During pregnancy, your body goes through many changes. Among these changes is an increase in the amount of blood circulating through your body. This increase in blood volume leads to an increase in red blood cells, which are needed to supply your body and your baby’s body with oxygen. Red blood cells require iron to make hemoglobin, which is the specific protein that carries oxygen from your lungs to your tissues and your baby’s developing tissues.
However, human bodies cannot make iron, so it is important to get enough through the food you eat. Without enough iron, your body will not produce enough red blood cells, which causes the condition iron deficiency anemia. If you develop iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy, your risk for premature birth, low birth weight, and postpartum depression increases.
Preventing iron deficiency is important for both mom and baby. As a mom-to-be, the amount of iron you need each day doubles to 27 milligrams or more. This increased need causes about half of pregnant women to be deficient in iron. Eating iron-rich foods, taking prenatal vitamins, and discussing your iron levels with your doctor and dietitian are great ways to ensure you and your baby are getting what you need.
If you are pregnant and are experiencing the following symptoms, we recommend discussing potential of anemia with your doctor and dietitian:
- Pale or yellow skin
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Cold hands and feet
Iron Types for Pregnancy
Unfortunately, not all iron is created equally. There are two types of iron found in food. Heme iron is found in meat, fish, and other animal proteins. Heme iron is easily digested and absorbed by the body, which makes it a more efficient source of iron. Non-heme iron is found in whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds. This form of iron is generally bound to other compounds in these foods and not as easily used by the body. Consuming both heme and non-heme iron sources positively impacts your iron levels.
Preventing Iron Deficiency Anemia
Good nutrition and prenatal vitamins are your best defense against anemia. Staying mindful of your daily intake of iron from both your vitamin and food sources is key to maintaining healthy iron status. Let’s break down some high iron foods.
- Lean beef is the single best source of iron, specifically heme iron. One four-ounce serving of beef provides the body with 2 milligrams of iron. When eating beef, or any type of meat during pregnancy, be sure to cook it thoroughly to avoid the risk of bacterial infection.
- Chicken is another good source of heme iron. Four ounces of chicken contains 0.75 milligrams of iron. Again, make sure to cook your chicken thoroughly, to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid foodborne illness, especially when pregnant.
- Salmon contains 0.8 milligrams of iron per four-ounce serving, making it another good source of iron. Salmon is also high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which also benefit both you and your baby.
- Eggs are another source of easily absorbed heme iron and provide 1 milligram of iron per egg.
- Tofu is a great source of iron for vegetarians, vegans, or anyone struggling to consume meat during pregnancy. One half-cup of tofu contains 3 milligrams of iron.
- Beans and lentils are good sources of non-heme iron. Lentils and kidney beans contain just over 6 milligrams of iron per cup.
- Potatoes contain 1.2 milligrams of iron per cup.
- Dark leafy greens including spinach and kale are also iron-rich. Cooked spinach contains 6.4 milligrams of iron per cup, while cooked kale contains 1 milligram per cup.
- Broccoli, and other cruciferous vegetables are also dense sources of iron. Broccoli contains 1 milligram of iron per cup, along with a healthy dose of vitamin C to help increase iron absorption. More on this below.
- Tomatoes are another vegetable source of both iron and vitamin C, and contain 4 milligrams of iron per cup.
- Raspberries are a good fruit source of iron, containing 0.8 milligrams per cup.
- Various grains and cereals are fortified with iron and can be useful in meeting your daily iron intake goals. One cup of iron-fortified cereal contains about 24 milligrams of iron, whereas one cup of fortified oatmeal contains about 10 milligrams.
- Cashews contain 2.6 milligrams of iron for every quarter cup serving making them another good source of non-heme iron.
- Pumpkin seeds are another plant-based source of iron and contain 2.5 milligrams of iron per quarter-cup serving.
- Raisins contain 0.75 milligrams of iron per quarter-cup serving.
- Dark chocolate, specifically chocolate that is 70-85% cacao, contains 3.4 milligrams of iron per ounce.
Making the Most of Iron
Aside from focusing on iron sources, including foods containing vitamin C helps your body digest and absorb iron. Eating citrus fruits, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower alongside iron-rich foods can help increase the amount of iron your body is able to put to good use.
If you need a little inspiration for pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C sources, try an omelet with bell peppers or iron-fortified oatmeal with pumpkin seeds and raspberries for breakfast. For lunch, try a chicken sandwich on iron-fortified whole grain bread with spinach and tomatoes, and an orange on the side. For dinner, eat salmon with potatoes and broccoli, and some dark chocolate for dessert.
On the flip side, foods that are high in calcium may decrease the amount of iron that your body can absorb. Dairy products are specifically high in calcium. You do not have to avoid dairy during pregnancy, but instead try eating and drinking it at a time when you are not consuming dense sources of iron.
The Bottom Line
Iron is crucial for a healthy mom and healthy baby. Doing your best to consume iron-rich foods will benefit you both. Supplementing iron, when necessary, can help achieve adequacy.
Liz has been reading nutrition labels since she learned how to read. Growing up with severe peanut and tree nut allergies she learned that it’s important to know what you are putting into your body. She made her first big lifestyle change as a freshman in high school, when she decided to become a vegetarian. However, it wasn’t until she took a food class in Italy as part of a study abroad program in college that it clicked in her mind that she wanted to make food and nutrition her career. Liz graduated from Penn State University in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in Nutrition, as well as a bachelor's degree in Marketing. She completed her dietetic internship with Aramark in Philadelphia, and her master's degree at Northeastern University shortly after.