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House Calls, September 20, 2012


Practicing family physicians from the UNC Department of Family Medicine have teamed up with The Carrboro Citizen to bring you a weekly feature responding to your questions about health and medicine. Send your questions or comments to yourhealth@unc.edu

This week we respond to questions about anemia and vitamins.

Dear HOUSE Calls, My doctor told me I had a low ferritin level. All my life, I’ve had trouble with anemia. What is the best way to get more iron from a vegetarian diet?

First, we’d like to know if you are a man or a woman, and how old you are. Young women, because of menstrual periods, are often mildly anemic. We would like to understand better if this is a problem with diet, absorption or loss of iron (from bleeding). Iron-deficiency anemia can occasionally represent a severe condition. We expect that your doctor has already considered these possibilities. Most vegetarians get enough dietary iron, but some have to really focus on it, especially if your periods are a little heavier than average. Good vegetarian sources of iron include beans, broccoli, tofu, raisins and leafy-green veggies like spinach and kale. Using an iron skillet can increase the iron contents of sautéed food. Drinking tea with your iron-rich foods can decrease the absorption. Food and beverages rich in vitamin C (e.g., oranges, apples, citrus juices) can increase absorption.

Dear HOUSE Calls, I’m a 55-year-old woman and have been taking vitamins C and E for years. I recently read that there is some question about the safety of supplements. Should I keep taking these?

There is some research that certain vitamins can be toxic in very high doses, and among them are C, D, E, A and a variety of B-complex vitamins. So you are wise to have some questions about the safety of supplements. As a healthy 55-year-old woman, there is no evidence that increasing your vitamin C or E will benefit you or improve your health. You should talk to your doctor about it, but overall I recommend eating a balanced diet to try to get as many nutrients as possible that way, as opposed to getting them as supplements. There are specific conditions when we do recommend supplements, but it sounds like this is not your case.

House Calls is a weekly column by Dr. Adam Goldstein, Dr. Cristy Page and Dr. Adam Zolotor on behalf of Your Health and the UNC Department of Family Medicine.

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