Having low iron in pregnancy can be very draining at a time when you really need to feel well.
Growing a baby while managing work and family can cause you to be fatigued already.
Then add in having to deal with the symptoms of low iron or anemia.
Being proactive is the key to help keep your iron stores high in pregnancy – especially if you follow a complete or mostly vegetarian diet.
Eating iron rich food during pregnancy is one way you can keep feeling energetic, which will allow you to enjoy your pregnancy.
What is iron?
Our bodies use iron to form proteins that help transport oxygen around the body and allow cells to create energy.
The proteins are:
- Hemoglobin – a protein in red blood cells, essential to carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues
- Myoglobin – a protein in muscle cells that receives and releases oxygen.
Iron also plays a role in fetal brain development. It removes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the body, and is essential for the development of some hormones.
Foods that are rich sources of iron can be put into two categories, depending on the type of iron they provide:
- Heme iron is found in animal sources that originally contained hemoglobin, like red meats, fish and poultry.
- Non-heme iron comes from some animal-based foods and from plant sources. They include eggs, spinach, kidney beans, lentils, dried apricots, blackstrap molasses and almonds.
When eating a vegetarian diet, it’s important to be mindful of having enough foods rich in non-heme iron.
7 foods high in iron for pregnancy
Here is a list of iron-rich foods that will help keep your iron levels high in pregnancy:
Spinach, broccoli, and dark green leafy vegetables, including kale, are foods high in iron. Legumes, lentils, lima beans and quinoa will also help prevent iron deficiency.
Vitamin C helps with iron absorption and is found in some vegetables like peppers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, leafy greens, and potatoes.
Fruits like apples, bananas, and pomegranates are rich sources of iron. People who are anemic can eat them every day to keep their iron levels up. Mulberries and black currants are also iron-rich.
Vitamin C-rich fruits and juices, like citrus fruits, strawberries, orange juice and tomatoes assist in the absorption of iron.
#3: Dried seeds and nuts
Pumpkin, sesame, hemp, and flax seeds are the seeds richest in iron. Cashews and pine nuts contain quite a bit of non-heme iron as well.
Red meat is the best source of heme iron. But before you throw that steak on the grill, have your thermometer handy.
Consuming undercooked or ‘rare’ red meat isn’t recommended during pregnancy, because of the risk of bacterial contamination.
Liver is one of the most nutritionally dense foods on earth. It contains significant amounts of folate, iron, vitamin B, vitamin A and copper.
Eating a single serving of liver can help you meet your daily recommended amount of all of these vitamins and minerals. This reduces your risk of nutrient deficiency.
Liver is a food that will certainly increase your iron during pregnancy, but it is also high in vitamin A, and eating too much in pregnancy is not advised. Excessive amounts of vitamin A during pregnancy have been shown to cause congenital birth abnormalities.
Chicken is a good source of heme iron, although it doesn’t have as much as red meat and organ meats.
It’s safe to eat chicken during pregnancy, but make sure it’s cooked all the way through, at 165°F (73.8°C), to avoid consuming dangerous bacteria, like salmonella and listeria.
Fish is a good source of iron but it’s important to check you’re eating the right sort.
Salmon is safe to consume during pregnancy but you must ensure it’s fully cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F (62.8°C). Salmon is also packed full of omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit your baby’s developing brain.
Salmon is also lower in mercury than some other types of fish, such as tuna and swordfish; this makes it safer to consume when you’re pregnant.
Try to get two or three servings of fish per week. It’s a way to boost iron as well as to eat a variety of protein.
Other fish and seafood considered safe to eat during pregnancy are:
- Light tuna.
#6: Minerals and supplements
During pregnancy, you need plenty of folate, iron, calcium, vitamin D, choline, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and vitamin C.
A quick note on the difference between folate and folic acid: folate is a naturally occurring B vitamin, and folic acid is a synthetic version of folate. Most prenatal supplements contain folic acid.
