To avoid taking an iron pill, what foods should I eat?

My daughter is anemic and refuses to take the iron pills her doctor gave her. Are there any iron rich foods that would help her? M. Kesto White Lake, Michigan


This is a question we get again and again from our clients at Iron deficiency anemia is common among endurance athletes, especially women.

If your physician prescribes an iron pill, it's best to heed his or her advice. Taking iron, however, does not come without consequences.

Supplemental iron commonly causes abdominal discomfort, nausea, vomiting and constipation. These side effects are often a function of the amount of pure or "elemental" iron in the supplement, so it might be worth trying a different preparation if the side effects are what's causing the aversion.

If you're absolutely opposed to taking supplemental iron, there are a few ways to get more iron and replenish stores. However, it takes quite a long time (on the order of months) to replenish stores once one becomes iron-deficient.

It's also interesting to point out that the recommended daily intake of iron is about double for women as that for men (8mg/day for men 30-50yrs and 18mg/day for women of the same age). Foods that are especially rich in iron include:

Red meat
Egg yolks
Leafy greens (spinach, kale)
Oysters and clams
Beans, lentils, soybeans, chick peas
Fortified, instant cooked or dry cereals

Note: In general, meat sources of more readily absorbed than plant sources.

Eating these foods in combination with a good source of vitamin C, such as orange juice, will aid in absorption. Also, cooking in an iron skillet has been shown to increase the iron content of food. On the other hand, compounds in foods like tea, coffee and milk will decrease the absorption of iron.

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