What can pregnant vegetarians eat to boost their iron levels?

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MMMMM lentils! Photo by Maggie Hoffman, used under Creative Commons license.
I am about eighteen weeks pregnant, and I’ve had low iron since my iron was first checked at 12 weeks. Today, it checked out even lower, despite taking a daily supplement for over a month now, and I do feel quite run down. Normally, iron-deficiency anemia doesn’t pop up until the 20th week or so, so I definitely have an early start, and I’d really like to get this under control.

The catch is, I really don’t like to eat meat, and it appears the very best sources — in terms of easy absorption — are meat, fish, and poultry. I just bought lentils, quinoa, kidney beans, and spinach, and I am going to dig up some recipes (and I know to combine them with vitamin C). I really wonder if this will suffice — or do I need meat?

I am not technically a vegetarian in that I don’t identify as such and will eat humanely raised, antibiotic-free chicken, but I just really do not enjoy chewing flesh (not even really the chicken). At the same time, I know that, in evolutionary terms, we have been meat-eaters far longer than we have eaten agricultural products like beans, grains, leafy greens, etc. So it makes sense to me that the pregnant body might genuinely need some meat.

I am curious to hear: how did other offbeat mamas out there who eat little or no meat have worked to boost their iron levels in pregnancy? — Mary

Vegetarian and vegan mamas: what foods do you recommend to help keep your iron levels up while pregnant?

Comments on What can pregnant vegetarians eat to boost their iron levels?

  1. Most obviously, take a multi-vitamin with iron in it.
    More deliciously, load up on your favorite iron-rich foods. Whatever they may be. I did a lot of lentils, cereals (i was so sick that some days dry cereal was all I could stomach). Google recipes for them. All-recipes.com can give you all sites of fun new ways to eat some of your favorite iron-clad foods.

    • A multi-vitamin with iron is actually not a good choice. A lot of vitamins conflict with each other for absorption, but iron especially. It’s best to take it as a separate supplement. The most commonly found form is iron-sulfate, and it’s the cheapest, but your body isn’t really able to use it. Ferroglycine sulfate is a much more bio-available form.

      • Thanks to you both! Yes, I have iron in my prenatal multi, and it clearly wasn’t doing the trick. Then, I did start taking a special iron supplement, and my iron got worse! I think some of this was that I was taking it in the morning with my cereal and milk! Somebody below mentioned the calcium interference and I just figured that out. I have been trying to keep not only the iron supplement, but also iron-rich foods, separate from calcium. Of course, now I wonder about my calcium intake! 🙂

        • Mary, sometimes taking supplements isn’t enough. I was totally grossed out by meat when pregnant, and have a tendency toward anemia. Even with supplements, by the last 2 months of my pregnancy I had an intravenous iron injection once a week. Sometimes these little buggers Literally suck the life out of you!

  2. Molasses! My mom ate a lot of it when she was pregnant with me, and then when my iron levels were still low as an infant, she’d mix it in with my milk.
    To this day, I still love the taste of blackstrap 🙂

    • This! During my pregnancy my iron levels were a little low so my Midwife advised me to eat a lot of blackstrap molasses, it is great for iron. Plus brown beans and molasses are easy, can come in canned form and are delicious as well as being full of iron!

  3. We have been battling severe anemia with our 20 month old. Dried fruit is great, especially if taken with vitamin C. Also, it helps to stay away from grains and dairy, when taking the iron enriched foods, because it will bond to the dairy/grains better than it will to your blood.
    What really did it for us are what we call the Magic cookies. They are called WhoNu and they have several different types all loaded with essential vitamins and minerals. They are $3.49 a pack and can be found at many grocery stores. Our Daughter loves the soft and chewy, they taste like chips ahoy. Three of these has enough iron to be equivalent to a cup of spinach.
    http://www.whonucookies.com/

  4. Just wanted to say – if you need to eat meat, don’t feel guilty about it. I stayed vegetarian with my first until about week 12, at which point I couldn’t take it anymore. I still tell the story of eating pastrami straight out of the package in the grocery store parking lot because I literally couldn’t wait to get home. It was very easy for me to go back to being vegetarian after she was born.

    Not everyone has this experience, and there are a lot of ways to get iron. Oh, but if you increase iron by increasing your vitamins, add a Colace or something similar to your nighttime routine, or it might feel like you might never poop again (sorry for the TMI).

