Although some women manage to eat a diet rich in iron without even trying, many tend to fall short in iron. Any lack of dietary iron can be exacerbated during pregnancy, especially if an expectant mother decides to take prenatal vitamins without iron—a common decision because of the nausea often caused by iron supplements.
Pregnancy is a time when women are particularly at risk for anemia, though. As blood volume increases and the mother becomes responsible for her own blood supply as well as that of the growing baby, it can be hard to maintain a diet high enough in iron to avoid a shortage. With a little extra care and some regular menu planning, pregnant women can be sure to get plenty of iron—even if they decide to nix the supplement.
Five Rules to Help You Get Enough Iron in Your Prenatal Diet
Having enough iron circulating in the bloodstream allows the body to use oxygen; women who don’t have enough iron in their blood may feel weak, tired, and even confused. By following a few simple rules, most women can get an adequate daily helping of iron that will provide for their own oxygen needs as well as the baby’s.
Rule #1: Get your animal protein. Red meat, pork, chicken, and shellfish can be great natural sources of iron. If you don’t like much in the way of meat or fish, opt for eggs. Animal proteins are the best sources of iron and are very easy for your body to use.
Rule #2: Eat enriched breakfast cereals and grains. Most breakfast cereals come loaded with vitamins and a hefty dose of iron. Pay attention to serving sizes and have some cereal for breakfast or a snack on a daily basis. In addition, many pastas, grains, and breads are also enriched with iron, so check the brands you buy and compare them to competitors to find the better source of iron.
Rule #3: Be big on beans, nut butters, and dried fruits. Beans, lentils, and nut butters (like peanut or almond butter) offer natural plant sources of iron. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, whole grains, beans, and nut butters should be staples in your diet to ensure that you get enough iron. In addition, try snacking on dried fruit–just watch how much you eat and buy varieties that are dried without added sugar.
Rule #4: Eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C. Vitamin C helps your body use the iron you eat. By having foods or drinks with vitamin C at the same time you have your iron-rich foods, you can increase your body’s absorption of the iron. For example, eat broccoli with your chicken or drink orange juice with your morning peanut butter and toast.
Rule #5: Avoid dairy products and caffeine when you have iron-rich foods. Just as vitamin C can help your body absorb iron, dairy and caffeine may block your body’s ability to use iron. This means it’s best to eat your cereal dry and to skip the cheese on your hamburger to get the most iron out of your foods. Eat your dairy and sip your caffeine for separate snacks or meals during the day.
If you’ve decided to forgo iron pills, make sure your obstetrician is aware. He or she can test you regularly for anemia and work with you to create a diet that will provide enough iron for both you and your growing baby. If you have previously had problems with anemia or if you have certain medical conditions, your healthcare provider may encourage you to take supplements in addition to a diet rich in iron to ensure that you do not become anemic during pregnancy. For most women, however, a well-managed diet can provide plenty of iron for baby and mommy!