Iron, Yes; Meat, No!

Doing My Part

Like many baby boomers, I was looking for safe ways to help out during this past year.  But I don’t sew, and my husband and I stayed home almost the entire first few months.  So with no possibility of making masks or delivering meals and supplies, I sought out other ways to contribute.

The answer came serendipitously last April as the result of a phone call from the American Red Cross. They were seeking blood donations.  And there it was, my way to assist during the pandemic! 

It felt good knowing I could help somebody stay healthy or alive.  I was eager to jump at the opportunity, and have donated blood several times in the past year.

Put on the breaks!

But it was not completely smooth sailing.  Back in the summer, I hit a roadblock.  It seems that to be eligible to give blood, women need a hemoglobin count of at least 12.5 g/dL.  Hemoglobin is a protein that contains iron and carries oxygen around in your body.  Consuming plenty of iron helps keep this number up.  And because hemoglobin reflects the iron circulating in your blood, which is withdrawn during the donation, it needs to be at a certain level for the donor to be eligible. 

My hemoglobin was below that required amount. 

Dilemma—most people get their iron from meat sources.  But I’m a vegan (at least 80% of the time)—I’ve eaten no meat for the past one and a half years.  And I wanted to continue donating blood.  So the challenge was on!

Finding an acceptable path

I started researching other dietary sources of iron.  Because iron supplements don’t agree with my digestive tract, I focused on non-meat foods. With a goal of ingesting 18 mg of iron per day, here’s what I found:

  • Tofu/soybeans are fairly good iron sources, 8.8 mg/cup.  But I can’t eat tofu fast enough to consume it all before it goes bad (I’m the only vegan in my household).  Cross that off my list.
  • Lentils came next at 6.6 mg/cup, cooked.  I can work lentils into my diet maybe once a week, but probably just 1/2 cup.  Next…
  • Other peas and beans (garbanzo, red kidney, black-eyed peas), 4 mg – 6 mg/cup, cooked.  I consume these rarely, so no.
  • Nuts, 1+ mg/1 oz.  I love nuts but don’t eat them on a consistent basis.
  • Prune juice, 3 mg/cup.  No comment necessary here.
  • Oats, 1.5 mg/serving; I eat that much in my muesli, every other morning.
  • Other miscellaneous foods contain 2 mg – 3 mg/serving (including leafy greens).

I was running out of ideas and couldn’t see a way to patch together the requisite amount of 18 mg/day.  So I resorted to “processed foods,” which are often fortified with nutrients, including iron.  My first thought was to check out breakfast cereals, which I typically avoid in favor of my homemade muesli.  Cereals are often high in sugar and low in fiber—not real healthy in this dietitian’s eyes.  But I scanned packages in the cereal aisle, and came up with two acceptable possibilities:

  • Great Grains Crunchy Pecan (per serving: total sugar—8 g; added sugar—5 g; dietary fiber—5 g; iron—16.2 mg)
  • Grape Nuts (per serving: total sugar—5 g; added sugar—0 g; dietary fiber—7 g; iron—16.2* mg)

*Not an error here, they have the same amount of iron/serving.

Voila, I ‘d found my answer!

So now I eat a generous serving* of the two cereal mixed together every other day (rotating with my muesli), along with getting various small amounts of iron in vegetables, beans, and nuts.  *Note: a full serving of both cereals together equals 410 calories, so I don’t eat quite that much.

And my hemoglobin levels have been high enough to roll up my sleeves for the Red Cross on a regular basis, success!

To quote my husband, I’m a “happy camper,” keeping my blood and body healthy with enough iron to spare, and helping save lives with timely donations.

If you have a nutrition-related dilemma, please reach out to me!

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