Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Necessary Evil?

I've been thinking a lot about my iron content lately. The blood work at my checkup in 2009 showed me as borderline iron-deficient, and the one from 2010 put me right in the range of real iron deficiency. I feel cold all the time. When I exercise, I feel tired more quickly than a year ago, and sometimes it just feels difficult to get enough oxygen.

I am disposed towards iron-deficiency anemia because I am both vegetarian and female. Naturally, women lose iron out of their bodies every month, so we have to have proportionally more in our diets.

Supplements are not the same as getting nutrients from nature. An iron supplement will never be as well absorbed by the body as heme iron obtained by eating animal flesh.

Is this the end of vegetarian Melissa? After 16 years, I don't even know whether I can easily digest flesh foods any more. Also, it rather disgusts me to think about it. I don't want to feel as though I've "failed" as a vegetarian, or consider myself a "traitor".

On the other hand, this is my health and well-being I'm talking about! Am I crazy? Why would I not have most nutritious, health-promoting, natural diet I can find? If having some clams or oysters or sardines now and then gives me not only Iron, but also Vitamin B12 and Omega-3 fatty acids, promoting goodness throughout my body, what's holding me back? An outdated identity of myself as a true vegetarian?

I've always maintained that if I were starving, I would kill other animals for food. If my plane crashed in the Andes and I had to turn cannibal until we figured out a way down the mountain, I would. (And then I'd write a book about it.)

But the identity is hard to let go of. It's something that's been with me for over half my life. I can keep trying the vegetarian route: lentils, beans, blackstrap molasses, cooking in cast iron, taking supplements. However, history indicates that these just don't go far enough.

I'm tormented by this. I don't know what to do yet. Part of me doesn't want to make a big deal about it, 'cause I feel like people will understand. "You had to change your diet in order to be healthy? Makes sense." Heck, all the people that actually care about me should be fine. So why am I so emotionally caught up in this?


  1. No one piped up on this one? Huh. Well, I was chatting with someone (completely forgotten who) and talking about this issue. She knew someone who was eating TOO MUCH spinach, and her iron was too high.

    I imagine that you should be able to modify your food sufficiently to get all the iron you need. Goes with that "no need for industrial goop" issue that I also agree with you: Eat Food, people!

  2. That's very strange, because I don't see how too much spinach could cause anyone's iron to be too high. According to published numbers, spinach has only 1 mg iron per cup (raw), and that is typically bound up by tannins and phytic and oxalic acids. You'd have to eat at least 10 cups of spinach every day with iron absorption enhancers to even reach your RDA.

  3. I was skeptical too, but thought that I would at least mention the anecdote.

  4. Not to discourage you from expanding your diet, but I wanted to suggest an iron supplement that my midwife prescribed for me during my first pregnancy (when a woman's blood volume increases by about 40%, so increases the need for iron). It's a liquid so in theory is absorbed by the body better than a pill. It's called floradix and you can find it in most health food stores.