Anaemia, otherwise known as iron deficiency, is a common blood disorder affecting millions of people worldwide, most of whom are female-bodied. Living with chronic stress and fatigue is unfortunately very normalized in our society, and many people ignore the symptoms of anaemia until they become severe.
Signs that you may be anaemic include tiredness, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, shortness of breath, low tolerance for exercise, heart palpitations, and skin that bruises easily. Many people with anaemia don’t even know they have it, so heading to the clinic for a blood test is usually a good idea. If you don’t eat animal products, many conventional doctors will be quick to blame your diet if you have low iron. However, anaemia is a common problem for women who do eat meat as well, and there are plenty of ways to prevent and cure this illness without supporting animal industries.
Some of the foods which are highest in iron are actually plant-source. All of these (seriously delicious) examples have a higher concentration of iron than red meats:
Dried herbs like thyme, parsley, cumin, rosemary, spearmint, bay leaf and turmeric: Just one tablespoon of dried thyme provides almost thirty per cent of the recommended daily intake of iron.
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder: 100 grams of dark chocolate provides 36mg of iron, which is 200% of the daily recommended intake. Cocoa is a pretty unethical thing to buy unless you can afford to throw down the cash for fairly traded stuff from a farming co-op. However, Shoppers Drug Mart never ceases to amaze me with the amount of chocolate they throw away, especially after the consumer frenzy that accompanies most holidays. Eat it plain, or mix it up with banana, flour, chopped nuts and whatever else you want for delicious vegan brownies!
Pumpkin seeds and squash seeds: One cup of these contains about 115% of your daily recommended intake. You can get them in bulk, or roast them yourself. One hilarious and ultra-fun way to get lots of free pumpkin seeds (not to mention enough pumpkin stew to feed all your friends for months) is going around with a bike cart after Halloween and rescuing abandoned jack-o-lanterns. Me and my buddy Lucho spontaneously did this while dumpstering for Food Not Bombs in Victoria a few years ago, and I’ve made it a time-honoured Halloween tradition ever since.
Sesame seeds and tahini: 100 grams of tahini contains 50% of the daily recommended dose of iron, and one tablespoon provides about 7%. Blend it up with chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and cayenne pepper for hummus.
Sun dried tomatoes: 2 cups of these provides 50% of your daily recommended iron intake. Throw them in with chopped veggies for a kick-ass pasta sauce.
Dried apricots: also high in vitamin A and magnesium, dried apricots are a super healthy snack to carry around. 20 of them contains about 40% of your daily iron intake!
Other vegan goodies that contain high amounts of iron include beans, soy, spinach and other dark leafy greens, raisins, figs, dates, lentils, molasses, and whole wheat bread.
While it’s important to get enough iron in your diet, sometimes healthy eating on its own is not enough to reverse anaemia. Taking iron supplements is always a good idea for women, and some doctors will give these to you for free. Most iron supplements I’ve gotten from doctors are vegan, the only exception being ones that come in gel caps which often use animal-source gelatin.
On top of diet and supplements, you might also need to change some habits that are preventing you from absorbing iron. Here’s some tips on other factors that can help cure and prevent anaemia:
1. Take vitamin C with high-iron foods, or combine them with foods high in vitamin C, such as most fruits and veggies. The main medical argument against iron sources from plants is that it is less easily absorbed than iron from red meat. Taking vitamin C with food has been shown to help the body absorb plant-based iron at least as well as it absorbs iron from red meat. Supplements can be expensive, but vitamin C is one of the cheapest and many walk-in clinics will also give you free vitamins if you are poor or living on the street. Vitamin B12 is also essential for absorbing iron, so make sure you take a supplement and/or eat B12-enriched foods!
2. Use cast iron pots and pans when you cook. Iron gets absorbed into your food this way, and it works best if you cook acidic foods like tomatoes. Thrift stores usually have cast iron cookware, and I also occasionally find it in free bins around residential neighbourhoods. This might not be the most viable option if you don’t have a fixed address, but I did know one guy who was so into cast iron that he kept a tiny skillet in his travelling pack when he was homeless. It didn’t seem that practical, but hey– if you think its worth it, it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility.
3. Don’t drink coffee, black tea or alcohol with your meals. These prevent the absorption or iron in the intestines, and studies have shown that women who drink coffee, especially pregnant women, are more likely to have low iron. One would think that vegan punks would be more health conscious than their meat-eating counterparts, but I still know way too many folks in the vegan community who seem to think that a steady diet of beer and coffee contains all four essential food groups. You can put your health on a back-burner for a while, but eventually your body is going to give out if you consistently abuse it. On top of this, the coffee industry is a massive global juggernaut that pulls in billions of dollars a year at the expense of poor and abused workers across Africa and South America. While I have zero faith in consumer reform, not buying unfairly-traded coffee (which is generally also worse quality and worse for your body) is worth considering for health reasons as well as ethical ones.
4. Make sure you’re eating enough. A lot of things can kill your appetite, including stress, depression, too much booze, and common stomach problems like ulcers and gastritis. There’s no easy way around this, since stress is pretty unavoidable and it’s often nearly impossible to get enough healthy food in your diet when you’re poor. If you find that you never feel hungry, sometimes it helps to add lemon juice to the water you drink, which stimulates your digestive system. Also, although many of us don’t like to admit it, even the most intelligent, politicized women can be affected by the pressure to be thin. Dominant beauty standards are there to keep you busy hating your body and shelling out money on makeup and razors instead of using your time and energy to start a revolution. If you aren’t getting enough food, your overall well-being is going to suffer. It’s not worth it!
5. If your stomach is upset a lot of the time, get checked out to make sure you aren’t allergic to wheat or other commonly allergenic foods. Before I knew I had a wheat allergy my guts were always killing me, and I had problems with anaemia that nothing seemed to help with. If you’re eating something you are allergic to, or have other digestive problems like Crohn’s Disease, your intestines have an extra hard time absorbing iron. You can even develop ulcers in your intestines that will lead to blood loss and an even greater risk of anaemia!
In the end, there’s generally no magic formula you can follow to get your health on track. At the risk of sounding like a self-help book, I’ve found the best thing to do is get into healthy habits like eating regularly, taking vitamins and not eating too much refined, sugary junk unless it’s really the only thing available. Get together with some friends, make a dumpster map of your city, organize a Food Not Bombs if there isn’t one happening already, or start having weekly potlucks in the park or at a friend’s house. Obsessing over food takes all the fun out of eating, but it’s possible to find a balance between being an uptight health nut and a total food nihilist. Good luck!