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 DCI Home: Blood Diseases: Iron-Deficiency Anemia: Prevention

      Iron-Deficiency Anemia
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How Can Iron-Deficiency Anemia Be Prevented?

Eating a well-balanced diet rich in iron and vitamins can help prevent iron-deficiency anemia. Red meat is the best source of iron, but other meats, including poultry and seafood, are good sources of iron as well. Besides meat, foods high in iron are:

  • Eggs
  • Cereals, breads, or pastas that are fortified with iron
  • Beans and nuts, including peanut butter, almonds, peas, lentils, and white, red, and baked beans
  • Dried fruits (for example, raisins, apricots, and peaches), prune juice
  • Vegetables such as spinach and other dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Iron-fortified infant formula and cereals

Food fads and dieting can sometimes lead to iron deficiency. Weight loss diets that stress low-fat foods can mean that a person will avoid animal foods that are good sources of iron. High-fiber diets can make it hard for iron to be absorbed. High-sugar diets are often low in iron.

Adults who eat a balanced diet usually don't need iron supplements. However, people who don't absorb iron well and those who are strict vegetarians may need them.

The Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health provides a "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron." This fact sheet includes lists of food that are high in iron and the amount of iron provided by a serving.

Preventing Anemia in Infants and Young Children

Anemia can be prevented in infants and young children by testing, especially in the following three age groups:

  • Premature and low-birth-weight babies less than 6 months of age
  • Babies who are 9-12 months of age
  • Babies who are 15-18 months of age

Infants absorb iron best from breast milk. They can absorb more than 50 percent of the iron in breast milk but only about 12 percent of the iron in infant formula.

Doctors usually recommend not giving cow's milk to babies for the first year. Cow's milk is low in iron. The doctor may suggest limiting cow's milk for children up to age 3 to no more than 24 ounces a day-about three full baby bottles each day. A child who is drinking a lot of milk may not be eating other foods that are better sources of iron. Drinking a lot of milk also can lead to bleeding in the intestines.

Babies need more iron as they grow and begin to eat solid foods. To help them get enough iron:

  • Infants under age 1 who are not breastfed or who are partially breastfed can be given iron-fortified infant formula. Iron fortified means that each liter of formula has 4-12 milligrams of iron.
  • Babies older than 4 months can be given iron-rich or iron-fortified solid foods such as cereal.

The child's doctor can give advice on the best diet for the infant. The doctor may recommend iron drops if the child needs an iron supplement. Giving a child too much iron can be dangerous, so it is important to be careful and follow the doctor's instructions. Parents and caregivers should keep all iron supplements and vitamins away from children. They should ask for child-proof packages for supplements.

Preventing Anemia in Adolescents and Women of Childbearing Age

Teenaged girls and women of childbearing age are at higher risk for iron-deficiency anemia due to blood loss from menstrual bleeding. They should be tested for anemia every 5-10 years starting in their teens. Girls and women at higher risk for anemia should be checked yearly. This includes women who have a history of anemia, do not eat foods high in iron, or have heavy blood loss from menstruation or other causes.

Preventing Anemia in Pregnant Women

Half of all pregnant women develop iron-deficiency anemia because their volume of blood increases and because the growing fetus needs iron. Anemia during pregnancy can lead to an increased risk of premature delivery and a low-birth-weight baby.

To prevent these problems, pregnant women need twice as much iron as women who are not pregnant. Pregnant women can get more iron from eating more iron-rich foods, from supplements, or from both. Medical care during pregnancy should include screening for anemia.

The doctor giving prenatal care may prescribe iron supplements, which should be taken as directed. Pregnant women should notify their doctors if they have uncomfortable side effects such as constipation. The doctor also may give advice on how to get higher levels of iron through eating iron-rich foods.

Preventing Anemia in Older Adults

Older adults may be at risk for iron deficiency due to poor diet or illnesses that reduce iron absorption. Iron deficiency can take away their sense of well-being, strength, and activeness. It also can make symptoms of other conditions worse. Doctors can advise older adults about eating iron-rich foods and how to use iron supplements to prevent iron-deficiency anemia.

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