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Reassessing My Diet

October 4, 2011

First of all I want to thank you for all your kind words of encouragement for my half marathon at the weekend. They brought a smile to my face and made me even more excited about the race Smile I know that I can do it, but reading your comments has helped me to overcome my last minute jitters.

A couple a weeks ago I wrote a post called Operation Energise about how I’ve been really lacking in energy lately and I put together a bit of a plan to try at get some of my old sparkle back. I’ve been mostly sticking to the plan, apart from the odd late night here and there, but I still haven’t felt great. For the past few months I’ve also been having blackouts or “head rushes” frequently when I stand up – not like I’m going to faint, I just take a few moments to get used to being upright. When I went to the doctor about the eczema on my legs I mentioned the blackouts to her, so she booked me in for some blood tests.

It turns out I have iron-deficiency anaemia, so no wonder I’ve been so lethargic! Iron-deficiency anaemia occurs when there is a reduced number of red blood cells because the body does not have enough iron to produce them (NHS Choices). With hindsight I’ve been suffering with many of the common symptoms of anaemia for a few months: tiredness, difficulty concentrating (big time!!), palpitations, dizziness and tinnitus. Typically people with anaemia become very pale, but no-one would have noticed the difference because I am translucent at the best of times. It also explains why I’ve been struggling with recovery after long or difficult runs.

I’ve been prescribed iron supplements and I will need to be monitored to check my levels are going back to normal. The prescribing nurse also wrote on my prescription “eat more red meat and green leafy vegetables”. My first reaction was that I already practically eat my weight in green leafy vegetables, but I’ve done a bit more research and realise perhaps I have been lacking in iron. Nowadays my main green leafy veg source is spinach and it might actually be difficult for the body to absorb the iron from spinach.

Also, there’s the red meat thing. I don’t talk too much about my diet on the blog because I don’t think it’s necessary, for me personally, to define myself as eating in a particular way. I’m not vegetarian or vegan, but if pushed I will normally say that I don’t eat much meat. I eat meat or fish about once or twice a week and I eat red meat even more occasionally. Over the past year I’ve probably only eaten red meat a handful of times. This is because it’s expensive to buy, I’m concerned about the saturated fat content, and I don’t particularly enjoy it. However, the iron found in red meat is easier for the body to absorb that the iron found in vegetarian sources. At the moment I’m torn about whether to introduce more red meat into my diet, but I think for now I’m going to concentrate on eating as many vegetarian iron-rich foods as I can.

I made a good start yesterday with rice cakes: two topped with blackstrap molasses and tahini and one topped with red pepper hummus, with some dried apricots on the side. Sorry for the bad photo – my good camera died.

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Molasses, chickpeas and dried fruit are all good sources of iron.

Dinner was a mushroom and courgette omelette, served with pak choi fried with sesame oil, soy sauce and chilli powder.

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As well as being the most delicious thing I’ve eaten all week, the pak choi ticked the green leafy vegetable box. I’m going to branch out when it comes to vegetables and try to eat more broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale and cabbage.

I’m also on vitamin C mission because it helps the body to absorb iron. I’ve stocked up on oranges, lemons, orange juice, kiwis and sweet potatoes.

I’m really interested, have you ever had a vitamin or mineral deficiency and how have you changed your diet to overcome it?

Where do you stand on the red met vs. vegetarian sources of iron?

Have you got any suggestions for iron-rich meals?

Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist and what I have written in this post is based on my own research from reputable sources. If you think you have a nutritional deficiency seek advice from a health professional.

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 5:53 pm

    I actually use homeopathy to balance my body as it’s a very gentle method to push things back to where they should be. I eat red meat so I haven’t struggled with anemia, but I’ve heard how awful iron deficiency can make you feel! Amazing that you were still able to complete those long runs and everything with that tiredness!