    • My husband still tells (with horror) the story of my walking into the house and ripping apart a rotisserie chicken that was sitting on the counter with my bare hands.

      I haven’t been as good about giving it back up. I’ve had to seriously cut back on my dairy consumption while breastfeeding and I find myself still craving chicken.

    • Yeah, this is one reason I have resisted my doc’s advice to double up the iron supplement (also because my iron went DOWN when I started taking the first dose! — I think this was in part because I was taking it with my cereal and milk, though.)

  5. I had the same problems with iron, and after about 20 weeks, the cravings for red meat were not ignorable anymore, for me. It definitely wasn’t my ideal, and it sounds like it wouldn’t be yours either, so I hope that’s not what happens.

    Dried fruits, especially apricots and raisins, are rich in iron, as well as almonds (delicious almond butter!) and oatmeal.

    Cream of Wheat is heavily iron fortified, so a bowl of that with raisins and molasses is a great way to get some absorbable iron. Good luck! And congratulations!

  6. You know that Vitamin C helps with iron absorption, do you know that Calcium can impede absorption?

    • This was the main thing I wanted to point out. The human body isn’t really made to get its iron from plants so if that is what you’re relying on make sure you’re getting lots of Vitamin C. But be careful, because some juices and such are fortified with Calcium, which will block your body from absorbing the iron.

    • Thank you! I had read this in the last week since I first sent in my question, and I’ve been trying to eat vitamin C whenever I have plant-based iron. It helps that pregnancy seems to give me insatiable cravings for pineapple! I hadn’t realize that helping plant-based iron such a challenge though.

  7. Greens, greens, greens! In salads and smoothies and brased with tomatoes in cast iron. You can take Alfalfa as a supplement.

    • i second lots of greens. i ate very little meat during my last pregnancy but i did eat a lot of greens and beans. my third trimester blood test showed that i was not anemic!

      with my first pregnancy, i was eating a cheesesteak every-other day but my blood test showed i was low on iron and i had to supplement with slow-release iron. go figure!

  8. I’m a veggie, 23 weeks pregnant and I’ve been eating tons of oatmeal sweetened with molasses with some high vitamin C fruit mixed in. I’ve also been eating spinach salads with orange slices. And as gross as it is, my little bro got me drinking some carnation instant breakfast because it’s fortified with a decent amount of iron. So far this has worked for me. I’m keeping my fingers crossed I won’t need to add an iron supplement to my daily prenatal vitamin, vitamin D, and vitamin B. Not sure I can choke one more pill down each day. 😛

    • I have been doing the carnation instant breakfast and ensure type beverages as well. I mix the carnation with regular soy milk and enjoy 1 or 2 times a day. I really needed the extra protein a doula friend had recommended it because I had pretty bad morning sickness.
      I also take my multivitamin at night to avoid having having the empty tummy prenatal vitamin problem in the morning.
      We are almost to 14 weeks and I’ve been staying veggie!

  9. I had no low-iron issues with my first pregnancy as a vegetarian, and here’s what I did: took a multi-vitamin (containing iron) every day; had complete protein at every meal (i.e., rice and beans, peanut butter and toast, etc.); ate at least a cup of dark leafy greens (kale, collard greens, chard) most days; cooked in cast iron as often as I could; ate lots of eggs (at least 1/day); drank soymilk with molasses mixed in when I was feeling “low/drained”. I also found an awesome iron supplement that is non-binding and veggie-sourced, called Floradix (http://www.google.com/products/catalog?q=floradix&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=7780189641728353163&sa=X&ei=KnMUT-iwMOPE0AHNz_G0Aw&ved=0CHIQ8wIwAQ). I am currently pregnant with #2 and am following the same regimen with no issues so far. I do supplement with shrimp and fish occasionally, but that’s mostly a function of living in coastal Maine, where the seafood is fresh, abundant and delicious. Best of luck to you!

    • I second the Floradix. I found it in my local natural foods store, but I bet any one of those types of stores would be happy to order it for you. I chugged a shot of Floradix (Iron + Herbs) with a vitamin C tablet chaser to up my iron to a safe level. I may taste like a rusty tomato, but it’s worth it!

        • My midwives recommended Floradix too. Tastes like prune juice, but you only take a little bit a day.

