Unless you're giving blood on a whim or in an emergency, you usually have time to prep your body.
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 — on 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 to Eat Before Giving Blood (and Why It 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, people assigned female at birth must have a hemoglobin of 12.5 grams per deciliter to give blood, according to the American Red Cross. The minimum hemoglobin level for people assigned male at birth who want to donate is 13 grams per deciliter.
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," says Maxine C. Yeung, RD, owner of The Wellness Whisk and a certified personal trainer in the South Bay area of California.
Eating a nutritious, 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.
Iron is an essential nutrient, but it's especially important if you're planning to give blood. Yeung says you want to make sure you're eating plenty of high-iron foods leading up to your donation. There are two types of dietary iron: heme and non-heme.
Heme iron is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Heme iron is found only in animal flesh, such as:
- Meats: beef, lamb, pork, veal, organ meats
- Seafood: fish, shellfish
- Poultry: chicken, turkey, duck
Non-heme iron is the type found in plants, such as:
- Leafy greens: kale, spinach, chard
- Dried fruit: prunes, dates, apricots, figs, raisins
- Beans and legumes: black beans, peas, soybeans and soy products (like tofu), lentils
- Nuts, nut butters and seeds: peanuts, almonds, cashews, flaxseed, hemp seeds, chia seeds
- Fortified foods: whole-grain bread, cereal, enriched pasta
Having an iron-fortified cold or hot breakfast cereal is an easy way to increase your iron intake — try any of these 11 healthy fortified cereals or check the nutrition labels on the cereal boxes in your pantry for iron content. Add a tablespoon of raisins over the top for extra iron, or mix in other high-iron dried fruits, such as apricots, peaches or figs.
"If you donate two times a year or more, we recommend taking multivitamins with iron or just plain iron to replace your iron stores," says Jed Gorlin, MD, MBA, vice president and medical director at Innovative Blood Resources in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Vitamin-C Rich Foods
Adding vitamin C to your meals helps your body absorb iron. It actually counteracts the effects of calcium, polyphenols, phytates, oxalates and tannins in foods that can impair iron absorption, Yeung explains.
Some foods rich in vitamin C include the following, according to the USDA:
- Bell peppers
What to Eat for Breakfast Before Donating Blood
Before giving blood in the morning, try:
- Fortified cereal with a calcium-free plant-based milk alternative
- Spinach and fruit smoothie made with water or calcium-free plant-based milk alternative
- Oatmeal with dried fruit and calcium-free plant-based milk alternative
- Sweet and Savory Apple Hummus Toast on iron-fortified, seven-grain bread: Apples are a source of vitamin C, providing 11 percent of your daily value, per the USDA. You could also add a side of berries or sparkling water juiced up with a burst of orange.
- Trail mix with nuts and seeds plus a piece of fruit.
Lunch and Dinner Ideas
Here are some more delicious recipes with iron and vitamin C:
- Spaghetti with meat sauce using extra lean ground beef (a source of heme iron) and unsalted tomato sauce (which has vitamin C).
- Almost Cobb Salad Bowl: It's 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.)
- Chicken and Avocado Black Bean Soup, which features C-rich cherry tomatoes and a squeeze of lime juice.
- Lentil Raisin Spinach Salad is a tasty way to amp up iron in your diet.
What to Drink
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!
What to Avoid
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.
Caffeine is also a mild diuretic, which is why Yeung says it's probably best to limit your coffee and tea intake just before and immediately after your blood donation.
Coffee and tea can also impair iron absorption — another thing to keep in mind as you prepare for your blood draw, Yeung says.
Finally, avoid eating 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.
- American Red Cross: "Iron-Rich Foods"
- American Red Cross: "Frequently Asked Questions"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Iron"
- USDA: "Top 10 Foods Highest In Iron"
- Standard Blood Center: "Hemoglobin and Your Health"
- Maxine D. Yeung, MS, RD, owner, The Wellness Whisk, and certified personal trainer, South Bay area, California