Pregnancy foods that are high in iron

Iron's vital for you and your growing baby when you're pregnant but how much do you need, which foods can you get it from and what should you do if you're eating mostly plant-based food? We get expert advice from dietitian Joanna Lenz

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If you’re currently pregnant you may be aware that you need to make sure you are getting enough iron.

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Iron is needed for making a protein called haemoglobin in both your own and your growing baby’s red blood cells.

“You need these red blood cells to carry oxygen around your body and to your baby,” explains Registered Paediatric Dietitian Joanna Lenz, a member of the British Dietetic Association.

“If your body doesn’t get sufficient iron in pregnancy you can get iron deficiency anaemia, a condition where you don’t have enough red blood cells. This lack of iron can affect your health and also the growth and development of your baby.”

One of the most common signs of being low in iron is feeling really tired (as if you are not already what with growing a baby!).

Mild iron deficiency would lead to symptoms such as feeling more tired and being more susceptible to infection,” says Joanna. “Severe deficiency could lead to brittle nails, thinning hair, palpitations, shortness of breath, mouth ulcers, and pale skin.”

Mama_m on our forum shares with other mums on our forum her experience of not having enough iron when she was pregnant for the third time. “I thought I was just tired because I already have a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old to take care of, but it was because my iron levels had gone right down.”

But don’t worry – it’s not just up to you to spot low iron levels: you will be screened for anaemia at your booking appointment with your doctor or midwife and also again at 28 weeks (and even more often if you’re expecting more than 1 baby).

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“The highest demand for iron will be in your third trimester as this is when you baby will get most of its iron.”

How much iron do we need in pregnancy?

Interestingly, the recommended amount of iron in pregnancy is the same as for all adult women, at 14.8 mg every day.

“While there is more demand for iron in your body when you’re pregnant, in theory this is met through your own iron stores, plus you’re not losing blood through periods and you’re actually able to absorb iron better when you’re pregnant,” explains dietitian Joanna.

7 high iron foods to eat in pregnancy

If you do get diagnosed with low iron or anemia in pregnancy – don’t panic. There are plenty of high-iron foods you can add to your diet, or that you can eat a bit more of, if you already do have them.

Joanna gives us the low-down on 7 foods that are great to eat in pregnancy to make sure you’re getting enough iron.

1. Animal sources (referred to as haem iron)

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These are richest in iron and the iron is easiest to absorb. Think red meat like lamb, beef or pork.

Choose lean cuts, trim visible fat off and ideally avoid processed meat products like sausages or ham.

Also while liver is a very rich source of iron, this should be avoided in pregnancy due to risk of vitamin A toxicity.

Read more about what vitamin supplements you should and shouldn’t take in pregnancy

2. Oily fish

Foods high in iron including salmon, spinach and brown rice

Oily fish such as salmon or sardines are a good source of iron but should be limited to 2 servings per week in pregnancy due to risk of methyl mercury accumulation. Think of one portion as 140g.

3. Plant sources (referred to as non-haem iron)

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These include:

  • eggs (particularly yolk) – though do make sure they’re British Lion stamped (we’ve got lots more information here)
  • pulses (e.g. chickpeas, lentils, peas, baked beans, dhal)
  • green leafy vegetables (broccoli, kale, greens, spinach, watercress).

In terms of portions, for veg think 80g. Two eggs is a serving and poached, scrambled or boiled is better than fried.

A portion of cooked dhal is around 250g.

Says  pink_supergirl on our forum: “Get some spinach down you! I ate loads and the midwife always commented on how good my iron levels were!! It has made baby really strong too!”

4. Nuts and seeds

Trail-Mix (Erdnusse, Mandeln, Mais, Cashewkerne, Cranberries, Rosinen) (Trail-Mix

There is lots of confusion around nuts in pregnancy; the latest advice is that if you wish to eat them then it’s fine (unless you’re allergic to them!).

One portion is about 50g.

5. Fortified breakfast cereals

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As well as being good sources of iron, fortified cereals are also good as high fibre foods which are recommended to help reduce constipation in pregnancy.

6. Wholemeal bread

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This is iron rich and much healthier than its white alternative.

Nice and filling and simple to have as a snack, too.

7. Dried fruit

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A tasty sweet alternative to chocolate or cake (though of course you can have those too in moderation) as well as iron-rich – try apricots, raisins, figs and prunes which are all good sources of iron.  

What to eat if you’re vegan or vegetarian

While lots of the foods above are great if you are vegan or vegetarian, if you do follow either of these diets you obviously need to avoid the haem iron mentioned that comes from animal sources.

“Make sure you try to have 3 servings of non-haem iron rich foods from the list above,” says Joanna.

“Non-haem iron (doesn’t come from animals) is harder for the body to absorb so make sure that your overall diet is high in vitamin C to help with this. So think plenty of tomatoes and peppers, for example.”

Veggie or not you should also avoid drinking caffeine at meal times. “The tannins in these reduce the ability of the body to absorb iron from food,” Joanna advises.

“If you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t be having more than 200mg of caffeine a day (about 2 cups) anyway.”

Over on our forum, mums like littleO09, who have been told they have low iron levels, are doing a great job of eating more of it:

“Try and eat iron rich food – such as green leafy vegetables and spinach and eggs. Also eat an orange after as the Vitamin C helps your body to absorb the iron. Also dried apricots are full of iron and make a good snack.”

Fourthandfinal says “Foods rich in iron are red meat, spinach, some cereals have iron….[plus] broccoli, dates, pomegranates, apricots.”

Iron-rich meal ideas

There are so many foods that are rich in iron you really can eat a varied diet when you’re pregnant.

Here Joanna gives us a few different (and most of all quick and simple) ways to add iron into your meal times.

Breakfast: Try an iron-fortified cereal with low fat milk

Lunch: If you don’t have much time try:

  • baked beans or scrambled eggs with wilted spinach
  • a chicken salad sandwich on wholemeal bread
  • sardines on wholegrain toast with tomatoes.

Also drink a small glass of orange juice (150ml) for that vital Vitamin C to help iron absorption.  

Dinner: Why not try:

  • roasted salmon with spinach leaves, avocado and brown rice
  • chilli con carne (use low fat mince 10%): this packs an iron punch if you make it with lamb mince, chickpeas (for a veggie option) and include some spinach in either.

Then go for something like kiwi fruit and low fat yogurt for pudding.

Snacks: hummus with vegetables or a small portion of unsalted nuts with dried fruits.

When to use iron supplements

While it’s great to get iron from food, some pregnant women may need to take a supplement, especially if you have been told you have anaemia. Your doctor or midwife will advise you on this.

Finally, as ever, try, and enjoy a varied and balanced diet throughout your pregnancy and accept that you may just be susceptible to having low iron levels.

“You’ll definitely need more iron if you’re having twins, triplets or more,” says Joanna.

“You are also more likely to have anaemia if you’ve had it before, have a history of heavy periods, are pregnant again after having a baby within the last year.”

Pics: Getty

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If you’re currently pregnant, check out SMA® Nutrition’s Mother Of All Checklists  – a free app co-created by mums to help you stay on top of your pregnancy to-do lists 

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