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When it comes to diet and pregnancy, the list of what not to eat can seem to go on forever. But equally important is the list of things you should eat.

Not only are you providing nutrients for your baby during their extended stay in your womb, but your body is working on overdrive to support all the changes of pregnancy.

While eating for two doesn’t mean that you’ll need double what you needed pre-pregnancy, you will need to increase your intake of calories and certain minerals and vitamins.

One important mineral you’ll need to increase during pregnancy is iron.

Your body doesn’t naturally make iron. Iron can only be obtained through your diet or through supplements. That’s why increasing your intake of iron-rich foods can be important, especially during pregnancy.

Keep reading to learn more about iron and pregnancy, and to find iron-rich foods to add to your list.

Pregnancy increases your blood supply by up to 50 percent. That’s where iron comes in. Iron is used by the body to make red blood cells. An increase in blood supply means that you’ll need more red blood cells and more iron to make those blood cells.

When you don’t have enough iron in your body, you can develop anemia. Anemia is the most common blood condition for pregnant women to develop.

Anemia during pregnancy can put you and your baby at a higher risk for several complications, including pre-term birth and low birth weight.

Iron is commonly associated with animal protein, but if the thought of meat turns your stomach (thanks, morning sickness) or if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, don’t worry. Iron can be found in a variety of foods.

There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme.

  • Heme iron. You can get this type from consuming meat, fish, and other sources of animal protein. It’s quickly digested by your body.
  • Non-heme iron. This is found in grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, and takes a little longer for your body to convert into a substance it can use.

While all animal proteins contain heme iron, some sources may be better options during pregnancy than others.

You’ll also want to avoid eating raw meat and fish, as that could increase your risk for bacterial infection, which can be especially dangerous during pregnancy.

Lean beef

Red meat is the best source of heme iron. One 3-ounce serving of lean sirloin beef contains about 1.5 milligrams (mg) of iron.

But before you throw that steak on the grill, have your meat thermometer handy. Consuming undercooked or “rare” meat isn’t recommended during pregnancy due to the risk of bacterial contamination.

Is your beef fully cooked?

Beef is considered fully cooked once it’s reached an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C). If you’re eating out while pregnant, ask for your burger or steak to be served well-done. That will increase the chances that the meat you’re eating has been fully cooked.

Chicken

Chicken contains 1.5 mg of iron per 8-ounce serving. It’s safe to eat chicken during pregnancy, but, just like with beef, you’ll want to make sure it’s cooked all the way through at 165°F (73.8°C) to avoid consuming dangerous bacteria, like Listeria.

Salmon

Salmon is relatively rich in iron — 1.6 mg for a wild-caught, half-pound filet of Atlantic salmon. Salmon is safe to consume during pregnancy as long as it’s fully cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F (62.8°C).

In addition to being a source of heme iron, salmon is also packed with omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that may contribute to a healthy pregnancy.

Salmon is also lower in mercury than some other types of fish, such as tuna and swordfish, which may make it safer to consume when pregnant.

Try to get two or three servings of fish per week as a way to boost iron as well as protein. Other fish that are considered safe during pregnancy are:

  • shrimp
  • pollock
  • catfish
  • scallops
  • sardines
  • herring
  • trout
  • cod
  • light tuna

If you don’t eat meat or if the thought of meat turns your stomach, there are several plant-based sources of iron you can try. Keep in mind that non-heme iron is harder for your body to absorb and takes longer to metabolize.

If non-heme iron is your primary iron source, talk to your doctor about whether they recommend adding in an iron supplement.

Beans and lentils

Bean and lentils are packed with fiber and protein, and their iron content is hard to beat.

A cup of prepared lentils will give you 6.6 mg of your daily iron. And white kidney beans have just as much per cup, drained and cooked.

Make lentils and beans in bulk if you want to start incorporating them into your diet, and sprinkle some in your salads or heat up a few handfuls as a side dish at dinner.

Spinach and kale

Spinach and kale are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and iron, too. One cup of cooked kale contains 1 mg of iron, and spinach is even better, packing 6.4 mg per 1-cup serving.

These greens are very versatile. You can toss some in with your salad, chop them up into an omelet, or just sauté some in a saucepan. You can also throw them into a smoothie for a sweet, nutritious treat.

Broccoli

Broccoli may be a quintessential kid favorite, but this easy-to-prepare veggie also packs in a lot of nutrients that are beneficial in pregnancy.

