
Folate. Found in fruits, dark-green leafy vegetables, green peas, kidney beans, cheese, eggs, fish, almonds, and peanuts. It is also found in vitamin-enriched grain products, such as bread, cereal, pasta, and rice. The synthetic form of folate is folic acid.
Vitamin B-12. Found in meat, dairy products, fortified cereal, and soy products.
Vitamin C. Found in citrus fruits and juices, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, melons, and strawberries. Foods with vitamin C help your body to absorb iron.
Foods vary by region. So learn what local foods have the essential nutrients. That is important if you are a woman, particularly if you are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant. By taking care of your health, you reduce the risk that your baby will be anemic. c
a The information in this article on diet and related matters comes primarily from the Mayo Clinic and The Gale Encyclopedia of Nursing and Allied Health. Consult a medical professional if you suspect that you have anemia.
b Do not take iron supplements or give them to your child without first consulting a doctor. Too much iron can damage the liver and cause other problems.