Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Diary of an Anemic Vegan

I can't tell you how much I hate being called anemic. I feel like I'm giving all vegans a bad name. Like this label I've been saddled with gives fuel to the argument against plant based diets. But it's a misconception. I was anemic long before I turned into a herbivore. So I'm here to set the record straight and to share the steps I've been taking to turn this low-iron-stores ship around.

Much of the following account is true, some of it may be imagined or deduced from a life-time of clues, but all of it is how I see the situation. I don't have a ton of childhood memories, the ones I do have are very specific, but I'm not the person who is going to be telling you the shoes I had on to the first day of school, or my first grade-school crush, or even what I dreamed I'd grow up to become. But I can tell you that my mom ate a lot of grapefruit for breakfast when I was growing up. She had a special spoon with a jagged edge on it for just such an endeavour. 

Okay, I admit, that is a weird memory, even for me and I pride myself on being a bit of a weirdo. But I guess it's no more strange than remembering the twister exercise board she used to work out on. Anyhoo - I digress.

I'm pretty sure that I have a memory from childhood wherein I was made to drink some kind of iron supplement. It was horrible. I'd have to ask my mom, maybe she'd remember, but she's got a memory that's about as unreliable as mine. What I'm saying here is that I think my little body has always had difficulty absorbing iron.

Now knowing, years later, that I am gluten intolerant, it makes perfect sense. I was an especially fussy eater who lived on Kraft Dinner Mac and Cheese, perogies, sandwiches (on whole wheat bread because my mom was trying to get some nutrients into me, bless her) pasta and cold pizza. It was a feast of gluten. I wasn't absorbing any nutrients at that point, no matter what I ate.

At the ripe old age of 18 or 19 I became a vegetarian and switched to an almost entirely carb based diet. Without knowing how to create balanced meals I just cut out meat and ate as I had before.  Throughout my adult years I'd often have my iron levels checked and they'd always come in low, but about  8 years ago, those levels were at a nasty level of low. Now iron levels can vary depending on your sex and age and a number of other factors. My doctor said it would be ideal for me to have a level of around 75. That's what she wanted to see, but she would have been happy to have me get up around 30-50. In that last 8 year period, the highest I've gotten was up to 28. Generally I range from between 7 to 14. It's not great. I'm tired all the time. I'm hypothyroid too so I get extra tired. But at the end of April when I got struck with "The Vertigo" - that's how I like to refer to it - THE VERTIGO - giving it its own special title - the Doc and the acupuncturist both attributed it to my long term extremely low ferritin stores. Something had to be done.

I worried if it was because I was vegan, but not so. Apparently I have "The Fibroids" a common condition for we women as we hit mid-life. Great. Just another reason to love aging. I don't know a whole lot about fibroids other than they grow, they make you bleed, A LOT, and they suck. I'll be going to see a specialist later in July to find out more. Bottom line, even if I was chowing down on steaks and burgers I would still be anemic because I am losing more blood than I can make. 

And for me - adding meat to my diet simply isn't an option so what's a girl to do? Build her blood the plant-based way and that's what I've done. I have completely overhauled my diet - including adding back sugar which I have been strictly OFF for a couple of years now. More on that in a bit.

I wasn't sure how to tackle this post when lovely noble reader Kate said she'd be curious to hear more about how I'm building my blood. So I think the easiest way will be two fold. The first being a list of foods that are high in iron - the ones we anemics should be having EVERY DAY - yep you read it here folks - you should be eating iron loaded foods daily.

And the second is how I typically include these foods in my daily diet.

Still before that - I want to say that it doesn't matter one bit if you follow this list to a Tee and eat it daily if you are not absorbing it - so make sure you're getting vitamin C in at every meal as C helps with the absorption of plant-based irons and check your gut health. Are you sensitive to gluten? Lactose intolerant? Are you eating foods that are causing inflammation in your body and therefore unable to absorb any of the nutrients from the food you consume? The best way to find out is to go clean for three weeks. Follow Dr. Junger's Clean program to see what you may not be tolerating.

