Plant-Based Iron in Pregnancy

Iron has long been considered an important nutrient for glowing skin, shiny hair and strong nails. According to this 2014 study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology, iron is also essential to help damaged skin and wounds heal properly. 

A sallow, pale, unhealthy complexion and dark circles beneath the eyes can sometimes be the first visible signs of anemia caused by iron deficiency. There are some other physical symptoms as well which I'll discuss a little bit later on. 

Iron is equally crucial for strengthening our hair and nails. This European Journal of Dermatology study reveals that we might be likely to experience hair loss if we're not getting adequate iron intake throughout each day. 

IMPORTANCE OF IRON IN PREGNANCY

Iron is an especially key nutrient throughout a healthy pregnancy. Did you know that we ideally need almost double the amount of iron whilst pregnant? Iron not only supports baby's developing brain, it also assists in maintaining a healthy supply of oxygen to our blood. Equally important is its ability to support baby's immune system and help to maintain our own health and wellbeing throughout those all important nine months. 

Being low or deficient in iron can make us feel weak and tired. A serious deficiency might lead to anemia, which increases the risk of premature birth, having a low birth weight baby or postpartum depression.

Whilst the following symptoms are far from conclusive, they might point to low iron reserves in pregnancy. If you're experiencing two or more of these and you're concerned, it would be good to speak with your midwife:

  • Extreme tiredness
  • A feeling of weakness
  • Yellowing or very pale skin
  • Trouble breathing with shortness of breath
  • An irregular heartbeat
  • Feeling lightheaded, dizzy or experiencing headaches
  • Numbness or very cold hands or feet

It's difficult to say that these signs point for certain towards anemia, because we might experience many of them as general symptoms of pregnancy. But a simple blood test will be able to confirm or eliminate iron deficiency as an issue. 

RECOMMENDED IRON INTAKE IN PREGNANCY

The recommended iron intake throughout pregnancy is 27 mg per day - compared to 18 mg for non-expectant women.

SUPPLEMENTS

Preconception and pregnancy vitamins typically contain supplemental iron as standard. My recommended brands are Wild Nutrition or Viridian. You might also like to reach out to Jo at Amaranth Health Shop who can offer a consultation with bespoke advice for your pregnancy. 

DIETARY IRON

Good nutrition alone can prevent anemia in pregnancy. There are two types of iron in foods we need to consider: heme iron and non-heme iron.

In a non-vegan diet, heme iron sources include red meat, poultry and fish. These are more readily absorbed by the body. 

Making sure you get adequate iron without supplementation whilst thriving on a vegan diet is entirely possible, it just might involve a little more meal planning and forethought. 

There are some excellent plant-based sources of non-heme iron, and whilst these might not be as readily absorbed, combining them with a good intake of vitamin C can really help. Good, plant-based, dietary sources include:

DRIED FRUIT

  • 4 dried apricots (30g) = 1mg
  • 3 dried figs (30g) = 1mg
  • Raisins 1 heaped tbsp (30g) = 1mg

NUTS

  • Handful of cashew nuts (30g) = 2mg
  • Handful of hazelnuts (30g) = 1mg
  • Handful of almonds (30g) = 1mg

SEEDS

  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds = 0.7mg
  • 1 tbsp pumpkin seeds = 1.0mg
  • 1 tbsp chia seeds = 1.0mg

BEANS AND PULSES

  • 100g chickpeas = 1.5mg
  • 100g red lentils = 2.5mg
  • 100g butter beans = 1.5mg

GREENS

  • 80g kale = 1.6mg
  • 80g spinach = 1.5mg
  • 80g peas = 1.5mg

GRAINS

  • 125g oats = 5mg
  • 125g quinoa = 2.5mg
  • 125g amaranth = 2.5mg

OTHER

  • 1 tbsp blackstrap molasses = 1mg
  • 30g dark chocolate = 3.5mg

Whilst the levels of iron in some of these foods might look a little low individually, it's certainly possible to achieve a 27 mg daily target by carefully meal planning to include lots of nutrient filled, iron-rich, plant-based foods. 

An example of my vegan daily meal plan containing lots of iron-rich foods might look like this.

Breakfast

  • Bowl of muesli or porridge oats (5mg) with almond milk (0.5mg)
  • Topped with: almonds (1mg), chia seeds (1mg), pumpkin seeds (1mg), dried apricots (1mg), raisins (1mg) and molasses (1mg)
  • TOTAL: 11.5mg

Lunch

  • Spinach (1.5mg) and hummus (1.5mg) wraps
  • TOTAL 3mg

Dinner

  • Bean (1.5mg) and lentil (2.5mg) stew with quinoa (2.5mg)
  • TOTAL: 6.5mg

Snacks

  • Dark chocolate (3.5mg)
  • Rice cakes with almond butter (2mg)
  • 3 dried figs (1mg)
  • TOTAL: 6.5mg

DAILY TOTAL: 27.5mg

If you have any concerns about ensuring your iron levels are adequate through pregnancy, it's important to work with a dietician who can help you meal plan. 

 

FURTHER TIPS ON IRON ABSORPTION

  • Try to avoid foods and drinks that block iron absorption. These include coffee, tea, eggs and dairy
  • Combine iron-rich ingredients with foods high in vitamin C. Ingredients such as can help to improve absorption
  • Combine iron-rich ingredients with foods high in beta carotene. Apricots, carrots and beets can also help to improve absorption
  • Include folate rich foods and supplement with vitamin B-12. These are both important to support red blood cell production

 

FURTHER READING 

Study of iron in wound healing -  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4091310/

Study of low iron and hair loss - https://www.jle.com/en/revues/ejd/e-docs/low_iron_stores_a_risk_factor_for_excessive_hair_loss_in_non_menopausal_women_276122/article.phtml

1 comment

Great article, Hanna! Love it!

Dennis October 04, 2021

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