Iron Needs in Pregnancy and Beyond

Yellow split peas iron rich for vegan pregnancy spilling out of jar

Iron Needs in Pregnancy and Beyond

Img from PDP Pics via Pixabay

What is iron and why do we need it

Iron is a mineral that our bodies use for energy and growth. Our bodies can’t make iron and so we rely on food sources to meet our needs. 

Iron is used by our bodies to make red blood cells; these transport oxygen around the body to our tissues and organs. If we don’t get enough iron, we can be at risk of iron deficiency anaemia – this can affect our immune systems and leave us feeling tired, short of breath or even having heart palpitations as the body tries to compensate for the lack of available oxygen to our cells. 

Iron needs in pregnancy

In pregnancy, iron is particularly important; you’re not only building a whole new human but also a whole new organ: the placenta. You need oxygen to get to your cells to give them the energy to do this effectively.

Iron-deficiency anaemia is usually caused by a low intake of iron in pregnancy and has been linked to an increased risk of premature birth, low birth weight infants and postnatal depression. This is why your blood is tested regularly by your midwife or maternity team.

Current UK guidelines for Iron requirements in pregnancy are: 14.8mg / day. This is actually the same as for non-pregnant women, pre-menopause, as our gut adapts to naturally increase our uptake of iron when we’re pregnant. It is perfectly possible to meet our iron needs with diet during pregnancy, but those following a vegan or vegetarian diet can be at increased risk of iron deficiency anaemia and need to plan their diets accordingly.

Iron needs postpartum and breastfeeding

Iron needs postpartum remain the same, though it would be worth paying attention to iron intake to ensure that you’re meeting requirements after birth, where we can (understandably!) sometimes lose track of how we’re eating and also need to make up for any losses.

child breastfeeding

img from Manojiit Tamen from Pixabay 

For breastfeeding mothers, again iron requirements remain the same and interestingly an increase in dietary iron hasn’t been shown to correlate with an increase in iron in breast milk. Baby will have enough iron stores to see them through to around 6 months old, when they start to wean and require additional iron intake.

Iron needs in family life

From weaning onwards, it’s important to ensure that your family (that includes you!) is consuming adequate iron. Unless you have allergies and intolerances to adapt to, this doesn’t mean having to make extra or special meals. You can all eat the same foods, just paying attention to appropriate portion sizes and appropriate textures and ensuring no added sugar and salt for those under 1 year old. 

vegan iron-rich chilli in a yellow bowl

Img from Varun Kulkarni on Pixabay

Plant-based sources of iron suitable for pregnancy and onwards:

It can be difficult to meet your iron needs in pregnancy if you’re following a vegan or plant-based diet. However, with a little planning it can become second-nature to make sure you’re getting what you need. 

Plant-based sources of iron contain a type of iron called non-haem iron – this is slightly harder for the body to process than haem-iron, which is contained in animal products, and so you’d need to eat slightly larger amounts of plant-based sources of iron to get the same amount. 

Consuming food rich in vitamin C can also help the body to absorb this type of iron, so having a glass of orange juice, a tomato-based sauce or some fruit can also help to increase uptake.

Here’s a quick list of vegan iron-rich foods that are suitable for pregnancy:

– Beans, lentils, chickpeas and other legumes and pulses (yes, this includes baked beans!)

– Dried apricots, dried dates

– Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli, kale

– Nuts and seeds

– Tofu

– Fortified foods like breakfast cereals, bread (check the label) 

Easy vegetarian and vegan iron-rich meal ideas for pregnancy and onwards:

Vegan red lentil dahl with a side of green veg I love Mowgli’s Temple Dahl
Delicious vegan chickpea and sweet potato curry from Jack Monroe
Beans on toast with tomatoes and a poached egg
Vegan Tofu stir-fry with broccoli and egg noodles
Vegetarian chilli with brown rice – try this one from BBC GF
Alison Roman’s amazing chickpea stew (if you have more time!)
Omelette and a salad with leafy greens and hummus
Lentil and red pepper soup

Other sources of iron suitable for pregnancy and onwards

Other, non-plant-based, sources of iron from include:

– Red or white meat, red meat like beef has more available iron
– Fish and shellfish (ensure following pregnancy guidelines for fish and shellfish here if pregnant)
– Eggs

The Takeaway

Iron is important throughout all life stages and especially from pregnancy onwards. By including a wide variety of iron sources in your day-to-day diet you should be able to get enough without needing to supplement.

If you are found to be iron-deficient, your GP may prescribe iron tablets, remember to let them know if you’re not tolerating them well as they are able to offer alternatives.

Postpartum and onwards into weaning and family life, iron is important for the growth of your family, your health and maintaining energy levels and mood – amongst other things.

If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet or have substantially reduced your intake of animal foods, then you need to ensure that your diet contains adequate amounts of iron from plant-based sources. These need to be consumed regularly and in larger amounts than animal products that are rich in iron. 

Why not make a list of your favourite vegan iron-rich meals and planning out your weekly meals? 

As always, please note that this information isn’t meant to replace any information or advice that’s been given to you by your GP, dietitian or medical team. If you’ve got any concerns at all about your or your family’s iron intake, speak to your GP in the first instance.

Iron FAQs: 

Here’s a few questions that I’ve been asked a lot about iron – 

Is beetroot high in iron? 

Beetroot is a source of iron, though it isn’t a great source. You’d have to eat a lot of it to get the iron you’d need. By all means, add some into your diet if you enjoy it, but the foods I’ve above are much better sources of iron. 

Which fruit is highest in iron? 

Fresh, tinned or frozen fruit isn’t a particularly good source of iron – dried fruit like apricots and dates can be good sources of iron as they’re more concentrated. Think about eating 5 fresh apricots vs 5 dried ones, gram for gram it’s much less food!

How can I increase my iron naturally? 

You can increase your iron naturally by increasing your intake of iron-rich foods, your absorptions of the type of iron contained in vegan iron-rich foods can be increased by consuming foods rich in vitamin C at the same time – like orange juice, tomato-based sauces. 

If you’ve been prescribed iron supplements by your doctor, you must follow their advice as it’s important to get what you need as quickly as possible and food alone can’t do this as fast as a supplement. 

Is paneer rich in iron? 

In short, no – paneer is not a good source of iron. Check out my list of vegetarian iron-rich foods above for more information. 

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