Could You Be Anemic and Not Know It?

“Wow, you’re not anemic,” said my doctor as he looked at my blood test results. I asked him why that was a surprise. Why would he expect a young, healthy woman to be anemic?

A study published this month shows that women of childbearing age (puberty to menopause) are fives times more likely to have moderate to severe anemia than men. When it comes to less severe iron deficiency, some age groups have even more extreme differences: women who are between 30 to 39 are seven times more likely to be anemic.

The most frequent cause is not getting enough of a nutrient that is crucial for healthy blood cells: iron.

Symptoms of anemia include fatigue and weakness, pale skin, cold hands and feet, and headaches. In more severe cases it can lead to heart problems and cravings to eat dirt or clay! Because symptoms of mild anemia can be brushed off as normal to our busy, overworked and overtired lives, most women won’t find out they’re anemic until they get a blood test.

Anemia has been on the rise; it doubled between 2004 and 2012. While scientists aren’t sure why, one clue comes from a recent study that showed that 61 percent of our calories come from processed foods, which are seriously lacking in nutrients. Another culprit could be fads that demonize foods, rather than encourage moderate consumption. On the “off-limits” list are often iron rich foods such as liver and beef.

Related: 12 Top Vegan Iron Sources

Even if you are getting enough iron, being deficient in vitamin B-12 and folate (another B vitamin) can also lead to anemia because these are essential for making red blood cells.

Also more likely to be anemic are people who have intestinal and digestive problems such as Crohn’s or Celiac disease, or who have food allergies that trigger leaky gut. This is because inflammation in the digestive system prevents proper absorption of nutrients, making it difficult to get the amounts needed to maintain healthy red blood cells.

Women who have heavy periods are also more susceptible to anemia.

Being past childbearing age doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Older people—both men and women—are also at a higher risk for anemia. One reason is that, as we age, the digestive system becomes less efficient at absorbing nutrients. Another reason is that older people have higher rates of kidney disease and the kidneys produce a hormone that’s involved in making red blood cells.

It’s important to make sure to get the nutrients you need for healthy red blood cells. Try these foods that are high in iron and B vitamins:

  • Pumpkin seeds (iron)
  • Oysters (iron & B-12)
  • White beans (iron)
  • Black eyed peas (iron & folate)
  • Liver (iron & B vitamins)
  • Beef and lamb (iron)
  • White rice (folate)

There are some foods and nutrients that increase how much iron your body can absorb, and thus are particularly effective for those at risk for anemia. Red meat (beef and lamb) increase absorption. The nutrients vitamin C and beta-carotene also help absorption and can be found in these foods:

  • Carrots
  • Collard greens
  • Oranges
  • Red peppers
  • Sweet potatoes

On the other hand, there are some foods and substances that can reduce iron absorption:

  • Calcium: try to avoid dairy products with your high-iron meal.
  • Eggs: just one egg can reduce absorption by about one third.
  • Oxalates: these are found in some nuts and in vegetables such as kale and spinach, which explains why spinach is actually not a good source of iron.
  • Polyphenols: are found in high concentrations in tea and coffee, so it is best to drink these at least two hours before a high-iron meal.

For more information on Anemia, check out the Iron Disorders Institute.

Photo credit: Benjamin Combs


Jack Y
Jack Y19 days ago


Jack Y
Jack Y19 days ago


Onita Northington

Thanks & just because your hemoglobin & hematocrit is OK, does not mean you are in the clear, either. Ask to have your ferritin levels checked. These are your iron reserves.

Sarah H
Sarah Hill1 years ago

What about raisins? They are high in iron too.

Jim V
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran1 years ago


Robert N.
Rob Chloe Sam N1 years ago

Nice article, Thanks for sharing.

Brad H.
Brad H1 years ago


Philip Watling
Philip Watling1 years ago

It's okay, I am a man :)