Before you decide on folic acid supplementation, please read BellyBelly’s article Folic Acid For Pregnancy – Facts You MUST Know for more about the important differences between folic acid and folate.
Taking an iron supplement is safe during pregnancy, but there’s such a thing as too much iron while you’re pregnant.
If your iron levels are too high, pregnancy could increase your risk of pre-term birth, as well as gestational diabetes and high blood pressure.
Not all sources of iron supplements are equal. Some will cause constipation and bloating.
Pregnant women need to discuss this with their healthcare provider to make sure they have the right supplement for them.
#7: Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate is rich in iron, and also has a decent amount of copper and magnesium. Flavonoids are also a welcome addition, as they contain antioxidants that help your immune system.
Having a small amount of dark chocolate can also settle any sweet tooth cravings you might have during pregnancy.
Iron intake for pregnant vegetarians
If you’re a vegetarian, you might already be aware of the sort of dietary intake you need to ensure you have plenty of iron.
During pregnancy, though, you might need to reassess your diet, to take into consideration your increased blood volume and the extra work your red blood cells are doing.
If you eat a vegetarian diet, some sources of iron are:
- Tofu (although tofu can have implications for your hormones, so do your research)
- Legumes (lentils, dried peas and beans)
- Green vegetables like broccoli or Asian greens
- Nuts, especially cashews
- Dried fruits, such as apricots
- Seeds, such as sunflower seeds or products like tahini (sesame seed paste).
Avoid foods that lower your iron intake in pregnancy
There are some foods that block your iron absorption. These are best avoided during pregnancy, especially if you have low iron or you are vegetarian and want to improve your iron intake.
Foods to avoid include:
- Soy. It can reduce absorption from plant sources
- Tea and coffee. They contain tannins, which bind to iron and carry it out of your body
- Whole grains. They contain phytate and fiber, which reduce the absorption of iron and other minerals
- Calcium and phosphorus. They reduce the absorption of iron. It’s not recommended to take iron supplements with milk.
When you are eating food that’s iron-rich or taking iron supplements, these foods can block your body’s ability to take the iron on board.
Why are iron-rich foods important in pregnancy?
Pregnancy increases your blood supply by up to 50% by the time you’re in the third trimester.
This is where iron comes in. As your blood volume increases, it has the effect of lowering your iron levels.
When you don’t have enough iron in your body, you’re at risk of developing anemia. Anemia is the most common blood condition for pregnant women to develop. If you’re vegetarian, you might have started with even lower iron stores than a non-vegetarian woman.
Anemia during pregnancy increases your risk of premature birth and having a baby with a low birth weight.
Be sure to read Iron Intake During Pregnancy – 6 FAQs Answered for more information.
What is a good iron level for pregnant women?
For pregnant women, the Australian recommendation for dietary intake of iron averages about 27 mg/day.
Your body’s demand for iron is three times greater during pregnancy. Your doctor can screen your iron levels at regular intervals to keep an eye on any potential drop.
The World Health Organization defines anemia as a hemoglobin result of <110 g/L at any stage of pregnancy.
How can I raise my iron levels quickly?
Eating iron-rich foods and taking iron supplements will raise your iron levels over a period of time. Iron supplements can take 4-6 weeks to bring relief from symptoms.
If you don’t have the luxury of time, however, the quickest way to raise your iron is with a rapid iron transfusion. This is when you received iron directly into your body via intravenous infusion.
Some important information from women’s health and reproductive specialist, Dr Andrew Orr:
“Hopefully now everyone can see why iron is so important. People with iron deficiency need to see their healthcare practitioner for proper help and proper management. Iron deficiency anemia isn’t something to self-diagnose or treat. It needs to be diagnosed, treated, and managed properly. In many cases, an iron infusion is the best and quickest way to get iron levels back up”.
Read more information about iron infusions from Dr Andrew Orr.
Your health care provider or doctor will monitor your iron status and can order an iron transfusion at your local hospital or GP clinic.