How Much Iron Is Needed During Pregnancy

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Have you been wondering how much iron is needed during pregnancy ? You’ve probably heard the term before: You need to be eating foods high in iron, but what does that mean, exactly? Does eating some spinach help you get enough iron? Can’t we just take a pill instead of actually eating something? And how do we measure if our diet has enough iron in it?

How Much Iron Is Needed During Pregnancy

There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme.

  • Heme iron. You can get this type from consuming meat, fish, and other sources of animal protein. It Is quickly digested by your body.
  • Non-heme iron. This is found in grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, and takes a little longer for your body to convert into a substance it can use.

Iron is an important mineral that helps maintain healthy blood. A lack of iron is called iron-deficiency anemia, which affects about 4-5 million Americans yearly. [1] It is the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide, causing extreme fatigue and lightheadedness. It affects all ages, with children, women who are pregnant or menstruating, and people receiving kidney dialysis among those at highest risk for this condition.

Iron is a major component of hemoglobin, a type of protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to all parts of the body. Without enough iron, there aren’t enough red blood cells to transport oxygen, which leads to fatigue. Iron is also part of myoglobin, a protein that carries and stores oxygen specifically in muscle tissues. Iron is important for healthy brain development and growth in children, and for the normal production and function of various cells and hormones.

Iron from food comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme is found only in animal flesh like meat, poultry, and seafood. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and leafy greens. Non-heme iron is also found in animal flesh (as animals consume plant foods with non-heme iron) and fortified foods.

Iron is stored in the body as ferritin (in the liver, spleen, muscle tissue, and bone marrow) and is delivered throughout the body by transferrin (a protein in blood that binds to iron). A doctor may sometimes check blood levels of these two components if anemia is suspected.

Food Sources

Meats, poultry, and seafood are richest in heme iron. Fortified grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and vegetables contain non-heme iron. In the U.S. many breads, cereals, and infant formulas are fortified with iron.

Heme iron is better absorbed by the body than non-heme iron. Certain factors can improve or inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron. Vitamin C and heme iron taken at the same meal can improve the absorption of non-heme iron. Bran fiber, large amounts of calcium particularly from supplements, and plant substances like phytates and tannins can inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron. [3]

Sources of heme iron:

  • Oysters, clams, mussels
  • Beef or chicken liver
  • Organ meats
  • Canned sardines
  • Beef
  • Poultry
  • Canned light tuna

Sources of non-heme iron: 

  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Beans
  • Dark chocolate (at least 45%)
  • Lentils
  • Spinach
  • Potato with skin
  • Nuts, seeds
  • Enriched rice or bread

In addition to eating foods high in iron, you can also help your body out by adding in foods that can help you absorb more iron, such as foods high in vitamin C. Vitamin C can help your body break down and absorb iron from your diet.

Eating citrus fruit, tomatoes, red or yellow peppers, or a serving of broccoli or cauliflower with your iron sources can help your body to be more efficient at absorbing the iron you’re consuming.

There are also foods that can have a negative impact on iron absorption.

Dairy, in particular, is notorious for disrupting your body’s ability to absorb iron. That’s because the calcium in dairy and in calcium supplements has been foundTrusted Source to limit iron absorption.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid dairy. But if your doctor has recommended an iron supplement, plan to wait at least two hours after consuming cheese or milk products before you take it.

And if you’re eating mindfully to try to boost your iron intake, you might want to cut back on dairy until your iron levels are where they need to be.

Sources of non-heme iron:

  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Cacao*
  • Dark leafy greens like spinach & kale
  • Potatoes with skin
  • Nuts
  • Seeds like chia seeds*
  • Quinoa
  • Some dried fruits like raisins
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Enriched rice or bread
  • Cooking in a Cast Iron Skillet.

Over-the-counter high-dosage iron supplements prescribed for those with iron-deficiency anemia or who are at high risk for it may contain 65 mg or more. Commonly reported side effects of using high-dosage iron supplements include constipation and nausea.

Confusion with iron supplements

There are several types of iron available as over-the-counter supplements, e.g., ferrous sulfate, ferrous fumarate, ferrous gluconate. Confusion is also caused by two number amounts listed on the label, a higher number and a lower number. What is the difference among supplement forms and which number should you refer to for the right amount to take?

What are some of the best iron supplements?

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Iron is a mineral that is essential for many bodily processes. Some people may decide to take iron supplements to ensure that they get an adequate intake of iron.

A selection of some of the best iron supplements.

Elemental versus chemical form of iron. If two iron amounts are listed on the label, the larger number is the chemical compound form because iron is bound to salts (e.g., ferrous sulfate), whereas the smaller number refers only to the amount of iron in the compound, also called the elemental iron. Elemental iron is the more important number because this is the amount available for the body to absorb. However, a physician may not specify in a prescription if the iron amount is the chemical form or the elemental iron. For example, a ferrous sulfate iron supplement may list a total of 325 mg of ferrous sulfate on the front of the label but 65 mg of elemental iron in smaller print on the back. If a physician prescribed 65 mg of iron, would you take five pills to equal 325 mg, or just one pill, assuming the prescription referred to elemental iron?

Different types. All types of supplemental iron help to increase red blood cell production but vary in cost and amounts of elemental iron. Ferrous gluconate is usually sold in liquid form and some clinical studies have shown that it is better absorbed than ferrous sulfate tablets. However, ferrous gluconate contains less elemental iron than ferrous sulfate, so a greater dosage may be needed to correct a deficiency. It is also more expensive than ferrous sulfate. Newer slow-release forms of iron have been introduced, which may help reduce gastrointestinal side effects, but they are more expensive and usually contain less iron.

Any confusion with iron supplement types and amounts can be resolved by asking your doctor to specify both the elemental amount and the chemical compound amount. You can also ask a store pharmacist for assistance in interpreting a doctor’s prescription or to recommend an appropriate amount if you do not have a prescription.

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