The common clinical wisdom says that a pregnant woman needs roughly around twice the amount of iron as they do when they are attempting to conceive. This is related to the amount of iron the female body uses to produce extra blood for a developing fetus. Past research found that roughly 50% of pregnant women don’t consume enough iron in their diet.
Common iron-rich foods include:
- 3 oz of beef liver which provides 5.2 mg of Iron
- 3oz of chicken liver which provides 11 mg of Iron
- Iron-fortified instant oatmeal which provides 11 mg of Iron
- Iron-fortified ready-to-eat cereal which provides 18 mg of Iron
- Half a Cup of raisins which provides 1.6 mg of Iron
- 1 Cup of Kidney beans which provides 5.2 mg of Iron
- 1 Cup of Lentils provides 6.6 mg of Iron
- 1 Cup of Lima beans which provides 4.5 mg of Iron
- 3 oz of canned oysters provides 5.7 mg of Iron
- 1 Cup of soybeans which provides 8.8 mg of Iron
How Does The Human Body Use Iron?
On a functional level, the human body uses iron to produce extra blood, which includes the hemoglobin necessary to transport oxygen through the bloodstream. For a pregnant woman, it also plays a critical role in transporting oxygen and producing blood for the developing fetus.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that sufficient iron levels in the blood can help prevent, or limit symptoms of anemia. This condition is typically the result of too few red blood cells, which causes tiredness, and other potential health complications. A pregnant woman with untreated anemia can be at increased risk for having a baby too early, or with low birth weight.
Should I Take A Prenatal Iron Supplement?
The Centers For Disease Control recommend taking a low-dose iron supplements of 30 mg per day, starting with your first prenatal appointment. Quality prenatal vitamins typically have this much iron in them, as well as other key nutrients which have been formulated to boost maternal health and fetal development.
After the baby is born, the CDC further recommends consuming at least 9 mg of iron per day if you are breastfeeding. They also note that breastfeeding mothers under the age of 18 need 10 mg of iron.
There Are Two Different Types Of Iron Derived From Food
There are two different forms of iron found in the foods you eat. Heme iron, which you typically find in meats like beef, chicken, turkey, and pork, is the type your body absorbs best. Non-heme iron is more commonly found in vegetables such as beans, spinach, tofu, and certain iron-fortified cereals.
Can Increased Iron Levels Improve Fertility?
While the benefits of iron for pregnant women is well known, the same can not be said for women who are trying to conceive. In fact, research conducted by Boston University’s School of Public Health found there is no consistent association between consuming iron and improving female fertility.
The researchers published the study in The Journal of Nutrition, where they stated that heme iron, which is most often found in meat, has no effect on the time it takes a woman to conceive. At the same time, they also found that non-heme iron, which is mainly found in vegetables and dietary supplements, can have a modest impact for women who may be iron-deficient due to heavy menses.
This information suggests that if you do have low iron levels and you are attempting to get pregnant in the near future, you may want to increase your intake of nonheme iron from plant-based foods. This includes things like soybeans, tofu kidney beans, lima beans, and iron-fortified cereals.
Of course, this should be in addition to a preconception multivitamin, which also includes folic acid, which also provides significant fertility and prenatal benefits. This diet and supplementation strategy is especially important if you have a history of extremely heavy menstrual cycles. If you are unsure of your iron levels, you should have them checked by your healthcare provider.
In the Boston University study, the researchers closely analyzed data from two other prospectively studies of women who were trying to conceive. This includes 2,969 from North America, as well as a Boston University-based study and 1,693 Danish women.
In both of these studies, the participants completed an extensive questionnaire every eight weeks for one full calendar year or until they conceived. Part of the process included estimating heme and non-heme iron intake which was gathered from nutritional questions in each questionnaire. This included iron intake from foods, as well as from dietary supplement use.
The final data analysis found that there was no association between a female’s intake of heme iron from food or supplements and the number of cycles it took to successfully conceive. Yet consuming increased amounts of non-heme iron, from both food and dietary supplements did show a slight increase in the chances of pregnancy for women who had previously given birth.
It’s also worth noting that in the Danish study the researchers found that non-heme iron intake was also related to a slightly increased chance of conception in women who had heavy menses or who also tended to experience shorter than average menstrual cycles.
Maintaining A Balanced Diet Helps Maintain Good Health
While the Boston University study seems to reduce the importance of iron intake in the diets of aspiring mothers, it’s still worth bearing in mind that good overall health is also an important part of being healthy. A healthy woman is more likely to conceive than one who has significant nutrient deficiencies.
If you have previously given birth, have a history of heavy menses, or short menstrual cycles, increasing your consumption of plant-based foods that are rich in nonheme iron, can help improve your chances of conceiving. Having your iron levels checked by your physician, or fertility specialists might just be a good first step toward successful conception.