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Cultural foods supporting anemia ~ Neha Govindarajan

Anyone can develop anemia, whether it be a health issue that runs in the family, or it be something that is newly developed. The importance of incorporating iron rich foods, which can be stressed by medical professionals when diagnosed, and sources of the internet that come up when searching, “how to deal with anemia” can be stressful for patients. Many people may be worried that they might have to completely change their diet to meet their new dietary needs, but thankfully that is simply not the case! In some cases, we may have to make additions to the baseline meals, but there is no need to take them out of your diet altogether.

Here is a list of cultural foods from different continents that you may enjoy eating, or want to try that is part of an anemia friendly diet. It is always amazing to branch out and incorporate new meals, but you may even be surprised to find one of your favorite foods on this list.


​Rajma - rajma is a dish that involves red kidney beans in a thick creamy spicy sauce. This dish can be made more anemia friendly by incorporating spinach into the gravy. There are many recipes that can be followed from the internet, but feel free to tweak any you find to suit your needs.

  • Red kidney beans (the main part of the dish) raises hemoglobin levels, and reduces paleness, which is extremely important for those who are anemic as their overall appearance may make them look sickly due to paleness.

  1. Chole - chole or chana masala is a dish of chickpeas cooked in a creamy spicy gravy. Again, adding spinach to the gravy to boost the overall iron levels of the dish is a great way to tweak the recipe to your needs.

  • Chickpeas are known to reduce paleness, headaches, soreness in the mouth, and strange cravings caused by anemia. Annoying side effects of anemia control the everyday lives of many suffering, so adding foods into your diet that naturally target these issues is a great way to improve the quality of life.

  1. Roti - roti is a savory Indian flatbread made with flour and spices, which is traditionally eaten with a type of curry. The way to make this anemia friendly is to use whole wheat flour when making the roti. Most traditional recipes involve whole wheat flour!

Whole wheat is an essential diet staple for those who are anemic because the iron content of whole wheat flour helps in reducing cravings and shortness of breath caused by iron deficiency. It also offers almost all your daily recommended intake, which helps reduce fatigue, headaches, and dizziness.


​Suya - suya is a spicy meat skewer that is typically made from either chicken or beef liver/kidney. The meats are marinated in a spicy sauce and grilled on skewers.

  • Red meats such as beef are an excellent source of iron. You can absorb about 2.5 mg of iron for every 3 oz of red meat, and for many a single serving of red meat is enough to meet the iron requirements for a day.

​Efo riro - efo riro is a native soup from western Nigeria, which translates to “mixed spinach.” It is made of spinach, red bell peppers, habanero peppers, and onions.

  • The spinach content of this soup is extremely high, and is a good source of iron for those who are anemic and plant based. Just 1 cup of spinach provides 3.72 mg of iron, and there is much more spinach in this dish than 1 cup, so you are guaranteed to meet your iron requirements.

  1. Ewa Agoyin - ewa agoyin is boiled beans served in a spicy pepper sauce, and known for its mushy texture and burst of flavor.

The main ingredient in this dish is white beans, which are the beans that are the richest in iron. “White, lima, red kidney and navy beans closely follow soybeans, offering 4.4–6.6 mg of iron per cup cooked, or 24–37% of the RDI (8, 9, 10, 11).” Adding this dish to meals as a side dish is a great way to increase the iron content in your meals.


​Spinach ohitashi - spinach ohitashi is a Japanese side dish made of blanched spinach soaked in soy broth topped with bonito flakes.

Spinach is one of the most natural and whole-food sources of iron, which makes this side dish perfect for those with anemia as “1 cup of this healthy green (frozen and then boiled) delivers 3.72 mg of iron.” Adding this side dish gives you more freedom to be more lenient with the iron content in the main parts of your meal. However, having an iron rich main dish in addition is extremely beneficial.

  1. Miso soup - is a traditional Japanese soup consisting of a dashi stock into which softened miso paste is mixed. Tofu and spinach is then often added, but additions can vary based on preference.

  • Adding tofu and spinach is a great way to make this side dish to you sushi (or any other meal) anemia friendly. Tofu is pure soy, which contains an average of 6.6mg of iron per serving, and spinach contains about 3.72 mg per serving. Together, an average small bowl of miso soup has .9 mg of iron, and most times people eat 3-4x this amount, so this is an excellent source of iron.

​Natto - natto is a traditional Japanese food made from whole soybeans that have been fermented with Bacillus subtilis var. Natto.

  • Natto can be used as a main protein source in the meal (used in a large portion) due to the fact that it is pure soybean, but it also provides an excellent source of iron. Only 1 cup of natto provides us with 15.1mg of iron. In addition to providing many other vital macronutrients, natto is an extremely good source of iron, and should definitely be incorporated into the diet of those who are anemic.

I hope you have seen that anemia friendly foods exist all around the world, and may even exist in your current diet. It is important to ensure that you have at least one strong source of iron in each meal when suffering from anemia. So, go try something new! Make of the recipes above, who knows maybe you will have a new favorite dish by the end of today!

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