March 2020
In this issue: Why Choose Iron-Rich Foods?
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Why Choose Iron-Rich Foods?

Eating well-balanced meals based on Canada’s Food Guide and listening to your own hunger (and fullness) cues will help keep you and your unborn baby healthy. But some nutrients, like iron, are harder to get in the amount that your changing body and growing baby need! Keep reading to learn why iron is important, how much iron is needed during pregnancy and how to get more iron from your food (even if you choose not to eat meat).

Why is iron important?

Iron is needed to make the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in red blood cells. Since a mom-to-be’s blood volume increases by 40-50% in pregnancy, your body needs to make even more red blood cells and hemoglobin than usual. 

You will also be giving iron to your unborn baby to store during the third trimester. This stored iron is important for your baby’s brain development during the first months of life.
How to increase your baby’s iron stores during birth:

After your baby is born there is still a lot of blood in the placenta and umbilical cord. The World Health Organization recommends waiting for at least one minute after birth before clamping and cutting the cord, and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada recommends waiting at least 30-60 seconds. Waiting to clamp the cord allows more blood (and iron) to pump into your baby, which increases your baby’s iron stores for the first months of life. It is (usually) possible to delay cord clamping even if your baby is born by c-section or is premature. In fact, preemies may benefit most from this extra surge of iron-rich blood. Talk to your healthcare provider about delayed cord clamping.

How much Iron do you need?

Pregnant women need 27 mg of iron per day. This is very hard to do with food alone, so it is recommended that you take a prenatal vitamin with 16-20 mg of iron each day, in addition to the iron you get from the foods you eat. If you are worried that you might not be getting enough iron or that you have iron deficiency anemia, speak with your healthcare provider. They will tell you if you should be taking an iron supplement, including the type and amount of iron supplement that is right for you.        

What foods have Iron?

Iron is found in many plant and animal foods. Foods that are considered ‘iron-rich’ include:
  • Meat, fish, poultry
  • Eggs
  • Whole- and enriched-grains, such as bread and cereals
  • Dried beans, peas, and lentils (cooked or canned)
Visit HealthLinkBC for a helpful list of common foods that are rich in iron.

People who choose to follow vegetarian or vegan eating patterns need to eat almost twice as many milligrams of iron each day compared to people who eat meat. This is because our bodies absorb iron from animal-based foods more easily than from plant-based foods. With proper planning, it’s possible for plant-based foods to provide the iron (and other important nutrients) needed for a healthy pregnancy. Dietitians of Canada give tips for balanced eating when following vegetarian or vegan eating patterns. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether a prenatal iron supplement may also be helpful.     

How can you get more iron from food?

We asked our very own dietitian to share some strategies for increasing the amount of iron in your meals, as well as how to help your body absorb iron better. This is what she had to say:

1.    Cook with more beans, peas, and lentils. Canada’s Food Guide actually even recommends choosing protein foods that come from plants more often. Get started with some bean and lentil recipes.

2.    Eat plant sources of iron with a source of Vitamin C to increase the amount of iron your body absorbs.  
•    Add freshly squeezed lemon or lime to cooked spinach, or kale chips.
•    Sprinkle a few strawberries on your salad or in your whole-grain cereal.  
•    Drink a glass of orange juice with your prenatal vitamin or iron-rich foods.  
3.    Eat plant sources of iron with an animal source of iron. Our bodies have an easier time absorbing the iron from plant sources when eaten with an animal source of iron. Add some chicken to a spinach salad or whole grain pasta meal!

4.    Add nuts and seeds to snacks and meals.  

5.    Choose whole grains (not to be confused with ‘whole wheat’) over enriched grain products more often.  

6.    Cook foods in cast iron cookware or add a Lucky Iron Fish to whatever you are simmering to add some natural iron to your food. Just be sure to include a source of Vitamin C (e.g. 2-3 drops of lemon or lime juice, tomatoes, bell peppers) during the cooking process.

No matter whether you are ‘omnivore to the core’, following vegetarian or vegan eating patterns, or choose to be ‘flexitarian’ (someone who eats mostly plant-based foods without the full-time commitment to vegetarian eating), it’s important to choose your food wisely to get the iron you need for a healthy pregnancy. A few simple changes to what and how you eat may help boost your iron intake—and benefit your baby in the uterus and beyond!      

Your child's developmental milestones:

Want more stage and age-specific information? Visit our website to read about your child's development and get more activities and healthy living tips:
1st trimester | 2nd trimester | 3rd trimester | Newborn

Learn more:

  • Want to learn more about pregnancy? Public Health has a FREE Online Prenatal Program.
  • Planning to give birth at the Guelph General Hospital (GGH) or Headwaters Health Care Centre (HHCC)? Birthing unit tours and information sessions are available. For more information, go to GGH and HHCC
  • Enjoying this monthly e-newsletter? Subscribe to Public Health's Let's Talk Parenting e-Newsletter to get reliable, local parenting information directly to your inbox.
  • Not sure how you will pay for dental care for your children? Public Health has free dental clinics for kids ages 0 to 17.
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