Iron-Rich Foods During Pregnancy

Maintaining a healthy diet is one of the most important things you can do during your pregnancy.

Your diet impacts your health, nutrient status, and impacts your blood levels.

Maintaining healthy blood levels during pregnancy is essential while your blood volume increases drastically to help support your baby’s growth.

One way to help support this increase in your blood level is to eat enough iron.

Iron comes in two forms, heme iron and non-heme iron. Meat contains heme iron, which is the most absorbable and best for preventing iron deficiency. Red meat is the best source of heme iron during pregnancy. Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods; some of the best plant-based iron sources include beans and lentils, soybeans, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables.

DISCLAIMER: While this information was prepared by a certified dietitian, it is NOT a medical advice. Please consult your own medical professional before altering your diet. The information is strictly for educational purposes.

What is Iron?

Iron is a mineral found in both animal and plant foods. Iron helps your body build hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells.

Hemoglobin binds to oxygen which is then carried throughout your body in your bloodstream.

Iron comes in two forms – heme iron and nonheme iron. Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods, and heme iron is found in meat.

Heme iron is absorbed the most efficiently, but you can still get iron from non-heme sources like plant foods.

Vitamin C helps boost iron absorption. Combining vitamin C-rich foods with iron-rich foods is recommended to increase iron levels and prevent anemia (more on that below).

Calcium and the tannins present in tea prevent iron absorption, so you should avoid consuming calcium-rich foods and tea at the same time as iron-rich foods.

Drinking tea in between meals is a good strategy to boost iron absorption.

What Happens If You Don’t Eat Enough Iron?

Not eating enough iron can reduce the amount of hemoglobin in your bloodstream. This is called iron-deficiency anemia, which impacts around 25% of the world’s population.

Some of the most common symptoms of anemia are:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale or yellowish skin
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Chest pain
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Headaches

Anemia is diagnosed with blood tests.

Your healthcare provider can differentiate between iron-deficiency anemia and other types of anemia like pernicious anemia (vitamin B12 deficiency), or anemia from blood loss.

The blood tests used to diagnose anemia include:

  • Red blood cell size and color
  • Hematocrit
  • Hemoglobin (this can also be measured with a quick finger prick and doesn’t need to be done with a vial of blood)
  • Ferritin

Why Is It so Important to Eat Iron Foods During Pregnancy?

During pregnancy, your blood supply increases by around 50%. Your body also uses iron to help transport oxygen to your baby.

This increase in blood volume and oxygen transport can be hard for your body to keep up with, and as a result, you can develop anemia.

Your body also uses vitamins and minerals like iron to help feed the placenta, the organ that provides nourishment to your growing baby throughout pregnancy.

Despite its importance, only around 50% of pregnant women get enough iron in their diets. That’s one of the reasons iron is typically included in a generic prenatal vitamin.

Your iron needs are almost double in pregnancy, increasing from 18 milligrams to 27 milligrams per day.

Which Trimester Is The Most Crucial to Eat Iron Foods?

Your iron needs start to increase after the first trimester, around 12 weeks.

Iron needs are the highest in your third trimester when your baby is growing rapidly and building their own iron stores for life outside the womb.

If you don’t eat an iron-rich diet at your baseline, you should start taking iron as soon as you find out you’re pregnant.

Iron deficiency in the first trimester can have a more negative impact on your baby’s growth compared to later trimesters.

What Happens If You Don’t Eat Enough Iron During Pregnancy?

Besides the unpleasant symptoms of anemia, you can develop other health issues if you don’t eat enough iron during pregnancy.

Iron deficiency during pregnancy can increase your risk of having:

  • Premature delivery (when your baby is born before 37 weeks)
  • A low birth weight baby (iron helps facilitate the rapid growth of your baby in utero)
  • Postpartum depression
  • Increased risk of infections
  • Preeclampsia
  • Bleeding

Some studies show an increased risk of fetal death, either right before birth or soon after, with iron-deficiency anemia in pregnancy.

Iron-rich Foods

The best heme iron sources are meats, but you can also get iron from plant-based foods.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to eat larger portions of plant-based iron since it isn’t as easily absorbed as meat-based heme iron.

Iron-rich foods for meat-eaters during pregnancy

1.Red meat

Red meat like beef and pork is high in heme iron.

Red meat helps build red blood cells that carry oxygen to you and your body’s baby, which is essential for proper growth and development.

Some cuts of pork like pork tenderloin look like white meat, but they’re higher in iron than white meat poultry and fish.

2.Poultry

If you’re not a red meat fan, you can get plenty of iron from white meat like chicken and turkey.

To get more heme iron, opt for darker meat compared to the white meat, which might not contain as much of the beneficial heme iron.

3.Shellfish

While fish isn’t naturally rich in iron, shellfish is a great iron-rich choice for pregnancy.

Oysters, clams, and mussels are rich in iron, as well as being a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for healthy fetal brain development.

