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  • Writer's picturePooja Sharma

Conquering Anemia with the Indian Diet

In the heart of every vibrant culture lies the essence of its cuisine, which is not just a testament to its culinary heritage but also a reflection of the health and wellbeing of its people. In India, where the palette of flavours is as diverse as its geography, the silent struggle with anemia has been a longstanding concern. Anemia, a condition often misunderstood and overlooked, affects a significant portion of the Indian population.


Anemia is more than just a medical term, it's a widespread health issue that significantly affects the energy and vitality of millions. In the colourful and diverse land of India, where every meal is a celebration of flavours, addressing anemia can start right on our plates. This guide dives deeper into understanding anemia and how the traditional Indian diet, when optimised, can be a powerful ally in preventing and managing this condition.


Understanding Anemia: The Basics


Imagine your body as a bustling city where red blood cells are the vehicles transporting oxygen, the vital fuel, to every corner. Hemoglobin is the driver of these vehicles, relying heavily on iron to function efficiently. When there's a shortage of drivers (hemoglobin) or the vehicles are not up to the mark (red blood cells), the city's operations (your body's functions) slow down, leading to the tiredness, weakness, and other symptoms associated with anemia.


Anemia arises from a lack of nutrients like iron, vitamin B12, folate, and protein. It's like having a diet that lacks the right ingredients for making these essential drivers and vehicles. Despite eating enough, if your body can't properly absorb iron, the risk of anemia looms large. Factors such as not having enough stomach acid or lacking other nutrients that help iron absorption can turn even a well-intended diet ineffective against anemia.

Key symptoms

Iron deficiency can manifest through a variety of symptoms, each reflecting the crucial role iron plays in bodily functions. Understanding these symptoms can help identify iron deficiency early, allowing for timely intervention.

  1. Fatigue: One of the most common signs of iron deficiency is an overwhelming sense of tiredness and a lack of energy. This occurs because iron is essential for producing hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. Without enough iron, your body can't produce enough hemoglobin, leading to less oxygen reaching your tissues and muscles, depriving them of energy.

  2. Shortness of Breath: When your body is low on iron, the oxygen delivery to your tissues is compromised. As a result, you might find yourself out of breath easily, even with minimal physical exertion, because your body is trying to compensate for the reduced oxygen supply.

  3. Weakness: This symptom is closely related to fatigue and shortness of breath. With less oxygen circulating in your body, your muscles receive less energy, which can lead to a feeling of weakness. Simple activities that you used to find easy might start to feel more challenging.

  4. Brittle Nails: Iron deficiency can affect your nails, making them more fragile and prone to cracking or breaking. In severe cases, the nails might adopt a concave shape, known as koilonychia, or spoon nails. This change reflects the broader impact of iron deficiency on the body's ability to maintain healthy cells, including those that make up your nails.

  5. Hair Loss: Hair follicles also require oxygen to function properly, and a lack of iron in the body can lead to hair loss. This is because, with reduced iron and consequently hemoglobin, there's less oxygen available to nourish the scalp and hair follicles, affecting hair growth and causing increased shedding.

Recognising these symptoms can prompt individuals to seek medical advice and undergo necessary tests to confirm iron deficiency, leading to appropriate dietary adjustments or supplementation to restore iron levels to normal.


The Indian Diet: A Balanced Plate


The Indian diet, with its kaleidoscope of dishes, inherently contains many of the elements needed to combat anemia. However, without proper knowledge of what to combine and how, one might inadvertently miss out on these benefits. It's akin to having all the spices in your rack but not knowing which ones will best bring out the flavour in your dish.


Addressing Iron Loss: Knowing the Needs


Losing a small amount of iron daily is a natural process; for instance, men typically lose about 1mg of iron each day. However, certain conditions, such as pregnancy and menstruation, significantly increase this loss to between 10-15 mg daily in women, necessitating iron supplementation, especially for pregnant women to support both their health and that of the developing fetus.


New-borns come into the world with an initial iron reserve of approximately 36mg. This reserve depletes rapidly as the body produces new blood cells to support rapid growth. Since breast milk contains relatively low levels of iron, introducing solid foods rich in iron at around 6 months of age becomes crucial to meet the infant's growing nutritional needs.


As we age, our body's ability to absorb iron diminishes, making senior citizens particularly vulnerable to iron deficiency. Consequently, dietary supplements become an important consideration for older adults to ensure they maintain adequate iron levels for overall health. 


Boosting Iron Absorption: The Helping Hand


Iron absorption can be tricky. Out of all the iron we consume, our bodies can only absorb about 8% of it. To improve how much iron our bodies can take in, eating foods or taking supplements rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, and calcium at the same time as iron can make a big difference. These nutrients work together to boost iron absorption.


When it comes to supplements, not all iron is created equal. Chelated organic iron supplements, like ferrous gluconate, are the easiest for our bodies to absorb. On the other hand, some multivitamins contain a different type of iron called inorganic iron (ferrous sulfate), which can interfere with vitamin E in our bodies. To avoid this, if you're taking inorganic iron supplements, it's best to take them 8 hours before or after consuming anything rich in vitamin E. This spacing out helps ensure that both the iron and vitamin E can be effectively utilised by your body without interfering with each other.


Enriching Your Diet: Simple Yet Effective Strategies


Adjusting your diet to enhance iron intake and absorption isn't just about eating iron-rich foods but also about how you prepare and combine them.


  1. Favourable Combinations: Incorporating foods high in ascorbic acid (like amla) and amino acids (found in ragi, fish, and cheese) can significantly enhance iron absorption.

  2. Mind the Blockers: Certain habits, like drinking tea close to mealtime, can inhibit iron absorption. Likewise, high-fiber foods can bind with iron, making it less available to your body. Preparing these foods properly, such as by soaking or sprouting grains and legumes, can help reduce their inhibitory effect.