Once you're gut is in tip top shape then you'll be able to take in all the benefits of a nutrient-rich diet.

Okay - so, what foods are high in iron? Remember, this is not an exhaustive list because I've only included plant-based sources. But my favorites are:

You don't even have to read this list, at a glance you can see a theme - dark leafy greens, richly colored fruits and veggies and nuts and seeds.

My go-to, try to get it in me everyday foods are:
Brown Rice
Pumpkin Seeds
and two things that you'll note are missing from that photo -
Blackstrap Molasses and Dark Chocolate.

Remember how I mentioned earlier that sugar has made a reappearance in my life? It's for a good cause. Blackstrap molasses and dark chocolate both have sugar. There's nothing you can do about the amount of sugar in molasses, but just one tablespoon of organic blackstrap molasses contains 14.3 grams of iron. That's 21.45% of your daily intake! So it's worth it and so far hasn't trigged the sugar monster in me. Dark chocolate on the other hand has been a bit of a slippery slope as not all bars of chocolate are created equal. I stick to the dark dark chocolate and organic brands. Ones like Endangered Species and Alter Eco. I try to keep to the ones that contain between 4 and 7 grams of sugar.

So how the heck do you get a tablespoon of molasses in you daily? Why drink it of course. So here's the other thing you need to know when building your blood. You can't get the iron in you if you don't have something to help absorb it - like vitamin C, but you also can't get it if you're consuming things that block or inhibit iron absorption. And this is the bad news. This is the news that will make you hate me and want to stop reading. All the good stuff we love to drink - green tea, black tea, coffee, wine, pretty much all booze really - they all inhibit absorption. So when you're building your blood - you have to commit to getting off that stuff. Once you build up your stores a little bit - then you can drink those things at alternate times. So not with meals basically.

Now - back to drinking molasses. Had to give up my tea and coffee but still wanted a hot drink so... I have hot water. About 160 degrees - def not boiling. I add a healthy squeeze of lemon, which is really good for digestion just on it's own, but then I stir in one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses and voila - my morning warm beverage. It does take a wee bit of getting used to, but now I even put it in my travel mug and drink it at work. It's helping me feel better and...

Hidden benefit! It is rich in a ton of other minerals and no word of a lie - as I'm starting to grow out my grey hair, it's looking a whole lot less grey than it did six months ago. I'm not joking. I think it's helping my body actually produce more melanin. Sounds crazy, but it seems to be the case. I'll keep you posted. But hey if your health can't motivate you, perhaps vanity will?

I used to live on smoothies in the morning. I do still have them occasionally, because it's a great way to pack in your spinach, dark berries, prunes and other iron rich foods, not to mention that my Sun Warrior Protein powder has a ton of iron in it - I've switched things up and am now more often having gluten free oatmeal. One serving (43 grams) contains 2 mg of iron which translates into 11.28 percent of your daily intake. Not bad. And it's pretty low in calories so if you're watching your weight, it's a good way to go. My shakes can run up to 450-500 calories easy.

Lunch might be a serving of brown rice with red lentils, raw orange or red pepper (thrown in for vitamin C and a nice little added crunch) and I might top it with sauteed spinach and roasted cauliflower or steamed broccoli. That puts me well over the 50% mark for the day.

I'm not a huge bean fan. I find it hard to incorporate them into meals but I have a new trick. Check this out. If you mash a 1/2 cup of black beans with a bit of salsa, then spread it on a piece of gluten free toast with mashed avocado - it's a vegan Mexican iron-rich party on a plate.

Are you a hummus fan? I can't stand the stuff. But I have learned that you can use chick peas to make a vegan  tuna salad. OMG! It's amazing.
Mash 1/2 a cup of rinsed and drained chickpeas. Add some veganaise, a tablespoon of dijon, finely chopped celery, green onions and dill pickle (I'm not joking it's the pickle that makes this), and whip it all together with a squeeze of lemon (gotta get that C in there), then stuff it into a fresh warm soft corn tortillas and top 'em with spinach - they are to die for. An absolute fave.

