Iron is the most common nutrient deficiency during pregnancy (1). Nutrient needs increase during pregnancy and some nutrients, including iron, cannot be met by diet alone. Meeting iron needs during pregnancy is important for a number of reasons; read on to learn how to meet your changing iron needs and how to get the most out of the iron in your diet.
The Importance of Iron
Iron helps make new red blood cells and carry oxygen throughout the body. The need for iron increases during pregnancy to match the increased volume of blood which is needed to supply the growing fetus and placenta, and to support normal fetal brain development (1). Iron needs peak during the third trimester as the fetus begins to build iron stores, which it will use in the first six months of its life (1).
When your body does not get enough iron, you may begin to experience a reduced work capacity, cardiovascular stress, decreased resistance to infection, feel tired or develop iron deficiency (1). When pregnant, iron deficiency can lead to maternal anemia, premature delivery, low birth weight and increased risk of perinatal infant mortality (1).
Meeting Your Iron Needs During Pregnancy
Iron needs change depending on the stage of life you are in.
Preconception: 18 mg/day
Pregnancy: 27 mg/day
Postnatal*: up to 18 years old: 10 mg/day; 19-50 years old: 9 mg/day (2)
*Postnatal iron needs are lower than preconception due to the pause in menstruation after giving birth.
In addition to eating a balanced diet, Health Canada recommends that pregnant women take a prenatal vitamin that has 16-20 mg of iron daily throughout pregnancy. Women who already have iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia will likely need more iron and should talk to their health care provider to determine the amount of iron needed (1).
Note: It is suggested to begin taking a prenatal vitamin when you are planning to become pregnant (2-3 months preconception) and continue 4-6 weeks postpartum or as long as breastfeeding is continued (3) to help ensure your body has the nutrient stores to support you and your baby.
How to Increase Iron Absorption
It can be difficult to meet your iron needs during pregnancy because of the body’s increased needs. On top of that, not all foods containing iron are absorbed as efficiently. There are two different types of iron found in food: heme iron and non-heme iron.
- Found in animal products and is more easily absorbed by our bodies
- Sources: Beef, poultry, pork, organ meat, seafood, eggs.
- Found in plant foods and is less easily absorbed by our bodies
- Sources: Tofu, legumes, nuts + nut butters, seeds + seed butters, grain products, soy products, cooked spinach, asparagus, beets, blackstrap molasses.
Increasing iron absorption:
- Eat foods containing non-heme iron alongside foods rich in Vitamin C, such as oranges, pineapple, strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, kale and cauliflower
- If you consume animal products, try pairing heme containing foods with non-heme foods
Foods that inhibit iron absorption:
Certain foods contain substances that may inhibit iron absorption, including phytates (found in legumes and some vegetables), polyphenols (found in tea and coffee), and calcium. However, vitamin C may be able to overcome some of these inhibitions (4), although it may be helpful to try drinking coffee or tea before or after meals rather than during (5).
Meals to increase iron intake and absorption:
- Oatmeal with almond butter and strawberries
- Spinach and berry smoothie
- Omelette with goat cheese and spinach
- Lentil and cauliflower curry
- Chicken and broccoli stir fry
- Vegetarian chili with black beans, kidney beans and tomato
The Bottom Line
It may feel overwhelming trying to make sure you are meeting all of your nutrient needs before, during and after pregnancy, including meeting iron needs during pregnancy. However, with the addition of a prenatal vitamin and a little bit of planning, you shouldn’t need to worry about meeting your iron needs. If you are concerned about your iron levels, talk to your health care provider.
- Health Canada. (2009, April 21). Prenatal Nutrition Guidelines for Health Professionals—Iron Contributes to a Healthy Pregnancy. Government of Canada. Retrieved August 3, 2020, from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/publications/food-nutrition/prenatal-nutrition-guidelines-health-professionals-iron-contributes-healthy-pregnancy-2009.html
- Institute of Medicine. (2006). Iron. In Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements (pp 328-339). National Academy Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/11537
- Dietitians of Canada. Pregnancy Summary of Recommendations and Evidence. Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition® [PEN] Knowledge Pathway Pregnancy. 2020, April 13 [cited 2020, August 3]. Available from: http://www.pennutrition.com. Access only by subscription. Click Sign Up on PEN login page.
- Hurrell, R., & Egli, I. (2010). Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(5), 1461S-1467S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2010.28674F.
- Dietitians of Canada (2015). Increasing your Iron Intake. Retrieved from PEN: https://www.pennutrition.com/viewhandout.aspx?Portal=UbY=&id=JMfsUQw=&PreviewHandout=bA==.