          • Also a big fan of the Floradix! My iron level has been on the low side and the floradix brings it up quickly without constipating side effects of most iron supplements. It is also available in a yeast and gluten-free version called floravital. And maybe I’m weird but I kind of like the flavor…:)

    • I had not heard of this. Thank you! It sounds better than the supplement I have been taking. And to Kate, your regiment sounds great. I think one area where I really need to concentrate is the GREENS. And I am going to look into getting an iron skillet.

    • Yay, someone mentioned Floradix! I am naturally low in iron and I like to donate blood as often as I can, so Floradix is my friend. I can’t take regular iron for very long (as someone has pointed out, it’ll stop you up like no one’s business) and Floradix really helps.

  10. Clams! They are the highest source of iron! I am not making this up. Beef doesn’t even compare. Make a chowder and load it up with clams.

    Mussels and oysters are also good, though not as good. Some people have ethical problems with oysters, but no one has ethical problems with eating mussels that I know of. They grow in the sea like weeds.

    Tofu is also a pretty good iron source, though not nearly as good as clams.

  11. When I was pregnant w my twins I tested mildly anemic early on two. My Dr had me take an iron pill in addition to the prenatal. I took it several hours after the prenatal supplement so the calcium in it wouldn’t effect the iron absorbtion.

    I snacked on dried fruit. I ate oatmeal w fruit and molasses for breakifast–spinach salad w lunch-lots of lentil stew for dinners. I also discovered that I love kale.

  12. I have been completely vegetarian for almost 15 years, and my son has been his whole life (he’s 3 – and very healthy from the start). I managed fine throughout my pregnancy with him without meat. I ate as well-balanced a diet as I could given the extreme morning sickness I had throughout the entire thing! But sometime near the end of the 2nd trimester and throughout the rest of the pregnancy I took an iron supplement called Spatone just to ensure my iron levels would stay up. I don’t know what you’re currently taking, but try a liquid iron supplement if you’re not already. It absorbs much better than pill form, and won’t upset your stomach the way iron pills often do. It worked great for me!

    Good luck and I hope you’re able to get your iron levels up without meat!!

  13. Because the horse pill prenatal vitamins made me nauseous, I took gummy prenatal vitamins. They didn’t contain iron, so my midwife had me take alfalfa tablets throughout my entire pregnancy. It also doesn’t constipate you like the prenatal vitamins that have iron. I took the Bernard Jensen alfalfa tablets (my husband just randomly chose those from our local health food store). I’m not a vegetarian, but it’s a source of iron you could supplement with. I just took 3 tablets a day, but b/c alfalfa is just a food, you could take more. Just don’t take so much that it gives you the runs. Haha.

  14. Cook in cast iron

    Increase your Vitamin C intake

    Try to avoid eating iron-rich foods and milk or high calcium foods in the same meal. You MAY want to consider avoid high fiber foods at that time too – the fiber MIGHT affect the absorption of iron

    Blackstrap molasses

  15. The iron supplements that you can buy over the counter don’t have very good rates of absorption. They dump the iron in your gut all at once, which can cause stomach pain and other assorted gastrointestinal fun, and then most of the iron ends up in your toilet. If you can’t get enough iron in your diet, you might ask your doctor to write a prescription for time-release iron supplements. The time release versions have better absorption, and they’re less likely to cause tummy troubles.

    • Yes, I am worried about absorption too — since my iron went down once I started supplementing (of course, I wasn’t focusing on diet AT ALL.)

  16. I was eating red meat cooked in cast iron with vitamin C twice a day and still my iron levels kept dropping beyond what’s normal. My midwives had me take Floradix and they shot up quickly. It tastes like metallic prunes, but it’s highly absorbable and non-constipating.

  17. I don’t have a child, but I wish my pediatrician had known about these forms of iron supplements when I was little. I was a child who refused to eat any kind of meat voluntarily, and my parents were concerned about my iron levels.

    Instead of suggesting high iron vegetables and cereals (or cooking in cast iron cookware), my pediatrician suggested that my parents try to get me to eat chicken nuggets. The only kind I ate somewhat willingly were the deep fried kind from McDonald or Burger King, so he prescribed one dose (one 6 piece box of nuggets) per week.

    I eventually started eating other meats when I was in my pre-teen years. I still really like chicken nuggets, even though I know they are not very healthy. I try to substitute other forms of breaded chicken and only have the deep fried nuggets once a month or less.

