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Iron and Pregnancy

What can I eat to get enough Iron while pregnant?

Even as a registered dietitian, I found it difficult to always remember how much my own body was changing on the inside when it was pregnant. I was acutely aware of how my body looked on the outside and how I was growing into a new person, but something like how much iron I needed every day was not necessarily forefront in my daily thought process. 

But, your nutrient needs as the pregnant person are incredibly important, for obvious reasons like sustaining the life you are growing, but also for keeping your own body healthy and setting it up for the best birth and postpartum experience possible. 

While the body’s needs for many vitamins and minerals changes during pregnancy, iron is definitely an important one, increasing its daily demand to from 18mg per day to a whopping 27mg per day during pregnancy (thankfully, it goes down during breastfeeding to 9mg per day!). 

This big increase in demand makes iron deficiency the most common nutritional deficiency during pregnancy – simply because it’s so difficult to get enough of this important mineral!

Why do your iron needs increase during pregnancy?

Iron is a main component of our blood, and a female’s blood volume will double during the course of the pregnancy. About half the iron needed goes to the growing fetus and the placenta the female’s body builds and the other half goes to her own body to support the increased blood volume as well as normal body function. 

What about iron supplements? I’ve heard they can cause nausea and constipation.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends that all pregnant women take a prenatal multivitamin that contains iron to help support the increased nutritional demands on the body to support a successful pregnancy and to help with labor, delivery and postpartum recovery. 

Taking a supplement is a good idea, to ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs, however, the first trimester nausea and ongoing constipation that many pregnant women experience can certainly be exacerbated by many iron-containing supplements. This may mean foregoing iron supplementation for periods of time during pregnancy or trying out a few different kinds to find one that works for your body. This is why it’s also important to include a lot of iron-rich foods in your daily diet while pregnant, as well.

High Iron Shopping List…and a few tips

Below, I’ve put together a high iron shopping list that can help you get towards the 27mg per day of iron that a pregnant body needs. I’ve included meat and fish on the list below. While these foods are high in more bioavailable iron (meaning, it is more easily absorbed by the body), you can still have a high-iron diet as a vegetarian. I’ve included some tips below to ensure the maximum absorption of the iron you’re consuming (so it doesn’t go to waste!).

  • Try to combine high iron foods with vitamin-c-containing foods such as oranges, pineapple, strawberries or cantaloupe. 
  • Keep any caffeine or calcium (dairy foods are high-calcium foods) consumption separate from meals/snacks/supplements that contain high levels of iron, as both caffeine and calcium inhibit iron absorption in the body
  • Use iron-containing cookware, such as a cast iron skillet, to prepare foods for a little added iron
  • Use a small amount of blackstrap molasses as a sweetener in lieu of honey, maple syrup or sugar as it contains a good dose of iron
  • Don’t be afraid of fortified grain foods, like breakfast cereals. Your body needs the carbohydrates while pregnant, and chances are simple, plain foods like these can help combat first-trimester nausea. But skip the milk. 
  • Stay well-hydrated as many iron-containing foods are also high in fiber (hydration can also help with pregnancy related nausea and constipation, since, again, your blood volume is doubling!).

High-Iron Shopping List

High Iron Meal/Snack Ideas:

  • Pumping Iron Smoothie: spinach, banana, pineapple, coconut milk or orange juice (add a few grates of fresh ginger to combat nausea)
  • Shrimp and broccoli stir fry served over quinoa
  • Red lentil pasta with tomato sauce and sauteed spinach (add meatballs if you eat meat for extra iron and skip the calcium containing cheese at this meal).
  • Lentil soup with leafy greens and sausage
  • Black bean quinoa burger topped with a fried egg
  • Indulge: steak dinner with shrimp cocktail starter and leafy green salad on the side
  • Snacks: dry life cereal and piece of fruit
    Trail mix with dark chocolate, dried fruit and nuts (all iron containing)

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