Are You Getting Enough Iron?

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on June 09, 2023
4 min read

When you're pregnant, you need about twice the amount of iron as you did before you were expecting because your body uses iron to make extra blood for your baby. And yet, about 50% of pregnant women don't get enough of this important mineral. Eating iron-rich foods and taking extra iron as your doctor recommends can help keep your iron level in check.

What Are the Benefits of Iron?

Your body uses iron to make extra blood (hemoglobin) for you and your baby during pregnancy. Iron also helps move oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body -- and to your baby's.

Getting enough iron can prevent a condition of too few red blood cells that can make you feel tired, called iron deficiency anemia. Having anemia can cause your baby to be born too small or too early.

When Should I Start Taking Iron?

According to the CDC, you should start taking a low-dose iron supplement (30 mg a day) when you have your first prenatal appointment. In most cases, you will get this amount of iron in your prenatal vitamin.

How Much Iron Should I Take?

You'll need at least 27 milligrams (mg) of iron every day during your pregnancy. While you're breastfeeding, get at least 9 mg of iron every day if you're 19 or older. Breastfeeding moms 18 and younger need 10 mg of iron.

What Foods Are High in Iron?

You can find iron in meat, poultry, and plant-based foods as well as in supplements. There are two types of iron in foods.

  • Heme iron is the type your body absorbs best. You get heme iron in beef, chicken, turkey, and pork.
  • Nonheme iron is the other type, which you can find in beans, spinach, tofu, and ready-to-eat-cereals that have added iron.

Some iron-rich foods include:

  • Chicken liver (3 ounces) -- 11 mg
  • Iron-fortified instant oatmeal -- 11 mg
  • Iron-fortified ready-to-eat cereal -- 18 mg
  • Raisins (half a cup) -- 1.6 mg
  • Kidney beans (1 cup) -- 5.2 mg
  • Lentils (1 cup) -- 6.6 mg
  • Lima beans (1 cup) -- 4.5 mg
  • Oysters (3 ounces, canned) -- 5.7 mg
  • Soybeans (1 cup) -- 8.8 mg

Beef and chicken liver are full of iron but are not recommended during pregnancy.

Getting enough iron from food when you're pregnant can be difficult, even if you're carefully trying to add iron to your diet. This is especially true if you're a vegetarian or vegan because you don't eat iron-rich meats or poultry. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are a vegetarian so they can watch your iron and hemoglobin levels more carefully.

What to Eat -- or Not -- With Iron-Rich Foods

At the same time you eat foods that are high in iron, have them with foods that contain vitamin C, such as tomatoes and oranges. Vitamin C helps your body absorb nonheme iron better when you eat both at the same meal.

On the other hand, certain drinks and foods prevent your body from absorbing iron. These include coffee, tea, milk, whole grains, and dairy products. Try not to eat these foods at the same meal when you're eating foods high in iron. For example, instead of having coffee or tea with your breakfast cereal, have a glass of orange juice.

Do I Need Iron Supplements?

Taking an iron supplement can help ensure you get enough iron every day. In most cases, you will get enough iron in your prenatal vitamin since many types contain the recommended amount of iron. Your doctor will check your iron levels periodically depending on your test results and if you are a vegetarian.) If your iron level is low, you may need to take an extra iron supplement.

What Are the Side Effects of Iron Supplements?

You need at least 27 mg of iron, but try not to get more than 45 mg each day during your pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Be sure to take iron supplements exactly as your doctor recommends.

Iron supplements may cause nausea, vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea. Sometimes your body adjusts to the extra iron on its own in a few days. Drinking plenty of water and eating foods high in fiber may also help with constipation. But if you still have side effects, try taking the supplements with food or in two doses. Or ask your doctor if it's safe to take a stool softener.