  18. Eggs (with yolk–the iron is in the yolk); potatoes with skins on; BASIL (yes, basil–why not add fresh basil to everything you can, and make some homemade pesto, too).

    Snack on edamame and pumpkin seeds (both decent sources, plus some good fat).

    There are a ton of lentil recipes out there…lentil loaf and lentil soups and dahl…mmm, mmm….

    I had twins and was/am a vegetarian and never had iron issues. I think everyone’s body is a little different, so what works for some may not work for others. But the food suggestions here seem pretty solid, and many of them will give you other great nutrients and/or good fats. Good luck with your pregnancy and birth!

  19. I am not a vegetarian – but I am anemic. (Have been for years) I just wanted to mention that the iron in multi-vitamins might not be enough for you. It isn’t for me – I just take ferrous sulfate pills once a day (325mg, about $5 for a bottle of 100) which takes care of the problem for me. Floradix, as mentioned above, is a more stomach-friendly iron source than ferrous sulfate although it is more expensive.

  20. Whenever I’m looking for info on a certain nutrient I go to “World’s Healthiest Foods” (turn on your adblock!) It’s a great source of info on nutrition.
    My first thoughts, like a lot of other people’s, were molasses, eggs, and floradix. You didn’t mention soy, so maybe you don’t eat it, but edamame and tofu are great sources of iron.
    Personally, I was vegetarian with occasional fish when I went through pregnancy. I never had anemia, and studies show that vegetarians are no more likely to be anemic than meat eaters, contrary to popular belief.
    That said, I eventually realized, through studying nutrition, that I was better off eating eggs and occasional (free range) meat, especially once I was breastfeeding and absolutely ravenous.
    Vegetarian forms of iron found in food are less bio-available then animal forms, so if you are anemic, it probably means that your body is having trouble with the plant based forms (not everyone absorbs vitamins the same way!).

    • Yes, this is my concern too. I have been trying hard with plant-based iron, paying attention to vitamin C and avoiding calcium at same time, and after reading this thread, I am going to look into Floradix, cast iron skillets, molasses, etc. But, if at 24 weeks — in 4.5 weeks — my iron isn’t up, I might just need to do some high quality meat to get through the rest of the pregnancy and early breastfeeding. One of my big incentives to get the iron up, in fact, is that I think it helps breastfed babies with their own iron if the maternal iron stores are OK (though of course, I might be understanding some of the details wrong.)

  21. I didn’t eat much meat during pregnancy, I couldn’t stand the feel or smell! I cooked everything I ate in a cast iron skillet, and that helped for a couple of months, but I did eventually have to take an iron supplement.

  22. you may want to look at the type of supplement you’re taking. i was on one from the health food store and it was only about a fifth of what i needed to get my low iron levels back up.
    on the advice of my midwife i went on a supplement that i got from the chemist (it’s called fefol, and you can google it for specific details), which was much more heavy-duty, and it set things right in a couple of weeks (it does take a little time to get your base levels back up).
    just remember to keep your fibre intake up too, because taking iron supplements can make you constipated.

    • Fortunately my effort to up my bean intake is helping a little with the constipation! 🙂 But yes, I should look up the iron supplement. It is something my doc prescribed, but I haven’t really looked into it much. I’m usually very hyper about these things and spent forever researching the right prenatal vitamin (and love what I ended up with — New Chapter whole food organic) — but I just haven’t really looked into my iron supplement, other than to note its completely medically unnecessary red and blue food coloring!

  23. I’m vegan and 34 weeks preggers and have had stellar iron levels since day one, better than anyone else at my birth center as a matter of fact, not that I’m bragging (ok maybe a little). I drink Yerba Mate in the morning with a squeeze of lemon, it has tons of iron in it and I drink it long before I have my ceral so the calcium doesn’t hinder its absorbtion. I also take a vegan prenatal with iron and the kashi U cereal I chow on is loaded with the stuff. To be honest thats all I really do and it gets me into the 200% for RDA everyday before I even hit lunch. I thought (feared) I would crave meat durring my pregnancy but the idea made me want to vomit.

    • Good for you! You should be proud, especially since lots of people dump on vegans as unhealthy (I don’t agree, even though I am not vegan personally. You should healthier than I do!)

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