How Milk Can Cause Anemia (And What to do About It)

Hey there, Mamas! We have rule in our house about drinks. L only gets milk at meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and water any other time. (We don’t do juice for several reasons, many of which can be found here, but also because she won’t even try it.) This might seem like a weird rule but we have reasons behind it.

As much as L is opposed to trying juice, she loves milk. On days when she is distracted enough by her food, we try not to even bring up milk at meals to make sure she actually EATS some food. We’d like her to have a well-rounded diet full of a variety of foods and food groups. (Or, you know, at least more than just dairy.)

Aside from a balanced diet, we limit her milk intake to help prevent iron-deficiency anemia. (There are several types of anemia, but iron-deficiency anemia is the most common.)

It's a nutritious addition, but too much can contribute to anemia.

It’s a nutritious addition, but too much can contribute to anemia.

Milk: It Does a Body Good… Usually

I hope you don’t get then impression that I’m anti-dairy – I’m not. Like I said, L drinks milk three times a day and I eat Greek yogurt almost everyday as well. Don’t even get me started on cheese… That being said, if left unchecked excessive intake of dairy products can contribute to iron-deficiency anemia. This is where moderation and variety play a very important role in diet.

Milk is a good source of many nutrients, but it’s certainly not a perfect food. (Spoiler: No food is perfect.) For example, milk is (voluntarily) fortified with vitamin D. This began in the 1930s in response to the rickets epidemic. {Side note: Rickets has made a resurgence in the past few years, with likely several contributing factors: Popularity of raw milk (no D fortification), increased time spent inside (sitting and without sun exposure), and increased sunscreen use may all play a role.}

Of course, when most of us think of milk we think calcium. It’s a great source of bio-available (read: easy for the body to use) calcium. Calcium found in certain other foods, like spinach, have lower bio-availability, which means that the body can’t utilize it that well. If your body can’t use the nutrients in foods, it doesn’t do us much good.

Calcium certainly is an important nutrient! So important that we carry large stores of it in our bodies at all times. (Yep, your bones are just vessels to hold calcium in case it’s needed in your blood.) But, too much of a good thing isn’t always better. When eaten together, calcium competes with iron for absorption. If you’re not getting enough iron, it can result in anemia.

Basics of Anemia

Like I mentioned earlier, there are several types of anemia. Since iron-deficiency anemia is the most common, we’ll stick with this one for now. Symptoms of anemia are non-specific, so you’ll have to get diagnosed through a blood test. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Easy fatigue and loss of energy
  • Unusually rapid heart beat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty concentrating or headache
  • Brittle nails
  • Dizziness
  • Pale skin (though, like me, you might just come by this naturally)

It can occur several ways.

  1. Not eating enough iron-containing foods.
  2. Eating too many foods that are competing with iron absorption.
  3. Excessive blood loss. (This might sound like a joke, but it’s why many more adult women have anemia than adult men.)

So, to treat this problem nutritionally, we need to focus on the cause of the problem.

  • If your food choices are low in iron… It could be that much of your caloric intake is coming from empty calorie foods (chips or candy).  Try examining your diet and see what calorie-laden foods you can replace with nutrient-dense foods. {See list of high-iron foods below.} It can also help to eat iron-containing foods with foods rich in vitamin C. Vitamin C makes iron easier to absorb. So, try something like whole wheat pasta with ground beef (both good sources of iron) topped with tomato sauce (high in vitamin C).
  • If your food choices are competing with iron… Make sure you’re not getting too much of any one specific food, even if it is a healthy choice. Usually, milk or dairy can be cut down to three servings a day. Tea or coffee can inhibit iron absorption as well, especially if these are mostly what you’re drinking during the day. (Try some fruited water for a change – it might even increase your vitamin C!)
  • If you have excessive blood loss… If your periods are particularly heavy, it may be worth a trip to the lab to get your iron levels tested. Your doctor might prescribe an iron supplement. {More on those further down.}

Good Food Sources of Iron:

  • Meat, poultry, and seafood (especially oysters, tuna, and mussels)
  • Raisins, prunes
  • Potatoes
  • Quinoa
  • Spinach, Swiss chard
  • White beans, lentils
  • Tofu
  • Hazelnuts, cashews

{See here for more info}

Iron Supplements

Iron supplements should only be used under a doctor’s supervision with a diagnosis of iron-deficiency. You may have heard that many nutritional supplements, like multivitamins, result in “expensive pee.” Most water-soluble vitamins (like vitamin C or B vitamins), if taken in excess, are excreted through urine, so this statement can be true. However, iron isn’t a “water-soluble vitamin.” It’s a mineral with it’s own specific absorption pathways.

Iron supplements, if not medically needed, can be specifically dangerous (even lethal) for young children. (That’s why their packaging is so tricky these days.) So, please, talk to your doctor before using or giving your kiddo an iron supplement.

Tell me Mamas, has your child been diagnosed with anemia? Were you able to fix it through food or did they need a supplement?

Photo Credit:

Image courtesy of khumthong from


  1. Addalaide says:

    I have this condition. It’s very rare for it to continue into adulthood but I can’t really tolerate dairy. At 7 months I was so sick I was taken to the ER with blue lips and white skin. This is when I was diagnosed. Very scary time for my parents. I was taken off all dairy and lived most of my childhood dairy free. As a teen I was givin the opportunity to try at it again. I do somewhat ok with it as long as I’m not menstruating. Now as an adult I just avoid it. It’s very easy to avoid now with soy milks that taste good and soy yogurts.

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