Anemia is one of the most important nutritional problems affecting a large number of people around the world. Low blood levels of an essential component in red blood cells called hemoglobin characterize this condition. Furthermore, this condition is closely linked to the way we eat.
The body must manufacture hemoglobin to transport the oxygen it gets from the air we breathe to each and every one of the cells. The raw material used to do this is iron. Therefore, a lack of iron can hinder the production of hemoglobin and can result in anemia.
Three conditions are very important for the body to produce hemoglobin:
- Iron content of foods must be sufficient.
- Iron must be absorbed by the intestine and transported to the blood.
- There must be no loss of iron in any of its forms.
Searching for iron
The first condition is achieved when we eat foods that contain iron, like red meat, fish, shellfish, viscera (like liver), legumes (lentils and beans), and some vegetables (broccoli, nuts). Iron can also come from products where iron is added during industrial processing. This can be seen in the nutritional information shown on the labels.
A proper absorption of ingested iron depends on two factors, which are related to food intake. One is the presence of substances that favor it, like fruits high in vitamin C. The other is the absence of substances that hinder its absorption, such as phylates, oxalates, and phosphates. These reach the intestine with vegetable products that contain them in large amounts. An example of these are green leafy vegetables like spinach which contains a lot of iron but does not help prevent anemia because it has a high content of substances that prevent its absorption.
In addition, iron loss can take place as a result of processes associated with diseases like tumors, injuries that cause bleeding, and intestinal parasites, or with normal processes like menstruation in women. Bleeding every month can lead a woman to underestimate the amount of iron she needs to replace blood lost with each period, which can contribute to the development of anemia or predispose women with a history of heavy menstruation to develop anemia when they become pregnant.
The lack of another nutrient, folic acid, can also lead to the development of anemia. This nutrient is essential for the maturation of red blood cells. If we don’t consume sufficient amounts of folic acid from its main sources (fruits, green leafy vegetables, beans, peanuts, broccoli, asparagus, lentils, and whole-grain products) we can suffer from a type of anemia characterized by the presence of abnormal red blood cells.
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