Eat to Give: Healthy Food Choices for Blood Donors

Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood (Source). It is such an incredibly common necessity for so many lives and such an incredible opportunity to help others! Blood drives can be found nationwide calling out to the able and willing to contribute their donations – however, sometimes those who are more than willing are less than able for a frustratingly minor reason: Iron Deficiency.

That was my initial experience with giving blood. When I turned 18 and no longer needed a permission slip signed by my parents, I added “Donate 10 Gallons of Blood” to my bucket list, called the Red Cross to set up an appointment, and made my way to my local rec center to make my donation. I filled out a tediously long form and was called back to have my vitals checked. I winced as they pricked my finger and squeezed a drop of blood out, placing it into a little machine that ruined my plans to contribute to my 10 Gallon goal. I didn’t have enough iron. In order to give blood, one must register as having 12.5g/dL (13.0g/dL for males) of hemoglobin (the iron containing component of blood). I was a good point and a half under this requirement. I would try donating blood twice a month every month for exactly a year, only having enough iron to give 3 out of those 24 times, before finally figuring out the right combination of dietary and lifestyle changes that allowed me to donate. Keep reading to learn the tips that helped me to help others and that may enable you to achieve this goal also!

Iron containing foods:

Although it may be tempting to turn to supplements, it is best to try obtaining nutrients from whole foods first. Evaluate your daily dietary habits and determine whether these foods are a part of your regular routine –

Iron supplements can have very harmful effects if taken in excess so be sure to follow the dosage instructions should you choose to go this route. Eating iron in food also increases the bioavailability of the mineral. Bioavailability refers to the amount of a nutrient that is actually absorbed into circulation by the body rather than excreted out, unused, in waste.

Vitamin C:

There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animal tissue and is readily absorbed and used by the body. Non-heme iron is found in plant based sources. Although this form of iron is not quite as easily absorbed, this process can be aided with vitamin C! Try pairing a serving of oranges, pineapples, mangoes, strawberries, or tomatoes with your iron rich foods to get the most out of your meal.

Tannins (tea and coffee):

Studies have shown that the tannins in black teas and coffee bind to non-heme iron and block its absorption. If you are in the habit of drinking tea or coffee with meals and find yourself iron deficient, try switching to green tea or move your tea time to further between meals to give your body time (approximately 2 to 4 hours) to digest and absorb the iron rich foods before introducing the tannin-containing beverages.

Digestion, Absorption, and Food intolerances:

Some studies have shown that food intolerances could play a role in poor iron absorption. If the food consumed is irritating an individual’s digestive tract, it can be detrimental to the efficient absorption of vitamins and minerals. If you are aware that you do not tolerate certain foods well, try cutting these out of your diet and replacing them with iron rich foods from the list above. Click here to read my previous article about Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerances.

Thank you for making the choice to donate. I know how frustrating it can be to try and try to give and be turned down relentlessly. I am hoping that this information empowers you to be diligent about your lifestyle choices that get you on the track to successful donating!

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