Enjoy food with iron while you are pregnant and make sure that you get enough of it. In this blog post, we will discuss what iron is, what foods have it as well as some tips on how you can be sure to get enough of it into your diet.
Food With Iron In Pregnancy
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) stress that pregnant women eat a well-balanced diet and pay particular attention to the daily requirements for certain nutrients. Iron and folic acid are among the most important of these.
When you’re pregnant, your body needs twice the amount of iron as it normally does. That’s because iron is essential to the extra red blood cells your body will create for the baby. The red blood cells carry oxygen to your organs and tissues, as well as your fetus.1
Iron is important throughout your pregnancy but even more crucial in the second and third trimesters.1 Since the body doesn’t actually produce iron, you need to get it from food and supplements.
How to Get the Iron You Need to Prevent Anemia During Pregnancy
Foods that are naturally high in iron can be very helpful in preventing anemia and therefore relieving the symptoms it can cause. Iron is found in food two forms— heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is the most efficiently used by your body and less likely to be affected by components that might otherwise reduce absorption.
Supplements range in terms of what form the iron is in. A benefit to getting as much of your daily iron needs from food as possible is that the food sources don’t typically come along with the potential for intestinal distress that some iron supplements can.1
ACOG recommends that pregnant women have a daily intake of 27 milligrams (mg) of iron each day.
It can be difficult to get the recommended amount of iron via food alone. The University of California San Francisco Medical Center notes that cooking in cast iron can increase the iron in foods by 80%, and pairing non-heme iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C can increase absorption.
In addition, some things can reduce iron intake, like a calcium supplement—so if you take a calcium supplement, take it separately from an iron-rich meal or snack.
During pregnancy, you need 27 mg of iron each day. Incorporating the following foods into your diet is a good way to reach the daily goal.2
- Dark, leafy greens, such as spinach, collard greens, and kale: 3 mg per 1/2 cup cooked greens
- Dried fruit, including apricots, prunes, raisins, and figs: 1 mg per 1/4 cup
- Raspberries: 0.8 mg per cup
- Sauerkraut: 2 mg per cup
- Beets: 1 mg per cup
- Brussels sprouts: 1 mg per cup
- Chopped broccoli: 0.7 mg per cup
- Diced potatoes: 1.2 mg per cup
- Beans, peas, and lentils: 4 to 6 mg per cup
- Eggs, especially the yolk: 1 mg per large egg
- Blackstrap molasses: 3.6 mg per tablespoon
- Meat, particularly red meat and liver, though pork, chicken, and lamb are good as well: 2 to 3 mg per 3-ounce serving
- Tuna: 1 mg per 3-ounce serving
- Oysters: 8 mg per 3-ounce serving
- Tofu: 3 mg per 1/2 cup
- Fortified cereals, grains, and pasta: Check labels
- Oatmeal: 2 mg per cup (cooked)
- Whole wheat bread: 0.5 mg per slice
The easiest way to get more iron is to include at least one iron-rich food at each meal and snack. Do you eat a salad with iceberg lettuce? Consider switching to a base of baby spinach or mixed leafy greens and adding white beans on top. Need a pick-me-up snack in the afternoon? Think about beef jerky and a handful of raspberries.
Beans and lentils are an inexpensive way to add an iron boost to snacks and meals. Several brands are making crispy baked beans that can be snacked on like nuts, which can make it easier to include them in on-the-go snacks.
Adding a couple of prunes to your breakfast would be helpful as well. You could also sprinkle prunes or raisins on your oatmeal or add it to a trail mix. Eating bean burritos at least once a week is also a great idea—it’s cheap, easy, and good for you.
Quick Tips for Healthy Eating During Pregnancy
You can still have a healthy pregnancy without eating meat. Despite the fact that the body absorbs animal sources of iron better than plant sources, you do not have to eat meat to increase your iron intake. It is possible to follow a vegetarian diet and support a healthy pregnancy. It just takes some additional planning.
There are many vegetarian iron-rich foods. Be mindful of including one rich source of iron in each meal and snack. Foods containing wheat germ are also a good option and eating foods high in vitamin C (citrus, strawberries, bell peppers) will help increase the absorption of non-heme iron.
You Can Still Have a Healthy Pregnancy Without Eating Meat
If you like to eat meat and want to add more of it to your diet, red meat will provide you with the most iron. You will need to ensure that it is cooked to a safe temperature. Eating undercooked animal products can increase your risk of dangerous foodborne pathogens that can lead to serious illness for both you and your baby.
Though meat is a great source of iron, variety is important, too, since different foods bring different nutrients to the table. For instance, lentils deliver fiber along with iron, while cooked spinach adds vitamins A and K.
Iron Rich Foods
During pregnancy and when there is excessive blood loss, such as heavy menstruation, a woman’s body requires more iron. The recommended dietary allowance for pregnancy and women under 51 years of age is 15 milligrams per day. Most prenatal vitamins contain more than this amount.