This cruciferous veggie boasts just over 1 mg of iron per cup. As a bonus, broccoli contains a hefty amount of vitamin C, which helps with iron absorption.

Broccoli is also fiber-dense and full of nutrients. Since pregnancy can slow down your digestive system (hello, bloating and constipation), adding good sources of fiber to your diet can help relieve these uncomfortable symptoms.

Try roasting it by the head with plenty of olive oil and sea salt, or steam up some broccoli and keep it on hand for a snack.

As an added bonus, broccoli is a good vegetable to have in your parenting arsenal because it’s easy to prepare and often enjoyed by young kids.

Broccoli can have a strong smell when cooked, so proceed with caution if you’re experiencing morning sickness or a lot of aversions to strong odors.

In addition to eating foods high in iron, you can also help your body out by adding in foods that can help you absorb more iron, such as foods high in vitamin C. Vitamin C can help your body break down and absorb iron from your diet.

Eating citrus fruit, tomatoes, red or yellow peppers, or a serving of broccoli or cauliflower with your iron sources can help your body to be more efficient at absorbing the iron you’re consuming.

Avoid the burn

If you’re experiencing a lot of pregnancy-related heartburn, you may want to focus on the veggie sources of vitamin C instead of the citrus ones, which may increase heartburn.

There are also foods that can have a negative impact on iron absorption.

Dairy, in particular, is notorious for disrupting your body’s ability to absorb iron. That’s because the calcium in dairy and in calcium supplements has been found to limit iron absorption.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid dairy. But if your doctor has recommended an iron supplement, plan to wait at least two hours after consuming cheese or milk products before you take it.

And if you’re eating mindfully to try to boost your iron intake, you might want to cut back on dairy until your iron levels are where they need to be.

If you’re already taking a daily prenatal vitamin, chances are it contains iron. Check the packaging to confirm.

For many women, if your prenatal vitamin contains iron and you’re also consuming iron-rich foods, you’ll likely be getting enough iron to support a healthy pregnancy.

But for some people, additional iron supplements might be needed. For example, your doctor may recommend supplements if you’re pregnant closely following another pregnancy.

If your doctor or midwife hasn’t prescribed an iron supplement, but you feel like you might need one, talk to them about supplements.

Iron supplements are safe during pregnancy, but there is such a thing as too much iron while you’re pregnant.

Iron levels that are too high during pregnancy may increase your risk of pre-term birth, as well as gestational diabetes and high blood pressure. Additionally, long-term iron levels that are too high can damage your organs, especially your kidneys.

Warning signs of an iron overdose include:

  • diarrhea and sharp stomach pain
  • vomiting blood
  • shallow, rapid breathing
  • pale, clammy hands
  • weakness and fatigue

If you’re experiencing these symptoms and are pregnant, contact your health provider right away. You may need to seek emergency treatment.

How to take iron supplements

Iron supplements are best taken on an empty stomach with a simple glass of water. However, iron supplements can aggravate pregnancy symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting. Taking iron supplements on an empty stomach may make these side effects even worse.

Taking iron with a snack may be a good way to reduce your risk for nausea. As an added bonus, consider a snack that’s high in vitamin C to increase your body’s ability to absorb the supplement. Taking iron before bed may also help make side effects less noticeable.

What’s most important is to find a routine that works for you. If you’re having a hard time keeping down the supplements, talk to your healthcare provider. They may be able to recommend an iron supplement that’s easier on the stomach.

At a minimum, you’ll need almost twice as much iron during pregnancy as you needed before you were expecting.

The recommended daily amount of iron for women of childbearing age who are not pregnant is around 18 mg. If you’re pregnant, the recommended daily amount increases to a minimum of 27 mg.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations are higher. WHO recommends pregnant women take in between 30 to 60 mg of iron a day.

Ask your doctor or midwife for their recommendations. They may vary depending on various factors, such as number of babies you’re carrying, history of anemia, or size of the baby.

The hard work of creating a new person also requires extra nutrients. Iron is important for everyone, but it’s especially crucial for pregnant women to get enough each day.

Your body doesn’t make iron. Instead, you’ll need to consume iron-rich foods. Iron is found in meats, vegetables, beans, and other sources. That means you’ll have plenty of foods to choose from and are sure to find something to satisfy your daily cravings and aversions.