Eating to Beat Cancer Treatment-Related Iron Deficiency Anemia
Is it Iron?
Different types of anemia can occur during cancer treatment. One common type is iron deficiency anemia. Red blood cells contain iron, which is an important part of how these cells carry oxygen around the body. In iron deficiency anemia, the red blood cells don't have enough iron to carry oxygen efficiently. This can leave a person feeling fatigued, breathless and tired, and appearing pale, among other symptoms.
Not all anemias are related to iron deficiency. For this reason, do not take an iron supplement without talking to your doctor first. You should always discuss any dietary supplements and over-the-counter medications you use with your doctor. Some supplements and medications can interfere with cancer treatment, so be safe and get the "OK" before using these products during cancer treatment.
The most important thing you can do to treat anemia you experience during cancer care is to take your medications as prescribed. Your health care team will determine which medications, if any, are appropriate to treat your anemia. If you are prescribed a medication and experience side effects that make it impossible to continue taking it, call your doctor right away to let him or her know about this.
When Iron Is the Culprit
If you know that your anemia is related to low iron, certain food choices can help your body get the iron it needs. Even if your medical team does advises against using an iron supplement, eating a healthy, iron-rich diet is safe and can help your body heal and recover.
The Following Will Help You Get the Most from Iron in Your Food:
- Beef and other animal foods contain plenty of iron. The darker the meat, the better the source of iron. For example, a dark red steak (before cooking) will have the most iron. Dark turkey meat has more iron than light turkey meat. Most animal foods contain some iron. If you do eat beef, pork, poultry, fish, or any other meat, cook the meat completely to minimize the risk of food poisoning.
- If you can't or don't want to eat animal foods, you can focus on eating more iron-rich plant foods:
- Vegetables: Leafy greens, such as broccoli, spinach, kale, turnip greens, and collards; potatoes with the skin; lima beans; green peas; and all other beans (e.g., kidney, black, navy, etc.), tomato sauce (cook in cast iron for a bigger iron boost).
- Fruit: Dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, prunes, and prune juice.
- Grains: Iron-fortified whole-grain breads, pastas, rice, and cereals. Scan food labels and look for breads and cereals that contain 20 percent or more of the daily value for iron.
- Nuts/seeds: All nuts and seeds contain some iron. Try peanuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and almonds. Nut butters also contain some iron.
- Other Foods: Blackstrap molasses. This isn't something we normally eat, but it contains plenty of iron. Try it on hot cereal, such as oatmeal. If you like the taste, have a spoonful anytime to boost the iron in your diet.
Other Ways to Get More Iron
- Cook with cast-iron: Believe it or not, food absorbs iron from cast iron pots and pains. This works especially well with acidic foods, such as tomatoes, and tomato-based sauces.
- Go for the "C": Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from the food you eat. For example, having orange juice (not calcium-fortified) with a meal will help your body get more iron from the food in that meal.
- But watch the calcium: Calcium makes it harder for the body to absorb iron. Do not take an iron supplement or eat iron-rich foods with milk, other calcium-rich foods, or a calcium supplement. Remember that it's OK to eat calcium-rich foods, just be sure to eat them at different times of the day than you eat iron-rich foods or take an iron supplement.
- Limit coffee, tea and soda: These beverages make it harder for the body to absorb iron. Do not take an iron supplement or eat iron-rich foods with coffee, tea or soda.
- Watch the high-fiber bereals: Fiber-rich cereal, such as bran cereals, make it harder for the body to absorb iron. Do not take an iron supplement or eat iron-rich foods at the same time that you eat high-fiber cereals.
- Easier iron supplements: If your doctor has prescribed iron supplements and they constipate you or upset your stomach, try taking a slow-release form of iron. Look for one labeled "Slow Fe" or "Slow Iron."
Should I Take an Iron Supplement?
If you have anemia, ask your health care team about whether you need an iron supplement. If you are prescribed an iron supplement, be sure to take the type of iron your body can use best. Good iron supplements contain ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous ascorbate, or ferric ammonium citrate. Check the label and pick a supplement that contains one of these types of iron.
In some cases, iron can be repleted intravenously (IV). Talk to your doctor or nurse if you have questions about whether IV iron replacement is right for you.
American Dietetic Association, Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. The Clinical Guide to Oncology Nutrition, 2nd Edition, 2008. Eds. Elliott L, Molseed LL, McCallum PD, Grant B.
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Accessed August 17, 2009. http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/