  2. October 4, 2011 6:08 pm

    I love the look of that omelette!
    It must be a relief in some ways to know there’s a cause of your feeling not great because at least you know how to feel better. For iron-rich foods, eggs, oily fish, wholemeal bread and baked beans are all good. I’m with you on the meat thing; it’s too expensive to buy a lot but I’d never buy the cheap kind because there’s probably hardly any meat in it!
    And I don’t know if you drink tea with meals because that can hinder absorption of iron… it’s something to do with the tannins and it’s the reason zoo keepers near me give lemurs tea because they can suffer from too much iron!

  3. October 4, 2011 6:12 pm

    I don’t use supplements because I’ve never needed to. I’ve heard that if you don’t eat much of the traditional sources of nutrients like iron then you do need to watch your diet like a hawk to make sure you get enough of everything.

    Good luck for the half marathon and I hope you have the anaemia sorted out soon.

  4. Bronagh permalink
    October 4, 2011 6:18 pm

    I’m with you on the red meat thing. I hardly ever eat, and if I do it’s likely to be when eating out & there’s no other option I fancy. I can’t remember the last time I bought red meat though. I do take iron supplements as I’m quite deficient & find they help a lot with tiredness etc. I’ll certainly be stealing the suggestions here for getting more natural forms of iron in my diet 🙂

    My main reason for commenting though is that omlette! It looks so good and is the perfect shape. Plz share your omlette making technique!

  5. October 4, 2011 6:39 pm

    I also used to be anemic from not getting enough natural iron in and felt soo fatigued all of the time. It was a relief to get a real diagnosis so I could alleviate the terrible tiredness I constantly felt. I deemed myself “vegetarian” during the worst times of my disordered eating because it was easier for me to not eat red meat. I still don’t now but only because I don’t really care for it!

  6. October 4, 2011 7:24 pm

    Try making a smoothie with strawberries and pumpkin seeds – pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of iron and the vit c from the strawberries will support it, plus it tastes lush 🙂 You also need to make sure your not drinking tea or coffee with your meals as that can also limit the iron in foods being absorbed. When I read up on the spinach thing I started rotating my greens especially for smoothies hence why I love my kale now! This post: http://www.choosingraw.com/vegan-sweet-potato-and-black-bean-enchiladas-and-a-spotlight-on-iron/ also lists some excellent sources of iron. I do think that animal sources or heme iron are better absorbed but there are plenty of veg friendly non heme iron sources I think you just have to be more mindful unfortunately. Apparently it also takes time for the body to get used to absorbing non heme iron too. I love the tahini molasses combo aswell!

    • October 4, 2011 8:59 pm

      Thanks for these suggestions. I don’t have any strawberries at the moment, but I’ll try out pumpkin seeds in my smoothie tomorrow morning.

  7. October 4, 2011 7:30 pm

    I predict a huge surge of energy coming very soon! Several of my friends at running club found that they had iron deficiencies and made amazing running progress…the rest of us were quite jealous that we couldn’t blame our slowness on the same thing!
    I’d definitely re-iterate the vitamin C thing as the body can’t absorb the iron at all without it.
    I’ve always had high iron levels when checked but mine must mostly come from red meat even though I only eat it about once or twice a week. Hope you feel the improvement soon

    Rosexx

  8. October 4, 2011 8:41 pm

    I’ve never had it diagnosed but I started taking iron water a while back because I was so tired, the type that after 30 minutes exercise would lead me to 3 to 4 days recovery. Not looked back. So pleased you have a definitive answer and now you can move forward 🙂

  9. October 4, 2011 9:36 pm

    I posted about this a while ago- http://runningcupcake.co.uk/2011/02/am-i-getting-enough-iron/
    I know that veggie sources are harder to absorb. Also look here http://www.marathontalk.com/podcast/episode_88_emma_gooderham.php they have a longer interview all about blood. What I did read was that vegetarians may become more efficient at getting the iron from the food, so they may not be any less deficient. I think we absorb only around 10% of the iron we eat, which is why the RDA is much higher than the actual needs. So if you eat 90% RDA but as a little more efficient then you will still absorb enough. I do take a multivit + iron to be on the safe side, but I have always had a lot of energy. 🙂

  10. October 4, 2011 9:43 pm

    Good luck with your half mary! I’m really looking forward to reading your recap.

