Iron-Rich Foods You Should Be Eating During Pregnancy

Battle anemia in pregnancy with your diet

Kale salad
Harald Walker/Stocksy United

If you have been diagnosed with low iron or anemia in your pregnancy, you are not alone. Due to the increased demands on a woman's body and the increase in blood volume, anemia is a very common condition in pregnancy.

Low iron may make you feel tired, have headaches, get dizzy, and have other symptoms of anemia. By eating iron-rich foods, you can help prevent or combat anemia in pregnancy and postpartum.

Why You Need Extra Iron

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. 

Iron is important throughout your pregnancy but even more crucial in the first and third trimesters. Since the body doesn't actually produce iron, you need to get it from food and supplements.

Iron-Rich Foods

Foods that are naturally high in iron can be very helpful in preventing and alleviating the symptoms of anemia. The benefit of getting your iron from food is that you can typically absorb it better than pills and other supplements. It also does not cause the intestinal distress that some medications may cause.

ACOG recommends that pregnant women have a daily intake of 27 milligrams (mg) of iron each day. It can be difficult to eat that amount, though the University of California San Francisco Medical Center mentions that cooking in cast iron can increase the iron in foods by 80 percent.

Incorporating the following foods into your diet is a good way to reach the daily goal:

  • Dark, leafy greens, such as spinach, collard greens, and kale
  • Dried fruit, including apricots, prunes, raisins, and figs
  • Raspberries and strawberries
  • Sauerkraut
  • Beets
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Brocolli
  • Potatoes
  • Beans, peas, and lentils
  • Eggs, especially the yolk
  • Blackstrap molasses and other unrefined sugars
  • Meat, particularly red meat and liver, though pork, chicken, and lamb are good as well
  • Fish, clams, and oysters
  • Tofu
  • Fortified cereals, grains, and pasta
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole wheat bread

The easiest way to get more iron is to eat a few of these foods every day. Do you eat a salad with iceberg lettuce? Consider switching to a base of baby spinach or mixed leafy greens. Need a pick-me-up snack in the afternoon? Think about a couple of dried apricots.

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.

Vegetarians

Being a vegetarian in pregnancy is perfectly fine. 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.

Instead, you can choose any of the vegetarian options mentioned, ensuring you're eating even more of these foods than normal. Foods containing wheat germ is also a good option and eating citrus fruits high in vitamin C will help with the absorption issue.

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. The caveat here is that you should never order your steak or other meats rare during pregnancy. That can increase your risk of trichinellosis, an infection caused by roundworms that is uncommon but something to be aware of.

Though meat is a great source of iron, variety is also important. Try to eat some iron-rich plant-based foods each day as well to ensure you're getting a good amount of all types of iron.

Increase Iron Absorption 

You can also increase the amount of iron your body absorbs by eating iron-rich foods along with vitamin C. Think about snacking of fruits like oranges or adding tomatoes to your meals more often. However, you should avoid calcium with high-iron foods or when taking iron supplements because it can decrease absorption.

Many foods you eat, like grains and cereals, may also be fortified with iron. Be sure to look for this on the nutrition labels when shopping.

Iron Supplements

Your midwife or doctor will usually screen for anemia early in your pregnancy and again between 24 and 28 weeks. If you are anemic, you may be asked to take a supplement in addition to your prenatal vitamin. Or you may be asked to switch which type of prenatal vitamin you are taking. Your practitioner can help you decide what is best for you.

Many of the supplements can make you feel constipated or your bowels feel sluggish. Not everyone responds well to supplements, either. This is certainly something to talk to your doctor or midwife about because you may need a different dosage or to change supplements. Do not hesitate to try a variety of supplements, including some of the liquids available, until you find one that works for you.

A Word From Verywell

As you progress through your pregnancy, think about simple ways to increase your iron intake. You will feel better and can reduce your risk of anemia. It will also help if you have already been diagnosed. If needed, ask your doctor or midwife for a referral to a nutritionist. A simple one-on-one visit might be all that you need to get on track.

Was this page helpful?
View Article Sources
  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. FAQ: Nutrition During Pregnancy. 2018.
  • March of Dimes. Anemia. 2013.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trichinellosis FAQ. 2012. 
  • UCSF Health. Anemia and Pregnancy. University of California San Francisco. 2018.