Essential info + why we’re most at risk
Have you noticed your concentration decreasing at the office, or that you are becoming more out-of-breath as you climb the stairs? Or even detected your energy levels waning in the afternoon and then surging late at night, leaving you unable to sleep? These are just a few of the symptoms of anemia, a condition that affects 30% of the world’s women, as opposed to 13% of men, according to the World Health Organization. And since us women are most prone to this condition, we didn’t need any more reason to investigate!
What is anemia?
If you ask your best friend, her answer would likely be that anemia is simply an iron deficiency. False! Anemia is actually defined as a not having enough red blood cells, which carry oxygen to organs. This is why anemics suffer from fatigue and shortness of breath; their heart must work harder to supply the body with oxygen.
But your friend isn’t entirely wrong. The most common cause of anemia is iron deficiency, aptly referred to as iron deficiency anemia. Red blood cells here are smaller in size, and bring a reduced amount of oxygen to body tissues. Hence, explaining the resulting weakness and lack of energy.
Knowing the causes, finding a solution
When it comes to iron deficiency, it is usually due to blood loss from our monthly menstrual cycles, or not eating enough iron-rich foods. It’s no wonder that women are more prone to this deficiency! But, rest assured, the remedy is as simple as what to put on your plate.
So for that extra iron, do we simply, like Popeye, down a whole lot of spinach? The answer is no. There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found uniquely in meats, poultry, fish and shellfish. Further reason for all you carnivores to rejoice: it is the type of iron best absorbed by the body.
Non-heme iron is found in eggs, legumes, nuts, grains, and certain fruits and vegetables. To increase the absorption of nutrients by the body, avoid eating foods rich in non-heme iron with coffee, tea or calcium supplements. In contrast, vitamin C actually helps to fight iron malabsorption. Health Canada therefore suggests a glass of orange juice in the mornings to better absorb the iron in your breakfast cereal.
If, despite these changes in your diet, your symptoms persist, be sure to consult with your doctor. Anemia can be caused by various factors, so a blood test may be required.
Anemia and pregnancy
Our periods come to a halt during pregnancy, yet it is pregnant women who are more vulnerable to anemia. In fact, as the fetus forms, the iron needs of the mother increases, especially during the second and third trimesters. A deficiency could be very serious, and pregnant women left untreated for anemia could become at risk of delivering prematurely. As for their babies, it could result in a low birth weight and, in extreme cases, an increased risk of perinatal mortality.
Your doctor can provide you with tips on changing your diet, and advise you on which foods to avoid. For example, liver—which is highly-recommended for anemics—isn’t permissible in a pregnant woman’s diet. This is because it contains excessive amounts of vitamin A, which can result in malformations of the fetus.
For more information on the subject, consult the Prenatal Nutrition Guidelines section of Health Canada’s website.
Click here for a list of foods rich in iron.
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