Frequently asked questions about iron and blood donation

Donating blood removes iron from your body which is needed to help maintain strength and energy. The American Red Cross encourages all blood and platelet donors to learn how to maintain healthy iron levels and how blood donation impacts the level of iron in your body.

What is hemoglobin?

Hemoglobin is a protein in your body that contains iron and gives blood its red color. Hemoglobin is responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs to nourish all of the tissues in your body.

What is a normal hemoglobin level?

Normal hemoglobin ranges are different for males and females. The normal range for men is 13.5 to 17.5g/dL. For women, the normal range is 12.0 to 15.5g/dL. African American men and women will have a normal range that varies by 0.7g/dL at the low end of the range.

What is iron?

Iron is a part of hemoglobin and an essential mineral found in foods we eat. Iron helps your body make new red blood cells, and can help to replace those lost through blood donations.

Does the Red Cross check my iron level before donating?

No. The Red Cross does not measure your iron level before donating, but does check your hemoglobin level. Your hemoglobin level is checked using a fingerstick prior to donating. If your hemoglobin is low, you will be asked to wait to donate until your levels return to normal.

What is the minimum hemoglobin level needed for donating?

To help ensure that it is safe for you to donate, females must have a minimum hemoglobin level of 12.5g/dL and males must have a minimum level of 13.0g/dL. A donor’s hemoglobin level cannot be higher than 20.0g/dL to donate.

How can I increase my iron level?

The amount of iron that your body needs will depend on several factors including age, gender, body type, genetics – and, how often you donate blood. The Red Cross recommends that all donors eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet that contains foods rich in iron and high in vitamin C. Donors should also avoid foods that may block the absorption of iron in your body.

Some donors, such as young and frequent donors, may help increase or maintain their iron levels by taking an iron supplement with 18-38 mg of elemental iron or a multivitamin with 18 mg of iron for at least 60 days after donating whole blood or 120 days after a power red donation.

Which foods have the most iron?

Foods have two types of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is most easily absorbed by your body. It is found in meat and animal products such as beef, turkey (especially dark meat), chicken, lamb, pork and liver.

Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by your body, but is still a good source of iron and essential if you don’t eat meat. Examples of foods high in non-heme iron are breakfast cereals fortified by iron, breads and pasta (whole grain and enriched), tofu, beans, lentils, peanuts, dried fruits like raisons and eggs.

Do other foods increase your body’s ability to absorb iron?

Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, which is why we recommend eating foods high in vitamin C. Foods such as tomatoes, oranges and other citrus fruits, and bell peppers have high levels of vitamin C. In addition to having high levels of heme iron, red meats can also help the body absorb non-heme iron.

Do other foods decrease the absorption of iron?

Yes, some foods and beverages can decrease the amount of iron that your body absorbs. Some examples are:

  • Coffee or tea
  • Red wine
  • Chocolate
  • High fiber foods
  • Some medications like antacids
  • High calcium foods (like milk or cheese)

This doesn’t mean that you have to remove these foods and drinks from your diet, but you should consider avoiding eating these items with your iron-rich meals or iron supplements. For example, have your coffee or tea before or after your meal instead of with your meal.

Can I get too much iron in my diet?

Most people cannot get too much iron from food they choose to eat, which is why a balanced diet is important. Some people may already have a condition called hereditary hemochromatosis, which is an overload of iron that can lead to serious health problems if left untreated. People with hemochromatosis should check with their health-care provider to find out how much iron in their diet is allowable.