As you’ve probably already heard, making sure you get enough iron in pregnancy is important – but why?
Here’s the low down on why iron is so important, and the best iron-rich foods for your pregnancy diet.
Why is iron important in pregnancy?
Iron is an essential mineral to make sure our bodies are working at their best. It’s needed to produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body to keep our tissues and organs healthy.
Dr. Andrew Orr, Women’s Health & Reproductive Medicine Specialist, says:
“Iron is not only essential for carrying oxygen around the body, but it is also very important for bone health, brain health and our hormones, too”.
For pregnant women, it’s especially important. During pregnancy, your blood volume increases, so your body requires up to twice its normal iron requirements.
You need iron to make more red blood cells for your body and for your baby.
Red blood cells carry oxygen to your baby. Your baby needs iron for muscle growth and brain development.
The baby also stores iron obtained from the mother, to be used in the first six months of life.
Research suggests an iron deficiency in childhood leads to a lower IQ.
The body doesn’t produce iron; it can only be absorbed from the foods we eat. That’s why it’s vital our diet contains sufficient amounts.
For non-pregnant women, the recommended daily intake is between 7 mg and 18 mg. The American College of Obstetricians recommends 27 mg a day for pregnant women.
Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia
Low levels of iron can lead to a condition known as iron deficiency anemia. According to the American Pregnancy Association, about 15-25% of women in the US develop the condition.
Iron deficiency anemia can lead to pregnant women feeling very rundown.
Symptoms of this condition include:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Feeling weak
- Lack of energy, or fatigue
- Pale skin
- Poor attention span or concentration
- Cold hands and feet
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Impaired immune function
- Mouth ulcers.
Iron rich foods for pregnancy
Iron is found in many of the foods we eat. To prevent low iron, it’s easy to start adding a little extra to your pregnancy diet early on.
Here’s a list of 9 of the best iron-rich foods to include in pregnancy:
- Green leafy vegetables. Leafy greens, such as spinach, broccoli, swiss chard, and kale pack a powerful punch. 100g of raw spinach contains 2.7 mg of iron – 15% of your daily intake. Greens also high in vitamin C, which aids your body’s iron absorption, and packed with other vitamins and antioxidants, making them an easy nutritious addition to soups, smoothies, and salads
- Red meat. Beef and lamb are good sources of quality animal protein and a great source of heme iron. 3 ounces of ground beef contains 2.7 mg, or 15% of your daily iron. Although not everybody eats red meat (see our list below for vegans and vegetarians), it’s one of the most easily accessible sources of heme iron
- Turkey. It’s a leaner option than red meat, but still iron-rich, especially the dark meat. 3 ounces of dark turkey meat contains twice as much iron (1.4 mg) as the equivalent weight of white turkey meat (0.7mg). So make yourself a turkey sandwich with a handful of spinach for a nutritious lunch on the go
- Fish. Tuna, haddock, sardines, mackerel, and salmon are all fantastic sources of iron, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. A 3 ounce serving of tinned tuna contains about 1.4 mg – 8% of your daily iron
- Beetroot. It is high in folate and packed full of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, iron, and other beneficial nutrients. The beautiful red flesh is a colorful addition to jazz up a traditional salad. A cup of cooked beets contains 7% of your daily iron
- Eggs – especially the yolks. 2 large eggs contain 1.7 mg of iron. Eggs are versatile in their nature and can be added to your diet in a variety of ways. They are a welcome addition to any cooked breakfast, and can be added to rice dishes, or hard-boiled as a snack on their own
- Grains. Brown rice and ancient grains like amaranth and spelt are complex carbohydrates, which provide a slower and sustained release of energy, compared with their ‘white’ equivalents. The processing of grains removes beneficial properties, so keeping the grains whole provides greater nutrition. Swapping white rice or noodles for grains like these will instantly up your iron intake
- Black strap molasses. This is produced during the processing of cane sugar, and can be used as an alternative to refined sugar. It contains a number of essential vitamins and minerals, including iron. A tablespoonful contains 20% of your daily iron. Add to hot drinks as a natural sweetener
- Dark chocolate. It doesn’t have to be all about spinach and whole grains. Dark chocolate is a superfood. Amazingly, a one-ounce serving contains 3.4 mg of iron (19% of your daily iron). It’s suggested you choose chocolate with a cocoa value of 70% or greater to get the maximum health benefits.
Heme vs non heme iron
Foods naturally high in iron come in two forms: heme and non-heme iron.
Heme iron comes from animal sources such as meat, fish, and poultry. This is the best form, as up to 40% of it is readily absorbed by your body.
Non-heme iron comes from plant sources, and is mainly found in vegetables, beans, grains, and fortified breakfast cereals. This is also the kind contained in supplements. Non-heme iron is absorbed less efficiently.
Vegetarians and vegans are thought to have a higher risk of developing anemia due to the lack of heme iron. In fact, studies have shown vegan and vegetable-based diets contain just as much iron, if not more, than diets containing meat.
Iron from non-heme sources, however, isn’t as well absorbed so those who follow vegetarian and vegan diets are advised to adjust their daily iron intake to 1.8 times the recommended daily intake.