And dinner can be all sorts depending on the mood - but I try to sneak beets in there. Either steamed and cooled over a spinach salad, or roasted with mashed potatoes. Potatoes are a great source of iron! I didn't know that, did you? Or I'll do a quinoa based dish with a ton of veggies and some tofu. Whatever mood strikes.

Snacks are pumpkin seeds for sure. I'm not the kind of person to add them to a salad. I dunno why. I just don't like them in salad. But I've taken to covering them in dark chocolate and that's a super-hit of iron and feels like a real treat.

Watermelon is high in iron. Who knew? That's a great seasonal summertime snack. As are sweet red cherries, organic strawberries, raspberries and grapes too. Dried fruits are awesome for iron. Prunes, dates, apricots and raisins, but you gotta be mindful of the sugar content. One date is 24 grams of sugar. That's a lot noble reader.  Consume with caution.

In addition to making sure I consume 100% of my daily required intake of iron through food, I also take two supplements because I need all the help I can get. The first is from the health food store. It's called MegaFood Blood Builder.

I take this because it includes a host of other goodies like the Folate, vitamin C and B12. All the stuff our blood needs. Plus it's vegan, gluten free and organic and it's a whopping 26 mg of iron.

Then because I'm in the low end of low blood levels (My ferratin is sitting at a bouncy 9 at the moment) I take a pharmaceutical iron supplement as well. There are a lot of brands that your doctor can recommend and over the years I've likely tried them all - and they all have one thing in common. They PLUG YOU UP. Now I don't know about you, but I do not appreciate being constipated. The good news is that I have finally found a brand I can take and because it's a powder I can adjust my dose accordingly. It's called Feramax

It has a very non-offensive grape flavor - which is to trick kids into taking it I think, but it works for me too. I have tried the Feramax 150 tablets too, but I find them too strong for my system.

So, to recap, the must haves daily are:
Blackstrap molasses.
Pumpkin seeds
Dark chocolate
A lentil or bean dish
A grain (brown rice or quinoa)
Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale or chard
and Beets! Beets! Beets! If your poo isn't a pretty shade of purple or red, you're not getting enough beets. Don't like beets? Try juicing them. I love a good beet juice with kale, lemon and green apple. Yummy.
And lots of veggies. 

Hope this has been helpful. I'll be going back to be retested in August. It's my hope that I can beat my record high of 28, but going from 9 to above 28 in three months may be too much to hope for. I'll keep you posted! And lemme know if you have questies or concerns in the comments section below!

Lots of love,


  1. I am so sorry to hear about the fibroids! I hope your appointment goes well!

    Just gonna suggest something outside the box here and please don’t run screaming BUT how about something like Cream of Rice? Or rice cereal for infants? Yes, someone’s great grandma’s ears are peeking up. They love that stuff! Cures everything! Our boys couldn’t have liberated Europe without it!
    The point is the iron is pretty high.

    Even more “in the box” : breakfast cereal. Yes. I know. It’s deadly but again iron fortified and I’m sure you can find an organic gluten free option?

    1. Omg I literally laughed out loud reading "someone's great grandma's hears" that's the best. The oatmeal I'm eating is a fortified variety - so we're on the same wavelength sister!
      Thanks again for the tip, I may broaden my search of the cereal aisle.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this, I really appreciate it.

    It seems like we are twins when it comes to medical issues. I have so many things to write about my fibroids, but perhaps I'll email you.

    1. I would love to hear your thoughts Kate. Please do email.
      My email address (spelled out so I don't get spam) is masters dot shan at gmail dot com
      Thanks love.

  3. I have the same problem. Have you also tried cooking with cast iron? That might help,too!

    1. Hey Sue,
      I'm sorry to hear you're in the same boat. Yes, I do have a couple of cast iron pans. I love to cook my spinach in them. Do you have a fave thing you use them for?