pregnant woman cooking broccoli, pregnancy and anemia

Photo: Martin Novak/Shutterstock

As I said in my post on what not to eat when you are pregnant, it is not true that you are eating for two.

Yes, your calorific needs do increase somewhat — by about 300 calories a day — but you should be careful about not overestimating the amount of food your pregnant body really needs.

However, there are certain nutrients that you need in abundance for nurturing a healthy pregnancy, and of these, iron is among the most important. Iron needs increase from 8 mg/day to 27mg/day when pregnant, fueled in part by a 50 percent increase in blood volume. Quite simply, your body needs all that extra iron to make enough hemoglobin for you and your baby.

As someone who was diagnosed with iron-deficient anemia during my first pregnancy, I know firsthand how a lack of iron can affect your health. It makes you feel tired and weak, causes shortness of breath, and reduces your ability to concentrate. Worse than that, if hemoglobin levels are not restored sufficiently by the end of the pregnancy, there may be risk of low birth weight, a stillborn, and it may cause excessive blood loss for mom during birth. (Our local birth center will not deliver babies if the mother is severely anemic, referring them instead to the hospital because of the increased risk.) Anemia also has been linked to postpartum depression.

Anemia during pregnancy is usually diagnosed if hemoglobin levels drop below 12g/dL, at which point it becomes crucial to restore those levels through iron-rich foods and/or taking a supplement. In severe cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary.

Eat iron-rich foods

As with many things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Regardless of whether you’ve been diagnosed with anemia, you can take the following steps to keep hemoglobin levels up and avoid complications from developing.

The following foods will help to increase your body's iron stores, so make them a regular part of a healthy, balanced diet:

  • Meats and poultry
  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Fortified cereals, breads, pastas and oatmeal
  • Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, collards or chard
  • Dried fruit
  • Other veggies like broccoli, beets and Brussels sprouts
Vitamin C can help with the absorption of iron, so try combining these iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C — for example orange juice or steamed broccoli. Meanwhile avoid calcium-rich foods at the same meals, as these can hinder your body’s uptake of iron.

Take supplements

Prenatal supplements usually contain a good dose of iron, so if you’re otherwise healthy and do not have specific concerns around anemia, a regular prenatal supplement should be sufficient. Consider taking extra iron supplements if you have been diagnosed with anemia before, have severe morning sickness, or are expecting multiples.

Keep in mind that many iron supplements can be constipating. Chelated iron supplements are often easier to absorb and do not cause constipation.

Herbal remedies

Nettles are a safe, iron-rich herbal remedy for use during pregnancy. They can be taken as a tea, and may also be available in pill form from your local health food store. If you can find the plant in your locality, try using it as a spinach-like green in your general cooking.

It’s easy to get too carried away with what you should and shouldn’t be eating during pregnancy. For the most part, pursuing a healthy, balanced diet should ensure your body gets all the nutrients it needs. However, iron is one of those nutrients that may need a little extra effort. The consequences of anemia or iron deficiency during pregnancy are unpleasant at best, and could be genuinely harmful if left unattended.

As with all serious health issues, it’s important to consult with a medical professional and/or registered dietitian before making any major diet or lifestyle changes during pregnancy.

Jenni Grover, MS RD LDN, is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.

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