Iron in pregnancy – iron rich foods to avoid anemia
Now that you are pregnant you probably took a closer look at your diet. There is so much advice floating around it can make your head spin. Eat this, don’t eat that, drink lots of water.
Some of the advice is a little outdated, some is really useful. I’ll be writing more on diet in pregnancy in separate posts, today I would like to give you some tips on iron.
Iron and anemia in pregnancy
Your body’s need for iron increases in pregnancy, because your blood supply will increase by about 30 up to 50%. In order to try to avoid anemia that might cause you to feel more tired, sleepy, dizzy and nauseous, you can add some iron rich foods into your diet. Still in some cases you might need to supplement iron, strictly following your midwife’s or doctors recommendations. You can overdose iron so don’t reach for supplements without first testing your levels. Supplements do sometimes cause some side effects like constipation, nausea, stomach upsets, so you might need to experiment with different supplements, dosage (slowly increasing it over time), the time of day when you take them as well as making sure you drink plenty of water (surprise!) and foods rich in fiber too.
Testing for iron deficiency
It is a good idea to check iron levels in the beginning, middle and end of pregnancy – not only looking at your morphology results (hemoglobin levels) but also doing a specific test for ferritin levels – this is the form in which your body stores iron for blood building. Hemoglobin levels can change daily and it is possible to improve short term results quickly by adjusting your diet, but your actual iron stores might be still low. A drop in iron levels about halfway through your pregnancy is quite normal and expected but it’s important to keep within healthy limits.
Iron rich foods
Iron is present in foods in two forms:
Heme iron – easier to absorb, is present in red meats and organ meats and oysters for example.
Nonheme iron present in plant foods is unfortunately less easily absorbed by our bodies, but still a very important source. If you are on a vegetarian or vegan diet and your test results call for some improvement you might consider talking about supplements with your doctor. There are plant based supplements on the market as well, and these might be easier on your stomach. Some of them are Floradix (both tablets and juice) and nettle capsules and juice.
There are ways in which you can improve or inhibit iron absorption!
To improve iron absorption you should combine products rich in vitamin C together with iron rich foods and avoid products high in calcium in the same meal as it inhibits iron absorption (milk, dairy, whole grains). Also avoid having caffeinated drinks with your meals high in iron – that means no coffee or tea, have a glass of juice rich in vitamin C instead.
Careful though – oranges are high in calcium, so choose for example apple juice. Another great drink would be a glass of beetroot juice – fresh or fermented for another boost of iron, or prune juice, which is high in both iron and vitamin C. Prunes will also help will constipation.
Another tip is to not eat spinach as your iron source… It’s known for high iron content, but it is also high in oxalic acid that binds with iron and prevents our bodies from using it.
You don’t have to eliminate dairy, tea and coffee completely and you still want to eat products rich in calcium, just have them separately – at least and hour before or after your main iron rich meal.
Cook with iron
Another trick is to cook with cast iron! You can get a cast iron frying pan and a pot and make your soup in it, or even boil water for your (herbal) teas!
There are also little cast iron fish/other shape slabs you can put in your cooking instead of going for the pot. They have proven to improve anemia in developing countries. There is a program, where when you buy one for yourself you also sponsor one for donation to people in areas affected by malnutrition.
Check it out here: https://luckyironfish.com/
Drink it! Incorporate Iron rich foods into your diet
A good way to up your iron and fibre intake easily is making a smoothie!
Mix in some fruit (frozen berries), beetroots, greens and seeds and a good handful of parsley, sweeten with dates, add water or juice (careful with plant based milks, they are often fortified with calcium) and have that first thing in the morning or as a snack.
You can replace tea and coffee with herbal teas also helping with iron deficiency.
Dandelion greens and nettles are two great choices, rich in iron and other nutrients, with other health benefits including immunity boosting, being rich in antioxidants and having anti-inflammatory properties – add these herbs to your pregnancy mix with red raspberry leaf tea and drink regularly hot or cold. Add honey if you like it sweet or mint, lemon balm or chamomile for a change of flavour, relaxation and to promote healthy digestion.
Another great way to incorporate many iron rich foods in one meal is making a soup or a stew – throw in a variety of vegetables and legumes, add some iron rich spices and herbs, cook in your cast iron pot…
Tip: You can cook these in large portions and freeze some for a lazy day or for after baby is born – you will save yourself a lot of work and boost iron.
Soups are also really the best nurturing foods for the postpartum period. Comforting, warming, and easy on your intestine, so get into the habit of cooking them now, practice a few recipes with your partner – so they can do the cooking later.
Millet is a great iron rich food you can eat in so many ways – have it as morning porridge with some dates, apricots, or fresh fruit, add turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom and coconut milk. Add it to soups, eat with your dinner stew, add to cookies and even smoothies. Just cook a bigger batch, keep it in your fridge and use within a couple of days with different recipes.
Great time saving and healthy meals are buddha bowls – roast and/or steam some vegetables, boil a grain of choice, throw in fresh leafy greens and sprinkle with seeds and tahini dressing, top with parsley or fresh coriander and avocado for a great iron rich meal. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime for vitamin C and voila!
For snacking have nuts, seeds and dried fruits.
Plant foods rich in iron:
Here is a list of iron rich plant products. As you can see it’s actually pretty long and you can cook most meals with them, so it shouldn’t be a struggle to improve your iron levels.
- Soba noodles (high in Buckwheat flour)
- Brown rice
- Oats and oat bran
- Red kidney beans
- Black beans
- Lima beans
- Black eyed peas
- Soy products/tofu/tempeh/soy sauce but not necessarily soybeans or milk
- Dark leafy greens (collards, kale, bok choi, swiss chard, watercress, turnip greens, beet greens – although these have calcium too)
- Green beans
- Rocket (Arugula)
- Brussel sprouts
- All types of potatoes
- Nori / Seaweed
- Parsley – on everything!
- Sesame seeds and tahini
- Sunflowers seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Poppy seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Cumin seed
- Dill weed
- Celery seed
- Bay leaf
- Sun dried tomatoes
- Raisins and sultanas
- Dried and fresh figs
- Cashew nuts
- Pine nuts
- Dried apricots
- Coconut (cream, milk, shredded)
Food images by Yummy Mummy Berlin – Food delivery service
“Plant-based cuisine dedicated to pregnant women and nursing mummies.”