We’ve heard a lot lately about the importance of folic acid, Omega-3’s, and Vitamin D during pregnancy. I was surprised to read an update today about the importance of an old friend – iron – during pregnancy.

The study was funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It looked at record for nearly two million women, over nearly fifty years – from 1966 – 2012. That’s a lot of babies, and a lot of good information. Rather than a long study that ran all these years, the authors looked at 92 different studies that had already been done.

What they found was that taking an iron supplement during pregnancy

  • Leads to a healthy level of hemoglobin in the blood – a 50% reduction in anemia among pregnancy women
  • Reduces the risk of low birth weight – a major cause of long-term learning problems. In fact, the amount of iron a mom gets in a day has a linear relationship to the weight of her baby, in a very healthy way.

What’s the big deal with iron? Well, pregnant women actually increase their blood supply 40-50% during pregnancy. That means you’ve got to make a lot more red blood cells to be healthy, since those red blood cells are carrying oxygen to your body parts and also for your baby.

You are at risk for low iron

  • If you have been on a weight-reduction diet. It’s hard to get enough iron in your diet when you are dieting.
  • If you are not a healthy eater. If there’s a lot of fast foods, fried foods, sweets and cakes, you are eating plenty of fats – but probably not much iron.
  • If you have been having babies close together. Most sources agree that you need about two years of good eating to get your iron levels back up for a healthy pregnancy.
  • If you bleed heavily when you have your menstrual periods. This is the major reason women tend to be more anemic than men.

Talk to your doctor or midwife about iron. They will be checking your iron levels regularly, and they will work with you to get our iron to a healthy level. (Iron is tricky stuff to take – for instance it is best absorbed when you take some vitamin C with it – like a glass of orange juice! – and is poorly absorbed when you take it with tea, or pop it along with an antacid for your heartburn. Your caregiver will be able to help you calibrate how much you need and how to get it when you talk straight to them about how you’re doing with your diet. (The current recommendation for pregnant women is around 27 mg per day, if you start out with healthy numbers. But lots of us are anemic!)

Obviously you can get iron via tablet. But it’s even better to eat foods that are high in iron to help grow your health baby. Iron pills are famous for causing an upset stomach, or even diarrhea or constipation. And taking pills that you don’t need is a waste of your good hard-earned money!

The other important reason to not rely on a pill for your iron is sneaky. Sometimes when we take pills, we think we are getting all the nutrition we need from the pills, so it doesn’t matter what we eat. But food is synergistic – the nutrients add up to more than the sum of their parts. What you eat is important whether you are taking iron pills or not – and your body (and baby!) needs about 50 different nutrients every day! The pills would each be the size of the bottle to get them all!


Fortified Cereals often have up to 18 mg in a serving-sized bowl. Read the label – Cheerios has 6 mg in a cup, Total has 18. Don’t eat something you hate just to get the iron though!

Peanut butter on toast – again, make it whole wheat, and the peanut butter has iron too!


Beans are a great source of iron. You don’t have to make a batch in your slow cooker and eat them all – how about a black bean soup? Or some chili, or refriend beans on your taco along with the ground beef.

Whole grain breads have iron – a roast beef sandwich on whole grain bread is perfect.

And if you’re a vegetarian – tofu is an excellent source of iron.


Take a look at a box of pasta – American-made will be iron-fortified, but not all pasta will be. Lean red meats have iron (well, so do fatty red meats!) – so have a few meatballs with the macaroni. A bonus here is that the tomato sauce has some Vitamin C to help your body absorb the iron even better.

Snacks and Desserts

Hummus has 3 mg of iron in a half cup. Eat it with a whole wheat pita bread (2mg) and you’ve got almost 1/3 of what you need for the day.

Molasses cookies – Archway brand has 2.7 mg of iron.

A dessert with raisins in it – hey! That’s a little sprinkling of iron!

Click here for a sample menu

Contact me at dkersula@bmhvt.org if you’d like a copy of ICEA’s “Are You Getting Enough Iron?” – a great brochure with a poster to hang on your fridge. Supplies are limited to contact me soon.

And if you have a great recipe with good iron content – please send it along and we’ll post it here.

Happy Summer Eating! Grow that baby well!

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