Donating Blood? Here's Exactly What to Eat Beforehand

If you're donating blood early in the day, make sure to nourish your body with a substantial breakfast.
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Unless you're giving blood on a whim or in an emergency, you usually have time to prep your body.

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If you're able to, make sure your blood is donation-ready by upping your iron and vitamin C intake in the days before you give.

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Planning ahead and enjoying a healthy breakfast — and staying hydrated — the day of your donation can make all the difference in the way you feel before and after giving blood.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, LIVESTRONG.com is raising awareness about the urgent need for people to donate blood with our Give Blood, Give Back series.

What You Eat Before Giving Blood Matters

To be eligible to donate blood, you have to have a healthy level of hemoglobin. That's the iron-containing protein in red blood cells that delivers oxygen to tissues in your body.

At a minimum, women must have a hemoglobin of 12.5 grams per deciliter to give blood, according to the American Red Cross. The minimum hemoglobin level for men who want to donate blood is 13 grams per deciliter.

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Low hemoglobin often signals a low-iron diet, according to the Stanford Blood Center. Other common causes include menstruation and frequent blood donation.

"After you donate, it takes a while for your iron stores to build up again," Maxine C. Yeung, RD, owner of The Wellness Whisk and a certified personal trainer in the South Bay area of California, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is a great way to see to it that your iron intake is up to par, according to the Stanford Blood Center.

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Include Iron-Rich Foods in Your Pre-Donation Meal

Iron is an essential nutrient, but it's especially important if you're planning to give blood. There are two types of dietary iron: heme and non-heme.

Heme iron is found only in animal flesh, such as beef, seafood and poultry, and is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Non-heme iron is the type found in plants, like leafy greens, beans, nuts and legumes, as well as fortified foods like cereal.

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Yeung says you want to make sure you're eating plenty of high-iron foods leading up to your donation.

Having an iron-fortified cold or hot breakfast cereal is one way to increase your iron intake. Scatter a tablespoon or so of raisins over the top for an additional boost of iron. Or mix in other dried fruits, such as apricots, peaches or figs, which are all high in iron, according to the USDA.

Try any of these 11 healthy fortified cereals or check the nutrition labels on the cereal boxes in your pantry for iron content.

"If you donate two times a year or more, we recommend taking multivitamins with iron or just plain iron to replace your iron stores," Jed Gorlin, MD, MBA, vice president and medical director at Innovative Blood Resources in St. Paul, Minnesota, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

Add Vitamin-C Rich Foods, Too

Adding vitamin C to your meals helps your body absorb iron, Yeung says. It actually counteracts the effects of calcium, polyphenols, phytates, oxalates and tannins in foods that can impair iron absorption, she explains.

Some foods rich in vitamin C include guava, kiwi, bell peppers, strawberries, oranges, broccoli, tomatoes and kale, according to the USDA.

"Bell peppers actually have more vitamin C than oranges," Yeung points out. One cup of pepper packs 152 milligrams of C versus 95.8 milligrams in one cup of orange segments, according to the USDA.

Before giving blood, try a spinach and fruit smoothie with almond milk or dig into a simple snack of trail mix with nuts and seeds plus a piece of fruit to get your iron and vitamin C.

For dinner, toss C-rich tomatoes and your favorite beans (a non-heme source of iron) in a pot for vegetarian chili. If you're a meat eater, create a delicious spaghetti with meat sauce using extra lean ground beef (a source of heme iron) and unsalted tomato sauce (which packs vitamin C). Or roast a pan of ground chicken- or turkey-stuffed peppers.

Here are some more delicious recipes packed with iron and vitamin C that you might like to give a whirl:

  • Serve Sweet and Savory Apple Hummus Toast on iron-fortified, seven-grain bread. Yes, apples are a source of vitamin C, providing almost 6 milligrams of the nutrient, according to the USDA, but you could also add a side of berries or sparkling water juiced up with a burst of orange.
  • Dig into Almost Cobb Salad Bowl, a layered dish of skinless chicken breast, boiled egg, kale, tomato, avocado and corn dressed with tangy lemon vinaigrette. (Skip the cheese to avoid that extra hit of calcium that might interfere with efforts to boost your iron absorption.)
  • Try this easy Chicken and Avocado Black Bean Soup, which features C-rich cherry tomatoes and a squeeze of lime juice.
  • Toss sunflower seeds, raisins, cherry tomatoes, onions and cooked lentils over a bed of spinach. This Lentil Raisin Spinach Salad is a tasty way to amp up iron in your diet.

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What to Drink and What to Avoid

In the hours before you donate, make sure that you are well-hydrated. That means downing an extra 16 ounces of fluids before donating, per the Red Cross.

Go for plain or fruit-infused water, Yeung says. You can even up your vitamin C by adding a few squeezes of lemon or orange to your H2O.

Need a way to easily track your daily water intake? Download the MyPlate app to do the job, so you can stay focused and achieve your goals!

Other don'ts: Definitely avoid alcohol 24 hours before donating — it can increase your risk of fainting, Dr. Gorlin says. As for caffeine — it's a mixed bag. It probably decreases fainting, he says, but it's also a mild diuretic.

And that's why Yeung says it's probably best to limit your caffeine intake just before and immediately after your blood donation. (By the way, coffee and tea can also impair iron absorption, she notes — another thing to keep in mind as you prepare for your blood draw.)

Finally, don't indulge in a fatty meal the day before or the day of your donation. It can make your blood cloudy, Dr. Gorlin says, and that can undermine blood testing and collection efforts.

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