Iron-Rich Foods to Eat During Pregnancy

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

Overview

Low iron may make you feel tired, have headaches, get dizzy, feel weak, or have shortness of breath. These are often things that a pregnant person may experience at some point in their pregnancy anyway, so all pregnant people have their iron levels tested regardless of symptoms.

Prenatal multivitamins provide a good boost of iron, but by eating iron-rich foods, you can help further prevent or combat anemia in pregnancy and postpartum.

Why You Need 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 second and third trimesters. Since the body doesn't actually produce iron, you need to get it from food and supplements.

Iron Basics

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.

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.

Iron-Rich Foods

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.

  • 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

Tips

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.

Vegetarians

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.

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.

Absorption 

You can also increase the amount of iron your body absorbs by eating iron-rich foods along with vitamin C. Think about snacking on fruits like oranges or adding tomatoes to your meals more often. However, you should avoid large amounts of 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.

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.

Some supplements can make you feel constipated or your bowels feel sluggish. Not everyone responds the same way 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. There is a variety of iron supplement forms, including some liquids, available.

Your practitioner can help you decide which supplement is best for you.

A Word From Verywell

As you progress through your pregnancy, think about ways to increase your iron intake that sound appealing and fit into meals and snacks you have often. You will feel better and can reduce your risk of anemia if you’re eating iron-rich foods regularly.

Upping your iron consumption will also help if you have already been diagnosed with anemia and need to increase your blood iron levels. If needed, ask your doctor or midwife for a referral to a registered dietitian. A simple one-on-one visit might be all that you need to get the tools to increase your iron intake via food.

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Article Sources
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  1. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Nutritional Status During Pregnancy and Lactation. Nutrition During Pregnancy: Part I Weight Gain: Part II Nutrient Supplements. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1990. 14, Iron Nutrition During Pregnancy.

  2. Beck KL, Conlon CA, Kruger R, Coad J. Dietary determinants of and possible solutions to iron deficiency for young women living in industrialized countries: a review. Nutrients. 2014;6(9):3747-76. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu6093747

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