Many of us do not truly understand the diseases that afflict us, what they are, and how they affect us. This is understandable. However, there are some health conditions that can be resolved without medication. All it requires is an understanding of the problem and its solutions. One of these conditions is certain types of Anaemia.
What is Anaemia? Anaemia is a lack of healthy red blood cells that are known as hemoglobin. Our red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. When there is a shortage of red blood cells, there is a shortage of oxygen carriers. This lack of oxygen causes fatigue and can lead to breathing and heart problems. There are many causes for anaemia, but the most common of these is an iron deficiency.
More than 80% of anaemia among women and children in India is caused by an Iron Deficiency in their blood, mainly due to low iron in their diet. The problem is particularly acute among adolescent girls and pregnant women. It is estimated that almost 20% of maternal deaths are directly caused by anaemia and causes of another 50% of maternal deaths are associated with anaemia. Weakness is assumed to be a normal condition during pregnancy and a majority of Indian women do not seek treatment for anaemia unless the symptoms become severe.
In a society where the status of women is poor, women face discrimination within the family. Women in India ‘eat last’ or eat only the food left over after the meals of male members of the family. Nearly 50-80% of mothers suffer from anaemia due to iron-deficiency in their diet.
The Government of India has, through various schemes, including its weekly Iron Folic Acid Supplementation Programme and awareness programmes, tried to tackle the widespread prevalence of the major health problem with minimum success.
Treatment of Anaemia is also part of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2.2 that states, “By 2030, end all forms of malnutrition, including achieving, by 2025, the internationally agreed targets on stunting and wasting in children under 5 years of age, and address the nutritional needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women and older persons.”
Anaemic statistics in India paint a very sorry picture. These are the National Family Health Survey IV, conducted in 2015-16:
The figures are only marginally less in urban populations, and even affect women in most wealthy and middle-income groups. Although the figures in NFHS IV are an improvement to those of NFHS III conducted in 2005-06, they are still a national shame. WHO reports that 24.8% of the world’s population is anaemic.
There are many reasons that we do not get enough nutrients from our food. This has been discussed in my earlier blogs. Although the state of the planet makes it necessary to use food supplements to increase our intake of necessary nutrients, some of our needs can be taken care of by treating ‘Food as Medicine’ and rectifying our food habits with very little effort. Iron intake is one of them.
There are two types of dietary iron – heme and nonheme. Plants contain nonheme iron, and meats and seafood contain both heme and nonheme iron. Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body, as it is in the form of blood proteins in the meat we eat. Nonheme iron needs to be converted into a bioavailable form before it can be absorbed by the body. That means, that it cannot be absorbed directly, and needs to be converted in the body before it can pass into the bloodstream.
Lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables, and especially all parts of the Miracle Tree, Moringa, better known as the Drumstick tree, are good vegetarian sources of iron. As vegetarians do not eat foods with heme iron, they are at greater risk, as the iron they consume is harder for the body to process. A report in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences, “A Comparative Study of the Prevalence of Anaemia among vegetarian and non-vegetarian women in Udaipur City, Rajasthan” by Kamla Mahajani and Vibha Bhatnagar showed ” a highly significant difference (p<0.01) in the BMI of vegetarian and non-vegetarian group. Mean haemoglobin level of non-vegetarian was higher (12.07 ± 1.08 g/dl) than the vegetarian group (10.09 ± 0.95 g/dl). 40% vegetarians were having moderate anaemia, 60%t were mild anaemic whereas 46.66% non vegetarian respondents were in normal category.” More vegetarians were anaemic.
With heme iron (from meat), 20-30% of the iron in your food is absorbed by the body. For non-heme iron (from vegetables and supplements), it is only 5-12%. The key to iron intake, especially for vegetarians, is increasing the bioavailability of iron in our vegetables and lentils from this low percentage.
How we cook them can affect how much iron we absorb. In my next blog, I will share the Magic of an Iron Kadai, cooking in which can increase the amount of iron absorbed by us.