Anemia is present when there is a reduced amount of red blood cells circulating in the blood, which reduces the amount of oxygen carried in the blood. Anemic women may require more than the normal amount of iron so that the body can make more blood cells and improve oxygen levels. Iron also promotes the immune system and helps to build protein in the body. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, pale skin, headache, weakness, and irritability. There are other types of anemia that are not caused by a lack of iron alone. Your doctor will take lab tests to determine what type you may have.
Iron is best absorbed when it comes from animal sources, but plants also contain iron. Organic meats, such as liver and kidneys, are high in iron but are also high in cholesterol, and some nutrition experts believe that they are also high in toxins. Therefore, they may not be the best choice. Eating vitamin C-rich food along with iron-rich foods helps to increase absorption. Some foods high in vitamin C are tomatoes and tomato juice, oranges and orange juice, cantaloupe, strawberries, green and red peppers, and broccoli. For example, drinking orange juice after eating your fortified breakfast cereal will increase total absorption. Tomato sauce with ground beef will have the same effect. Combining rice, beans, and tomatoes will boost iron absorption, also. Do not drink coffee or tea with your meals as both regular and decaffeinated can reduce absorption.
Iron-Rich Foods from Animal Sources
|Beef, cooked (3 oz.)||3 mg|
|Shrimp, cooked (3 oz.)||3 mg|
|Poultry, cooked (3 oz.)||1 mg|
|Pork, cooked (3 oz.)||1 mg|
|Fish, cooked (3 oz.)||1 mg|
Iron-Rich Foods from Plant Sources
|Fortified breakfast cereal (1/2 cup)||2-18 mg (check the nutritional label)|
|Apricots, dried (1/2 cup)||3.6 mg|
|Molasses, blackstrap (1 tablespoon)||3.5 mg|
|Spinach, cooked (1/2 cup)||3.2 mg|
|Potato, baked in skin (1 medium)||2.8 mg|
|Prune juice (1/4 cup) Drledbeans, cooked (1/2 cup)||2.6 mg|
|Nuts and seeds (1 oz)||2.6 mg|
|Enriched Rice, cooked (1/2 cup)||1.5-2 mg|
|Raisins, seedless (1/3 cup)||1.2 mg|
|Strawberries (3/4 cup)||1.1 mg|
|Tomato juice (1/2 cup)||1.1 mg|
|Whole wheat bread (1 slice)||1.1 mg|
The leading cause of poisoning for children is the ingestion of iron supplements. Store your vitamins out of children’s reach and request childproof caps at the pharmacy.
Iron and calcium when planning a pregnancy
Try to eat iron-rich foods 2 to 3 times a week. Red meat such as beef, lamb and pork are good sources of iron. If you do not eat meat, aim to include plenty of non-meat sources of iron in your diet, such as:
- pulses – beans, peas and lentils
- green vegetables – spinach and broccoli
- breakfast cereals with added iron
- dried fruit – prunes and apricots
Combine these foods with foods that are rich in vitamin C, such as oranges, kiwis, peppers and berries. Vitamin C helps your body to absorb and use the iron in your diet. Avoid tea or coffee around the time you are eating iron-rich foods. They reduce your body’s ability to absorb iron.
Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth. Try to eat 3 servings of calcium-rich foods each day. See the food pyramid for some suggestions on where you can get calcium in your diet.
Iron Rich Foods for Pregnancy
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.
Pregnancy foods that are high in iron
Iron’s vital for you and your growing baby when you’re pregnant but how much do you need, which foods can you get it from and what should you do if you’re eating mostly plant-based food? We get expert advice from dietitian Joanna Lenz
If you’re currently pregnant you may be aware that you need to make sure you are getting enough iron.
“Iron is needed for making a protein called haemoglobin in both your own and your growing baby’s red blood cells.
“You need these red blood cells to carry oxygen around your body and to your baby,” explains Registered Paediatric Dietitian Joanna Lenz, a member of the British Dietetic Association.
“If your body doesn’t get sufficient iron in pregnancy you can get iron deficiency anaemia, a condition where you don’t have enough red blood cells. This lack of iron can affect your health and also the growth and development of your baby.”
One of the most common signs of being low in iron is feeling really tired (as if you are not already what with growing a baby!).
“Mild iron deficiency would lead to symptoms such as feeling more tired and being more susceptible to infection,” says Joanna. “Severe deficiency could lead to brittle nails, thinning hair, palpitations, shortness of breath, mouth ulcers, and pale skin.”
Mama_m on our forum shares with other mums on our forum her experience of not having enough iron when she was pregnant for the third time. “I thought I was just tired because I already have a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old to take care of, but it was because my iron levels had gone right down.”
But don’t worry – it’s not just up to you to spot low iron levels: you will be screened for anaemia at your booking appointment with your doctor or midwife and also again at 28 weeks (and even more often if you’re expecting more than 1 baby).
“The highest demand for iron will be in your third trimester as this is when you baby will get most of its iron.”
How much iron do we need in pregnancy?
Interestingly, the recommended amount of iron in pregnancy is the same as for all adult women, at 14.8 mg every day.
