A variety of foods can raise levels of hemoglobin in the bloodstream, but it is crucial to determine the etiology. Low hemoglobin levels, which are due to nutritional deficiencies, may indicate serious underlying medical conditions. Without treatment, the symptoms can become more severe over time.
What is Hemoglobin
Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen in the bloodstream. Low levels of hemoglobin can result in a condition called anemia. The symptoms of anemia include fatigue, weakness, confusion, headaches, pale skin, decreased immunity and shortness of breath. The most common causes of anemia are blood loss, diseases of the bone marrow and kidney, chemotherapy drugs, malabsorption and nutritional deficiencies. The three most common nutrient deficiencies that cause anemia are of iron, folate and vitamin B-12. Treatment of low hemoglobin levels should be directed at diagnosing the underlying causes of anemia and evaluating lab tests. Consult with your physician before taking nutritional supplements.
Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, and a dietary deficiency of iron can result in low hemoglobin levels and anemia. Two types of dietary iron are found in animal and plant foods. Heme iron, which is found in animal foods, is more readily absorbed by the body. Sources of heme iron include red meats, organ meats, fish and poultry. Nonheme iron foods are less readily absorbed by the body and are enhanced by the intake of protein and vitamin C. Rich sources of nonheme iron include enriched breads and cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables and dried fruits. Supplementation with iron can restore hemoglobin levels, but take supplements with caution to avoid iron overload and toxicity.
Vitamin B-12 is required for the synthesis of red blood cells and hemoglobin. The most common causes of B-12 deficiency are malabsorption diseases and lack of a stomach protein called intrinsic factor, which facilitates the absorption of vitamin B-12. If malabsorbtion is present, a doctor may prescribe a shot of vitamin B-12. Dietary deficiencies of vitamin B-12 are rare. This deficiency is found predominantly in strict vegetarians, as vitamin B-12 is limited in plant foods. Meat, fish, eggs, poultry, dairy and fortified cereals are rich in vitamin B-12
Folate is also required for the synthesis of red blood cells and hemoglobin. Deficiencies of folate are most common in intestinal diseases, malabsorption, use of some antiseizure medications and pregnancy. Dietary deficiencies can occur with poor intake of fruits and vegetables. Citrus fruits and juices, enriched grains and cereals and dark green, leafy vegetables are excellent dietary sources of folate. Supplementation with folate can mask a deficiency of vitamin B-12 and should only be ordered after the evaluation of a blood test.
Diane Tomkin is a registered and licensed dietitian with more than 30 years of professional experience in clinical nutrition. As a nutrition consultant, she runs a private practice in Long Island. Tomkin holds a master's degree in health-care administration and health education. She has taught graduate and undergraduate classes at Long Island University.