When I went vegetarian, moved to NYC to intern, got a little anxious/depressed, and lost all notion of a balanced diet, I was exhausted. Like, 15-cups-of-coffee-a-day exhausted. Your-skin-should-be-brown-not-grey exhausted. I remember one morning standing at the copy machine at ELLE feeling like I couldn’t possibly go for a seventh cup of coffee at 10 AM–not because I didn’t want/need it, but because I was too dizzy to stand up straight. Still, I needed the coffee not only to function, but also because I was constantly shivering, even though it was June.
About a week later, I was talking to a friend and casually brushed my hand across my face. My silver Tiffany ring made a mark. “Oh,” he said, in a very offhand way. “You are probably that thing where you don’t get enough iron.” He mentioned something about his ex-girlfriend having the same thing happen with a piece of silver jewelry and that’s how he knew (although he was a dumbass, so he forgot what it was called).
And, OK, this guy was pretty much the worst person on the planet, but I have to admit, he pretty much saved me in that moment. Of course I was anemic.
Anemia is an iron deficiency. Iron is a mineral that is crucial for the formation of red blood cells and oxygen transportation. And it’s one of those things that you don’t know how good it is till it’s gone.
On my way home after the ring-mark conversation, I stopped at Duane Reade and bought a box of iron tablets. I took one before bed. The next day I felt like I had gotten about 15 hours of sleep; normally I felt like I had gotten three.
But the thing is, you don’t have to be a pale, skinny, vegetarian to experience an iron deficiency. I remember trying to give blood in high school and getting turned away due to low iron. It almost happened to me again just a few weeks ago! This mineral is apparently more difficult to get in your body than a drunken Lambda Chi.
So you need to be proactive!
There are two types of iron: heme iron (from animals) and non-heme iron (from plants). The best sources of heme iron are organ meats (like liver), red meat, clams, shrimp, and sardines. (Chicken breast is not a good source of iron, so if you shun red meat but still do poultry, just keep in mind, it really isn’t a good source of iron.) For non-heme iron, you can turn to iron-fortified cereal, enriched pasta, beans, and pumpkin seeds.
The major thing about getting iron from foods is you have to be sure your body can absorb the iron. Certain foods help with absorption: oranges, broccoli, peppers, other meats. Other foods hinder it: spinach, whole grains, coffee, tea. This means if you’re having Cheerios for breakfast, pair it with orange juice instead of green tea to get the iron.
Even with a balanced diet, it can be hard to get enough, and making sure you’re absorbing it is complicated. It’s also not in most multivitamins, so you aren’t covered there.
Iron supplements are used to treat anemia; the recommended RDA for women ages 19-50 is 18 mg/day. It’s important to note that high does of iron are extremely toxic, so it’s not a supplement to take casually. If you choose to take an iron supplement, look for slow-release iron unless you want to not go to the bathroom for days. (Seriously.) And it’s important to talk to your doctor to make sure an iron supplement won’t interact with other drugs you’re taking or put you at any health risk.
If you can, add some iron-rich food into your diet! If you’re already a carnivore, lean red meat once or twice a week is not going to kill you. My friend Heather suggested eating Wendy’s chili a couple times a week, which I thought was a great idea, because it’s so yummy and it’s a fast-food menu item that usually gets a green-light. Eating a balanced diet is a good start, but it’s worthwhile to keep an eye on this mineral, just in case!
[And also, let this be a little reminder that skinny does not automatically equal healthy. Yeah, I had a lower BMI back then, but I also felt like the cast of “Twilight” sucked me dry. So my ass is slightly bigger now–I also don’t bruise when you hug me. So there you go.]