  3. Iron-Rich Stars: Staples like khapli wheat, bajra, and green leafy vegetables, and traditional dishes like 'Usal' are excellent iron sources. Techniques like cooking in an iron kadai can also add to your iron intake, combining tradition with health benefits.


Crafting an Anemia-Resistant Diet: Tips and Tricks


Here's how you can tweak traditional dishes and dietary habits to better fight anemia:


  1. Smart Substitutes: Opt for aloo palak over palak paneer to reduce phosphate intake, which can inhibit iron absorption.

  2. Enhance Bioavailability: Cooking methods matter. For high-oxalate foods like spinach, cooking and discarding the water can reduce oxalate levels, improving iron absorption.

  3. Embrace Traditional Wisdom: The age-old practice of soaking nuts and seeds can decrease phytate content, making the iron in these foods more available to your body.


Powerhouse Foods to Combat Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency is a common nutritional challenge, but fortunately, a diverse array of foods can help you meet your daily iron needs. Incorporating these foods into your diet can boost your iron levels, improving energy, strength, and overall health. Here's a look at some of the best sources of iron:

Whole Grains and Cereals

  1. Khapli Whole Wheat Flour: This ancient variety of wheat is not only rich in fiber but also an excellent source of iron, making it a healthy and nutritious option for your daily meals.

  2. Bajra (Pearl Millet): A staple in many Indian diets, bajra offers about 11mg of iron per 100 grams, providing a significant portion of the daily iron requirement.

  3. Quinoa: Known as a superfood, quinoa is high in iron and protein, and its versatility makes it easy to incorporate into various dishes.

  4. Brown Rice: A healthier alternative to white rice, brown rice retains more nutrients, including iron, due to its minimal processing.


Usal (Black Beans): A popular dish in Maharashtra, usal is made from black beans and is a delicious way to increase your iron intake. Legumes like black beans are not only high in iron but also in protein, making them an excellent choice for vegetarians and vegans.

Animal Products

  1. Liver: Animal liver is one of the most iron-rich foods available. It's also packed with other essential nutrients, making it a powerful option for boosting iron levels.

  2. Egg Yolk: While whole eggs are nutritious, the yolk stands out for its iron content, making it a valuable addition to your diet.

Fruits and Dried Fruits

Dried Peaches, Prunes, Raisins, Munnaccas, and Dates: Dried fruits are concentrated sources of nutrients, including iron. They make for a convenient snack or a sweet addition to meals, helping to increase your iron intake.


Green Leafy Vegetables: Spinach and beetroot are excellent sources of iron. These vegetables can be easily added to salads, soups, and other dishes, making them a versatile option for boosting your iron levels.

Cooking Techniques

Cooking in an Iron Kadai: An often overlooked method to increase iron intake is using iron cookware, such as an iron kadai. Cooking acidic foods in iron cookware can increase the iron content of the food, providing an additional boost to your diet.

Incorporating a variety of these iron-rich foods into your daily meals can help prevent iron deficiency and ensure your body functions optimally. Remember, the key to a healthy diet is diversity, so try to include as many of these iron sources as possible for the best results.

Understanding the Role of Haemoglobin, Ferritin, and TIBC Tests in Detecting Iron Deficiency

When it comes to identifying iron deficiency, doctors rely on a few key tests: haemoglobin, ferritin, and Total Iron Binding Capacity (TIBC) tests. These tests help them understand how much iron is in the body, how it's being used, and whether you're getting enough of it through your diet. Let's break down why these tests are important in simple terms.

Haemoglobin Test

Haemoglobin is a protein in your red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. When you're iron deficient, your body struggles to make enough healthy red blood cells, and as a result, your haemoglobin levels drop. This test measures the amount of haemoglobin in your blood, helping to identify if you're anaemic.

Ferritin Test

Ferritin acts like a storage unit for iron in your body. It holds onto iron until your body needs it. When iron levels drop, ferritin levels drop too. By measuring ferritin, doctors can get a good idea of your body's iron stores. Low ferritin levels suggest that your body's iron reserves are depleted, pointing towards iron deficiency.

TIBC and UIBC Tests

TIBC (Total Iron Binding Capacity) measures the blood's capacity to bind iron with transferrin, the protein that transports iron in the bloodstream. UIBC (Unsaturated Iron Binding Capacity) measures the reserve capacity of transferrin to bind more iron. Essentially, when iron levels are low, your body makes more transferrin to try and capture more iron from your diet. This means that if your TIBC is high, your body is likely searching for more iron, indicating a deficiency.

Iron is absorbed in the first part of your small intestine (the duodenum and upper jejunum) before it enters the bloodstream where it binds to transferrin. This transferrin then carries iron to where it's needed for making proteins. If there's an imbalance in how much iron you consume, how your body uses it, or how much you lose, it can lead to iron deficiency. This is reflected in changes in the levels of haemoglobin, ferritin, and TIBC in your blood.

These tests provide a comprehensive picture of how much iron is in your body, how effectively it's being used, and whether you need to up your iron intake through diet or supplements. Understanding these tests can help demystify the process of diagnosing iron deficiency, making it easier to tackle the problem head-on.

Wrapping Up: A Diet Rich in Colour and Health


Tackling anemia doesn't require a radical overhaul of your diet but rather mindful adjustments and knowledge about maximising the nutritional benefits of what you already eat. By embracing the richness of the Indian diet and understanding the science behind nutrient absorption, we can make anemia a less common part of our health landscape. Let's not just eat to fill our stomachs but to nourish our bodies, turning every meal into a step toward a healthier, more vibrant life.

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Mar 27

Very Useful Article.Describes at length the correct way to consume meals .Thanks Dr. Pooja for enlightening.

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