Anemia and the Vegan Diet: What You Need to Know

Anemia and the Vegan Diet: What You Need to Know

According to the World Health Organization, anemia affects 1.62 billion people, globally. In the U.S., anemia is the most common blood condition, affecting more than three million Americans. 

Anemia occurs when the number of healthy red blood cells in a person’s body is too low. A plant-based diet may increase one’s risk of developing anemia, but there are many other factors that can cause a person to become anemic.

Anemia and the Vegan Diet: What You Need to Know
Pregnancy can also increase the chances a woman develops anemia.

What Causes Anemia?

Anemia occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough RBCs, loses too many RBCs, or destroys too many RBCs. If a person’s body does not contain enough RBCsor the body’s hemoglobin levels are low it will not get enough oxygen.

People with long-term diseases, women, and young children are more likely to have anemia. According to the Mayo Clinic, iron deficiency is one of the most common causes of anemia, but there are many different types of the blood condition—each with its own cause.

The blood condition affects people of all races, ages, and ethnicities, but there are certain factors that may put a person more at risk for developing anemia. They include:

  • Menstruation – Due to the fact menstruation causes the loss of RBCs, it increases the risk of anemia.
  • A diet lacking in vitamins and minerals – A diest that is consistently lacking folate, iron, and vitamin B-12 increases the risk of anemia.
  • Pregnancy – During pregnancy, a woman’s body produces more blood to support the developing baby. If the body is lacking vitamins and nutrients, it may not be able to produce enough RBCs.
  • Chronic conditions – Diabetes, cancer, kidney failure, and other chronic conditions increase the risk of anemia.
  • Age – People over the age of 65 have an increased risk of developing anemia.
  • Genetics – Certain types of anemia, like sickle cell anemia, can be inherited. A family history of these anemia types may increase the risk of developing them.
  • Other factors – Infections and other diseases like blood diseases may also increase the risk of developing anemia.

Anemia cases are typically classified as either chronic or acute. There are more than 400 different types of anemia. According to WebMD, they can be divided into three main categories anemia caused by blood loss, anemia caused by decreased or faulty RBC production, and anemia caused by the destruction of RBCs.

Anemia and the Vegan Diet: What You Need to Know
Lack of healthy red blood cells in a person’s body causes anemia.

What Do Red Blood Cells Do?

The body contains three different types of blood cells: platelets, white blood cells, and red blood cells (RBCs).

Platelets, most white blood cells, and RBCs are produced regularly in the bone marrow ⁠— the soft spongy tissue found inside bone cavities. Platelets help stop bleeding by creating blood clots, while white blood cells (also known as leukocytes or leucocytes) help fight off infectious diseases and protect the body against foreign invaders.

RBCs contain an iron-rich protein called hemoglobin that gives blood its red color. Anemia is measured by how much hemoglobin is present in RBCs. Hemoglobin carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Conversely, hemoglobin carries carbon dioxide back from other parts of the body to the lungs to be exhaled.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average red blood cell can only survive for about 120 days. When RBCs die, the hemoglobin breaks apart. Any iron contained within is saved and transported to the bone marrow via proteins called transferrins. The iron is then recycled and used to produce new RBCs.

Anemia and the Vegan Diet: What You Need to Know
Symptoms of anemia may include fatigue, dizziness, and pale or yellowish skin.

Symptoms of Anemia

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of anemia vary depending on the condition’s cause. Chronic conditions can mask a person’s anemia or, depending on the causes, there could be no symptoms at all.

If a person does have symptoms, they may include weakness, fatigue, pale or yellowish skin, chest pain, cold hands and feet, headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and irregular heartbeats.

Anemia and the Vegan Diet: What You Need to Know
Doctors will give blood tests and other exams to determine if someone has anemia.

How to Diagnose Anemia

In order to diagnose anemia, your doctor will also ask about medical and family history. Your doctor will also perform a physical exam and run a handful of tests.

Tests include a complete blood count to determine the number of RBCs present in a sample of blood. Your doctor will pay close attention to the size, shape, and levels of RBCs (hematocrit) and hemoglobin in the blood.

“Normal adult hematocrit values vary among medical practices but are generally between 40% and 52% for men and 35% and 47% for women. Normal adult hemoglobin values are generally 14 to 18 grams per deciliter for men and 12 to 16 grams per deciliter for women,” states the Mayo Clinic.

If a positive anemia result comes back, a doctor may require additional tests to determine the cause of the condition.

Anemia and the Vegan Diet: What You Need to Know
A diet lacking in nutritious vitamins and minerals may increase the risk of developing anemia.

Anemia and Diet

If a person does have anemia, their doctor may include dietary changes in their treatment plan. Recommended dietary changes may include increasing the intake of vitamins that are essential for RBC and hemoglobin production. Your doctor may also urge you to eat foods that aid the body in absorbing iron.

In order to create RBCs, and thus hemoglobin, your body must get ample vitamins and nutrients from food including iron, folate, and vitamin B-12.

A diet lacking in vitamin B-12 and folate may impact the body’s ability to produce RBCs. A plant-based diet may also increase one’s risk of anemia. Including certain foods in a vegan diet may help reduce the risk of developing anemia.

Although meat and seafood are high in iron, there are plenty of plant-based foods a person can eat to increase iron intake. Eating iron-rich foods may help fight iron deficiency anemia. These include leafy greens (spinach and kale), beans, fortified foods (white rice and pasta), and nuts and seeds. Iron supplements are another option for increasing iron intake but consult with your doctor prior to making these changes.