What is anemia?
Anemia is a condition that occurs when there aren’t enough red blood cells in the body.
The job of the red blood cell is to help carry oxygen throughout the body, including to organs and muscles. When red blood cell counts are low, this could lead to feelings of fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and other, more serious, issues.8
Different types of anemia
Anemia can develop for a number of reasons, leading to different types of anemia, including:8,12,13,14
- Iron deficiency anemia: Anemia that develops from low iron levels. The most common form of anemia, it can be caused by genetic conditions, dietary and lifestyle choices, gastrointestinal issues, blood loss, chronic kidney disease, and other chronic conditions that affect iron absorption.
- Vitamin B-12-deficiency anemia: Anemia caused by low levels of B-12. The body requires B-12 to produce red blood cells, and lower levels of the vitamin lead to a lack of production or improperly developed red blood cells.
- Hemolytic anemia: A blood condition that results in red blood cells being destroyed faster than they can be produced. It can be caused by certain autoimmune conditions, bone marrow failure, certain infections, and inherited conditions such as sickle cell disease.
Disordered eating habits involved in certain eating disorders may put someone at a higher risk for developing certain types of anemia.
Signs of anemia
There are a variety of physical symptoms associated with anemia, including:9
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Pale or yellow skin
- Cold hands and feet
- Chest pain
If you or a loved one are experiencing these symptoms, it may be time to visit a doctor.
Can an eating disorder cause anemia?
It appears that the disordered behaviors involved with different eating disorders can, in many cases, lead to anemia.
One study looking at 921 patients with eating disorders found that anemia impacted many of the patients, including:3
- 16.4% of patients with anorexia nervosa-restricting type
- 20.2% of patients with anorexia nervosa, binge/purge type
- 11.2% of patients with bulimia nervosa
Still, the unhelpful patterns involved in different eating disorders may bring about anemia in different ways.
Treatment for anemia
Treatment for anemia is different, depending on the cause and severity of the condition.
Diet often plays an important role in rehabilitation for anemia, and nutritional therapy has been found effective at helping those with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.10
Eating enough food and including adequate sources of dietary iron, in general, is an important part of recovering from both eating disorders and anemia. Some good food sources for iron include:11
- Beans and lentils
- Fortified cereals
- Potatoes (with skin)
- Nuts and seeds
- Canned light tuna
- Enriched rice or bread
Some people may also benefit from taking iron pills or other supplements, and medications can also be prescribed to help someone produce more red blood cells.8 For severe iron deficiency anemia, blood transfusions may be necessary.17
Finding help for an eating disorder
The good news when it comes to a serious mental health condition like an eating disorder is that help is available. Many different types of therapy have been developed to help people with eating disorders of all types, including AN, BN, binge eating disorder (BED), and other types of disordered eating.
When dealing with an eating disorder and anemia, it's always a good idea to work with a dietitian and health care team to create an individualized protocol based on your needs and symptoms.