4.Liver & Organ Meats

While they might not be as popular as other types of meat, organ meats are very high in iron.

Three ounces of liver provides 84% of the daily value for iron, which is much higher than red meat.

Be sure to limit your consumption of liver during pregnancy because it’s very high in vitamin A, which can be problematic if you develop toxicity. Also, be sure organ meats are thoroughly cooked.

Iron-rich Foods for Vegetarians & Vegans

These plant-based iron sources can help you get enough iron during your pregnancy.

1.Eggs

If you’re a vegetarian who also eats eggs, they are a source of iron.

Eggs aren’t incredibly rich in iron on their own, but you can combine them with other iron-rich foods to boost the iron in your meals and snacks.

Eggs are a great protein source for vegetarians and are also a source of vitamin D, which is important for your baby’s growing skeletal and nervous system.

2.Beans

Beans and legumes are among the best plant-based sources of iron.

One cup of chickpeas provides almost 13 grams of iron, which is around half of your daily requirement during pregnancy.

Cooked Beans

Beans and legumes (like lentils) are also more budget-friendly compared to meat and can be purchased with WIC food vouchers.

3.Nuts and Seeds

Pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, and flaxseeds are the richest in iron compared to other types of nuts and seeds.

Seeds are also rich in protein, healthy fatty acids, and fiber, which are all beneficial during pregnancy.

Nuts and seeds are also a great iron-rich snack because they’re easily portable, not messy, and don’t need to be refrigerated.

4.Leafy Greens

Leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, chard, dandelion greens and other dark-green leafy greens are a natural source of iron.

They’re also incredibly rich in folic acid, an essential nutrient (especially during early pregnancy) for your baby’s growing brain and spinal cord.

5.Soybeans

Soybeans and soybean byproducts like tofu and tempeh are not only rich in iron, but they’re an excellent source of plant-based protein and calcium during pregnancy.

It can be difficult to get enough iron and protein in a plant-based diet if it’s not well-planned, which is where soybeans fit the bill.

6.Quinoa

Quinoa is a popular alternative to grains among vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike.

One cup of cooked quinoa provides almost three grams of iron, which is an impressive amount for plant-based food.

Quinoa is also a complete protein, meaning it provides all of the essential amino acids (those your body can’t make on its own).

7.Oatmeal

Oatmeal is a healthy breakfast choice during pregnancy, especially if it’s unsweetened.

Oatmeal

One cup of cooked oatmeal contains almost 14 grams of iron, which is very impressive for the portion size.

8.Fortified cereals & grains

Due to the prevalence of iron deficiency and the importance of iron during pregnancy, many foods are fortified with iron.

Cream of Wheat is a popular type of cereal fortified with iron.

Cereals and grains are the most popular fortified foods and can help fill in the gaps if you don’t otherwise eat many naturally iron-rich foods.

Iron-rich Fruit

Fruit isn’t naturally rich in iron, but some fruit contains more iron than most.

1.Figs

Five medium figs provide one gram of iron. That might not seem like much, but in comparison, one banana doesn’t even contain half a gram of iron.

Figs are also a good source of calcium, which is important for the development of your baby’s skeletal system.

2.Raisins 

Dried fruit is higher in iron than fresh fruit. A standard small box of raisins (around 43 grams) provides 4% of the daily value for iron.

Raisins provide natural energy in the form of glucose and fructose.

3.Dates

One cup of chopped dates provides 1.5 grams of iron.

Dates

Dates are especially popular among pregnant women because they can help promote healthy labor while minimizing the need for interventions, according to a study.

4.Other Dried Fruit

Combine dried fruit like dried apricots, with other high-iron foods like fortified cereal and nuts and seeds to make healthy high-iron snacks.

5.Citrus fruits

While not very high in iron on their own, citrus fruits contain vitamin C, which helps your body absorb iron better.

Other Foods Containing Iron

Besides the better sources of iron listed above, there are a few other foods that can help contribute to your daily iron needs.

Whole wheat bread 0.7 milligrams per slice
Fortified pasta2 milligrams per 2 ounces
Green peas2.1 milligrams per cup
Tomatoes0.5 milligrams per chopped cup
Broccoli1 milligram per cooked cup

Iron Supplements

It’s best to try to get iron from natural foods whenever possible.

Iron supplements can help prevent and treat iron deficiency, but they can also cause unpleasant side effects like stomach upset and constipation.

An iron supplement (or a prenatal vitamin containing iron) is recommended if you don’t consistently eat enough iron in your diet, if you have a history of iron deficiency anemia, or if your healthcare provider otherwise recommends that you take an iron supplement.

Summary

Eating enough iron during your pregnancy is important for maintaining your energy level, supporting your baby’s growth, and reducing the risk of complications like premature delivery and having a baby with low birth weight.

Be sure to focus on iron-rich foods throughout your pregnancy to help reduce the risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia.

Including iron-rich foods in your diet also comes with other benefits such as providing natural vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber from whole foods.

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