“While there is more demand for iron in your body when you’re pregnant, in theory this is met through your own iron stores, plus you’re not losing blood through periods and you’re actually able to absorb iron better when you’re pregnant,” explains dietitian Joanna.
7 high iron foods to eat in pregnancy
If you do get diagnosed with low iron or anemia in pregnancy – don’t panic. There are plenty of high-iron foods you can add to your diet, or that you can eat a bit more of, if you already do have them.
Joanna gives us the low-down on 7 foods that are great to eat in pregnancy to make sure you’re getting enough iron.
1. Animal sources (referred to as haem iron)
These are richest in iron and the iron is easiest to absorb. Think red meat like lamb, beef or pork.
Choose lean cuts, trim visible fat off and ideally avoid processed meat products like sausages or ham.
Also while liver is a very rich source of iron, this should be avoided in pregnancy due to risk of vitamin A toxicity.
2. Oily fish
Oily fish such as salmon or sardines are a good source of iron but should be limited to 2 servings per week in pregnancy due to risk of methyl mercury accumulation. Think of one portion as 140g.
3. Plant sources (referred to as non-haem iron)
- eggs (particularly yolk) – though do make sure they’re British Lion stamped (we’ve got lots more information here)
- pulses (e.g. chickpeas, lentils, peas, baked beans, dhal)
- green leafy vegetables (broccoli, kale, greens, spinach, watercress).
In terms of portions, for veg think 80g. Two eggs is a serving and poached, scrambled or boiled is better than fried.
A portion of cooked dhal is around 250g.
Says pink_supergirl on our forum: “Get some spinach down you! I ate loads and the midwife always commented on how good my iron levels were!! It has made baby really strong too!”
4. Nuts and seeds
There is lots of confusion around nuts in pregnancy; the latest advice is that if you wish to eat them then it’s fine (unless you’re allergic to them!).
One portion is about 50g.
5. Fortified breakfast cereals
As well as being good sources of iron, fortified cereals are also good as high fibre foods which are recommended to help reduce constipation in pregnancy.
6. Wholemeal bread
This is iron rich and much healthier than its white alternative.
Nice and filling and simple to have as a snack, too.
7. Dried fruit
A tasty sweet alternative to chocolate or cake (though of course you can have those too in moderation) as well as iron-rich – try apricots, raisins, figs and prunes which are all good sources of iron.
What to eat if you’re vegan or vegetarian
While lots of the foods above are great if you are vegan or vegetarian, if you do follow either of these diets you obviously need to avoid the haem iron mentioned that comes from animal sources.
“Make sure you try to have 3 servings of non-haem iron rich foods from the list above,” says Joanna.
“Non-haem iron (doesn’t come from animals) is harder for the body to absorb so make sure that your overall diet is high in vitamin C to help with this. So think plenty of tomatoes and peppers, for example.”
Veggie or not you should also avoid drinking caffeine at meal times. “The tannins in these reduce the ability of the body to absorb iron from food,” Joanna advises.
“If you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t be having more than 200mg of caffeine a day (about 2 cups) anyway.”
Over on our forum, mums like littleO09, who have been told they have low iron levels, are doing a great job of eating more of it:
“Try and eat iron rich food – such as green leafy vegetables and spinach and eggs. Also eat an orange after as the Vitamin C helps your body to absorb the iron. Also dried apricots are full of iron and make a good snack.”
Fourthandfinal says “Foods rich in iron are red meat, spinach, some cereals have iron….[plus] broccoli, dates, pomegranates, apricots.”
Iron-rich meal ideas
There are so many foods that are rich in iron you really can eat a varied diet when you’re pregnant.
Here Joanna gives us a few different (and most of all quick and simple) ways to add iron into your meal times.
Breakfast: Try an iron-fortified cereal with low fat milk
Lunch: If you don’t have much time try:
- baked beans or scrambled eggs with wilted spinach
- a chicken salad sandwich on wholemeal bread
- sardines on wholegrain toast with tomatoes.
Also drink a small glass of orange juice (150ml) for that vital Vitamin C to help iron absorption.
Dinner: Why not try:
- roasted salmon with spinach leaves, avocado and brown rice
- chilli con carne (use low fat mince 10%): this packs an iron punch if you make it with lamb mince, chickpeas (for a veggie option) and include some spinach in either.
Then go for something like kiwi fruit and low fat yogurt for pudding.
Snacks: hummus with vegetables or a small portion of unsalted nuts with dried fruits.
When to use iron supplements
While it’s great to get iron from food, some pregnant women may need to take a supplement, especially if you have been told you have anaemia. Your doctor or midwife will advise you on this.
Finally, as ever, try, and enjoy a varied and balanced diet throughout your pregnancy and accept that you may just be susceptible to having low iron levels.
“You’ll definitely need more iron if you’re having twins, triplets or more,” says Joanna.
“You are also more likely to have anaemia if you’ve had it before, have a history of heavy periods, are pregnant again after having a baby within the last year.”