    I’m glad your doctor was positive enough to get some tests for your problem. Are there any iron supplements you can take? Or do you prefer to get iron through food? I’ve never really considered if I’m getting enough iron. Like you, I very rarely eat red meat and I don’t monitor my green veggie intake!

  11. October 4, 2011 9:53 pm

    So sorry to hear about your iron deficiency. All the studies I’ve read have stated that iron deficiency anaemia is no more prevalent in vegetarians and vegans than in meat-eaters, so you shouldn’t have to resort to eating red meat to get sufficient iron.
    Good plant-based sources of iron are pulses (try to eat beans and lentils a few times a week); soya products (tofu, soya milk, etc), the dark green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruits, seeds, black treacle and dark chocolate (hurray for the last one! 😉 ). I always try to add a vitamin C-rich fruit or veg to our meals to increase the absorption rate.
    Some people seem to suffer from iron deficiency anaemia regardless of their diet. My father in law eats lots of red meat, green leafy veggies, etc and he still has iron deficiency and has to take tablets. I guess you just need to do your best diet-wise and go for regular check ups. I hope you start to feel better very soon! xx

  12. October 4, 2011 10:04 pm

    I have pernicious anemia so I’m constantly hounded by my hematologist to eat red meat. But I really hate it.

    I try to eat a lot of lentils, as well as green leafy veggies. I also take a vitamin called Hemaplex, which works wonders.

  13. October 5, 2011 12:44 am

    Living with an iron deficiency is NO fun. The only thing I’d recommend–since I just had a nutrition class about a similar topic in class today–is try to get a few nutrition assessments…but make sure they’re not treating you like just anyone. Everyone’s makeup is different 🙂

  14. Errign permalink
    October 5, 2011 12:57 am

    No real deficiencies here, but I have naturally low blood pressure and it lowers more when I go from sitting to standing which means I often have to increase my sodium intake.

  15. October 5, 2011 12:03 pm

    I’m glad that you’ve found a reason for your symptoms, and also that it’s something relatively simple thing to fix. Everyone has given you some great advice, some people are just prone to having low iron though so maybe if these changes don’t help a small amount of red meat in your diet would help as obviously it is better absorbed. You could get a small portion from the butchers of very lean mince and make it in to a giant spag bol with lots of other stuff so you wouldn’t really taste it. Although I think the changes you’re making are great so hopefully they’ll work for you!

  16. October 5, 2011 1:18 pm

    I was a vegetarian when i was about 13 or 14 for a few months and developed terrible ulcers all over my mouth that just wouldn’t let up, as soon as one healed another two seemed to spring up. It was so painful i ended up having to have blood tests too and was diagnosed with anaemia like you. I think the problem for me was that, at the time, i was a vegetarian who didn’t like vegetables, haha! I mostly existed on macaroni cheese and toast!
    Nowadays i know better but as soon as i started eating a little red meat again (spag bol once a week, say) the difference was immediate. My ulcers cleared up and i got that spring in my step back. Obviously it’s up to you to decide what’s best, but if you could maybe find one way of incorporating a little red meat in your diet to see if you like it (Liver is cheap and full of iron!) then you could see if it makes any difference for you?
    I hope you start to feel better soon, i’m sure the tablets will make a difference too 😀
    Good luck with your half marathon too, i know you’ll totally rock it!

  17. October 5, 2011 9:05 pm

    Glad you’ve been diagnosed and are now hopefully on the road to feeling much better! I don’t eat much red meat but my iron levels are OK so I would have thought you are going down the right path with the green veg and vitamin C. Take care & hope you feel better soon!

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  1. What I Ate Wednesday #12 « Every Day's a Picnic
  2. What I Ate Wednesday–Iron Woman « Every Day's a Picnic

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