Iron during pregnancy – Nutrition needs and iron-rich food sources

A meal composed steak and salad that provides the necessary iron and nutrients.
Meat is a good source of iron

Pregnancy is a remarkable journey marked by profound changes in a woman's body. It's a time when nurturing your health becomes inseparable from nurturing the new life growing within you.

One of the most critical elements to focus on during this transformative period is iron. The significance of iron during pregnancy cannot be overstated; it is the mineral that powers both you and your baby's future.

In this article, we will discuss the vital role of iron during pregnancy – from understanding the nutritional needs to discovering the various iron-rich food sources.

MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: The information included in this material is for informational purposes only. Always seek medical advice for any concerns about health and nutrition.

What is the nutrient iron?

Iron is a vital mineral that plays a fundamental role in the human body. It is an essential component of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells. Hemoglobin's primary function is to bind with oxygen in the lungs and transport it to cells, tissues, and organs throughout the body. Iron is also a crucial component of myoglobin, a protein found in muscles that store oxygen for muscle use.

Why is iron important for pregnant women?

Iron takes on heightened significance during pregnancy. As pregnancy progresses, a woman's blood volume increases to support the developing fetus. Iron is crucial for ensuring that both the mother and the baby receive an adequate oxygen supply. 

During pregnancy, the amount of blood in a woman’s body increases by 50%. Iron deficiency during pregnancy can lead to anemia. Anemia is a condition characterized by a low red blood cell count or insufficient hemoglobin to transport oxygen effectively. During pregnancy, anemia can occur due to a lack of iron or other essential nutrients such as folic acid or vitamin B12. Anemia can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, paleness, and shortness of breath.

Recommended amounts of iron for pregnant women

The recommended daily intake of iron varies depending on the stage of pregnancy and individual factors. 

One glance at a mother’s records provides information about the mother’s iron supply. What counts is the hemoglobin level, the content of red blood pigment. If the level is higher than 12g%, the iron supply is good. A level below 12 g% is considered critical.

Throughout a pregnancy, the iron requirement will double. According to PDRI, pregnant women are advised to consume approximately 38 milligrams (mg) of iron per day. After pregnancy, iron requirements may return to pre-pregnancy levels for most women. However, it's essential to consult a doctor to determine the specific iron needs based on individual circumstances.

While iron is essential, excessive intake can lead to iron toxicity, a condition known as hemochromatosis (a genetic disorder causing excessive absorption of iron in the body, potentially leading to organ damage). Taking iron supplements without professional guidance can result in adverse effects.

Best food sources for iron

A well-balanced diet is key to meeting your iron needs during pregnancy. Here are some of the best food sources of iron:

Iron is not always iron. It is contained in vegetable and animal-source foods. The body can cope better with animal source iron, as iron from non-meat sources is more difficult to absorb. That is why vegetarians often have problems with their iron supply. But there are ways and means to boost your iron level. 

The best food sources of iron that are particularly beneficial during pregnancy include:

  • Lean Red Meat: Beef and lean cuts of pork are excellent sources of heme iron, which is highly absorbable by the body.

  • Poultry: Chicken and turkey are also good sources of heme iron.

  • Fish & Seafood: Clams, scallops, and mackerel provide not only iron but also essential omega-3 fatty acids for fetal development.

  • Vegetables: Dark, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are packed with iron and other essential vitamins and minerals.

  • Beans and other foods: Lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and kidney beans are rich in iron, fiber, and protein, making them ideal for pregnant women. Almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are iron-rich options that can be incorporated into your diet. Tofu is a plant-based source of iron and protein that can be included in various dishes.

  • Bread and Fortified Cereals: White bread, oat cereal, and rye bread are fortified with iron and other essential nutrients, making them a convenient option.

  • Fruits: Prunes, apricots, and raisins are good sources of iron, and they make for convenient, nutrient-dense snacks.

During pregnancy, it's important to maintain a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of iron-rich foods to meet both your and your baby's nutritional needs. 

Should you supplement iron?

Whether or not you should take iron supplements during pregnancy depends on your circumstances. Your doctor will assess your iron levels through blood tests and make recommendations based on your specific needs. 

If you have a diagnosed iron deficiency or are at high risk of developing one, it's essential to consult with your doctor before starting any supplements to ensure they are safe and appropriate for your situation.

Frequently asked questions on iron during pregnancy:

What foods are rich in iron?

Whether you prefer animal-based or plant-based options, there's a wide variety of iron-rich foods to choose from during pregnancy. Lean meats like beef, pork, and poultry provide heme iron, which is highly absorbable. Seafood such as mackerel and tuna not only delivers heme iron but also essential omega-3 fatty acids. For those following a vegetarian or vegan diet, legumes like beans, lentils, and chickpeas are excellent sources of iron, alongside their high fiber and protein content. 

Tofu is a versatile plant-based choice that readily takes on flavors. Dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are rich in non-heme iron, along with a range of essential vitamins and minerals. Additionally, fortified cereals can be a convenient way to boost iron intake – just be sure to check the labels for the right nutritional balance.

Should you take iron supplements in pregnancy?

While a well-balanced diet can often provide the necessary iron intake, some pregnant women may require supplementation to meet their increased iron needs.

But, taking iron supplements without professional guidance can lead to adverse effects, so it's essential to follow your doctor’s advice.

What happens if you have low iron in pregnancy?

Low iron levels during pregnancy can lead to a condition known as iron deficiency anemia. Anemia occurs when there is a reduced number of red blood cells or insufficient hemoglobin to carry an adequate amount of oxygen to your body's tissues and organs. When this happens during pregnancy, it can have several significant consequences such as fatigue, dizziness, fainting, headaches, pale skin, postpartum anemia and among others. 

What causes iron deficiency anemia?

Iron deficiency anemia can arise during pregnancy due to a combination of factors. Women with heavy menstrual periods before pregnancy may already have depleted iron stores, increasing their vulnerability to anemia. Moreover, conditions affecting iron metabolism, such as celiac disease or prior gastrointestinal surgery, can further complicate iron absorption. Identifying and addressing these underlying causes is crucial for the prevention and management of iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy.


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[3] American Red Cross (2019). Iron-Rich Foods. [online] Available at: Accessed 10 Oct 2023

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[5] Mayo Clinic (2022). Anemia - symptoms and causes. [online] Mayo Clinic. Available at: Accessed 10 Oct 2023

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[9] Recommended Energy Intakes per day Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges. (n.d.). Available at:


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