Iron rich foods for vegans
Here’s a list of 9 vegan-friendly sources of iron:
- Lentils. Also high in fiber, they contain 6.6mg, or 37% of your daily dose in 1 cup
- Beans. Black, navy, or lima beans, baked beans, kidney beans, and peas are all foods high in iron. They’re an easy addition to stews and chilies
- Pumpkin seeds. They are great for snacking, or sprinkling on the top of oatmeal
- Hummus. A great dip for carrots, or as an alternative to butter in sandwiches and wraps
- Tahini. This Middle Eastern condiment is made from toasted sesame seeds. It can be used in salad dressings and dips
- Almonds. Soak raw almonds overnight to make them more digestible, aiding absorption. Blend them in smoothies or eat them on their own as a mid-morning snack
- Quinoa. You can use it as a replacement for rice, and it’s gluten-free. A cup of cooked quinoa provides 2.8 mg – 16% of your daily iron
- Mushrooms. Oyster and button mushrooms contain higher levels than shiitake mushrooms
- Sun-dried tomatoes. Adding them to soups and sauces will up your iron intake easily. 1 cup contains nearly 30% of your daily dose of iron. Compared with fresh tomatoes, which have a high water content, sun-dried varieties are far more beneficial in terms of iron.
What about soy?
If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you might wonder why we haven’t included soy on our list.
Soy-based products are derived from the soya bean, a native of eastern Asia. It’s a plant-based protein, naturally low in fat, and often forms a staple part of a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Soy is packed with many nutritional elements including iron, zinc, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids.
There’s been much debate over the years, however, as to how nutritious soy actually is.
With conflicting information about soy already out there, the waters have become even more muddied. In terms of whether soy should be included in pregnancy diets, some studies suggest there are potential long-term reproductive risks.
Some experts warn against consuming soy during pregnancy, or advise avoiding it in large quantities, due to its phyto-estrogen content.
These chemicals found in soy mimic the hormone estrogen in the body.
Research on animals has linked soy consumption to irregular hormonal patterns, early puberty, irregular periods in women, and urological birth defects in boys.
Be sure to read Soy Formula: A Healthy Or Unhealthy Alternative For Babies? for more information.
Which fruits are high in iron?
When greens aren’t what you fancy, fruits might hit the spot.
Fruit is super easy to pack for lunches on the go, or an easy way to supplement your breakfast regime or late-night snack cravings.
Here are 9 examples of fruits known to be high in iron:
- Dried apricots, raisins, and figs
Also consider prunes – especially prune juice, made from dried and concentrated plums. 1/2 a cup gives you 17% of the daily recommended amount of iron. It also acts as a mild laxative which can be helpful if you are struggling with constipation, a common pregnancy ailment.
Just be aware research has found eating too much fruit is linked to developing gestational diabetes. Eat fruit but watch the amount, especially if you’re at risk for developing GDM.
Do I need to take iron in pregnancy?
You don’t need to take iron supplements throughout your pregnancy. The best way to give your body enough of the nutrients it needs is by eating a balanced and varied diet.
A diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats will pack a greater nutritional punch than any multivitamin can provide.
During pregnancy, many women will take a prenatal vitamin that contains a small amount of iron. For most, this keeps their levels topped up. However, some pregnant women might need to take iron supplements as well.
Iron supplements often have side effects, such as constipation or diarrhea. It’s best to avoid them if possible, and get your iron from natural food sources instead.
How will I know if I need to take iron in pregnancy?
For a healthy pregnancy, your hemoglobin status will be checked at the beginning, and again in your third trimester, to make sure your levels are good throughout.
If anemia is detected, your doctor or midwife might suggest you take iron supplements to boost your levels.
You’ll probably have extra blood tests to monitor your hemoglobin as your pregnancy progresses, to ensure your body is responding to the supplements.
For some women with severe anemia, supplements don’t work, and they will require an IV iron infusion. This is normally a last resort, if your body isn’t responding to diet changes and iron supplementation.
Dr. Andrew Orr says:
“It is important to get iron levels up as quickly as possible, and an iron infusion is the quickest and safest way to do this. Your healthcare professional will be able to advise where to get this done and all about them”.
Low iron levels will leave you feeling pretty rotten in pregnancy and in the first weeks of motherhood, if they are not resolved.
This, coupled with the normal demands of early parenting, disrupted sleep, and a new baby to take care of, is something you want to avoid, if possible.
When should I start taking iron in pregnancy?
If you are found to have low iron during pregnancy, and your doctor has advised you to take a supplement, you can begin at any point.
However, it’s most important in the second and third trimesters. The body becomes more efficient at absorbing iron as pregnancy progresses, and babies’ demand for iron increases as they grow.
How can I raise my iron levels quickly?
You might be surprised to know that what you consume with your iron can significantly affect your body’s ability to absorb it.
Here are some quick tips to increase the iron absorbed from your foods (or supplements).
- Vitamin C helps capture iron from non-heme sources, and stores it in a form that makes it readily available to the body. One study found consuming 100 mg of vitamin C with a meal increased iron absorbency by up to 67%. Try having a small glass of orange juice, water with a squeeze of lemon, or a side of broccoli or spinach, for an extra vitamin C boost. (Note: be sure to avoid the type of orange juice that’s fortified with calcium – see below)
- Tea, coffee, and wine contain tannins, which can negatively affect iron absorption by up to 65%
- Calcium, found in foods such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, is also known to block the amount of iron absorbed.
To steer clear of avoidable complications for both you and your baby, it’s essential to make sure you are getting enough iron from your food throughout your pregnancy.
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms listed above, or feel you might be at risk of iron deficiency anemia, talk to your health care provider.
Always consult with your doctor or midwife before starting any new supplement or medication.