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. I am not a vegetarian but I am a life-long anemic whose anemia became dangerous during pregnancy. Ultimately, no amount of iron-rich foods, meat or not, budged my levels. I ended up on 3x a day prescription strength iron, which I took with another vitamin mix formulated for boosting absorption. I also made sure not to drink caffeine or eat dairy in the hours surrounding my pill times because those inhibit iron absorption. My life sort of revolved around whether or not I had taken my iron yet!

    • Thank you. I have been trying to separate out the iron from the calcium by three hours or so. I TOTALLY did not know that until recently. Ouch!

  2. In my last pregnacny I was eating meat about once a week and still became extremely anemic in my second trimester. I did start eating more meat and eggs but also lots of leafy greens, etc. It’s also really important that you take a really high quality iron supplement..I took (and am still taking) Genestra Brand Carbonyl Iron…it’s supposed to be one of the most absorbable ones on the market (in Canada at least) and will only run you about $1 per day. The other thing is that even the smallest amount for heme iron (animal source) will help you absorb non-heme iron. So if you eat your beans and spinach etc with even just one egg you will absorb all the iron from the veg sources better than you would have otherwise. Good luck! Hopefully you will be feeling better soon. Being anemic during pregnancy is no fun at all!

    • Just read your essay. Thanks for sharing! I think I would have a hard time chewing and swallowing, too. I think I haven’t had red meat in fifteen years or so! But, I know that if despite all my efforts, iron levels continue to drop, I will need to do SOMETHING.

  3. As a third-generation vegetarian mama (my gran had 5 babies as a veggie and my mum had 4. I’ve just had my first.) I can tell you that you definitely don’t need to eat meat to keep your iron levels up. However, everyone is different and there are plenty of women out there who eat meat and are still lacking in iron. I’m probably repeating what others have said but good dietary sources of iron are beans, leafy greens, dried apricots, prunes, sea vegetables,blackstrap molasses (make sure it’s blackstrap, regular molasses won’t do) and dark chocolate!. Calcium and tannins affect iron absorption so avoid coffee, tea and milk with meals . Vitamin c will help. Good luck!

    • Thanks!! Alas, I have been eating LOTS of dark chocolate and that clearly hasn’t done the trick. But I can definitely work on the “real” food on the list here! 🙂

  4. My wife did lots of spinach and just tried to eat a balanced diet.

    She also took rainbow-lite brand multi vitamins with iron; supposedly they are supposed to be absorbed pretty readily.

    We also had to keep a nutrition log for the first trimester as part of the birth center’s program. Just paying attention to what we were eating specifically rather than “oh I think I had some of this yesterday so I should have some of this tomorrow” went a long way to having a good diet. FWIW she was top of the charts on the anemia tests either because or despite of those three things.

  5. Cook in a cast iron frying pan! It is supposed to be a really good source of dietary iron as the iron leeches into whatever you are cooking.

  6. I always wonder if responses are made this far in, if they are read…but here goes 🙂

    Midwife I know recommended mixing liquid Chlorophyll into a drink. Do your own research but studies are finding exactly what so many others have said-not all ‘iron’ supplements are the same. Your body needs something it can digest and break down/absorb. I definitely recommend liquid chlorophyll!

  7. I’m a pretty strict vegan and have been for years. I’m 22 weeks pregnant and don’t have any iron issues but my vitamin D levels are low so its off to the beach for me!!!!!

  8. I don’t know if it’s been mentioned, but apparently consuming coffee along with iron rich foods will DECREASE iron absorption, so maybe avoid coffee if you are drinking it.

  9. I’ll admit I didn’t read all the comments, so I apologize if something similar has already been posted, but…

    If it’s the texture you don’t like, try meats and meat products with differnet textures. If you don’t like normal cooked chicken or a steak, try something like a meatball (particularly poultry meatballs), which has a very different texture. You could also try things like tuna salad, where the texture of the fish is lost in everything else (imo). You may find some other options too.

  10. I’d been a vegetarian for 4 years by the time I got pregnant, and I cooked on cast iron almost exclusively, did the molasses, the cream of wheat, the tons of spinach salads, lentils, beans, cereal, plus the expensive supplements and drinking about a gallon of OJ a day (I craved it like you wouldn’t believe) but I still ended up having to eat meat in the last couple of months of my pregnancy. By that time (almost 18 years ago) it was bad enough that my doc recommended I go straight to the iron rich parts of the animal. Liver was straight out. Ugh. So we tried heart, we cut it into tiny pieces and made it into a stew and you know. It did the trick. To this day, I still really like beef heart. We found out later, that part of the reason I was so anemic is because I had undiagnosed Celiac disease (anemia is one symptom) But I guess what I’m trying to say, is take the advice, do what you can to get your levels up. But if you end up needing to eat meat (even liver/heart meat) like I did, don’t beat yourself up. I was sick about it, but my baby needed it and that’s what mattered. However, medicine has come a long way in 18 years, Good Luck!

  11. there is a lot of responses on this subject, so i hope you take the time to read mine. when taking supplements, most of the nutrition is from synthetic sources. so when needing to get more iron into the body, and this applies to all other nutrients and vitamins, go for a plant based, organic source. here is the website that has a great iron supplement,called blood max. it’s made of beets, and that’s it. qnhshop.com
    this company is awesome, not only because i work for them, but because they put NO chemicals, additives or expedients in the product and it’s all from plants, who know nutrition could be so simple.

  12. I’m a trained midwife’s assistant (woot! pregnancy credentials!), and here’s my two cents.

    Up your vitamin C consumption to help absorb iron. You need to consume MORE milligrams of plant-based iron than of animal-based iron to have the same results, so make sure you aren’t trying to replicate the amount of iron in meats and meat substitutes and thinking it is enough.

    Veggies with highest amount of iron – in descending order:
    Dried Thyme- HUGE amount of iron- throw a teaspon into a greens smoothie to pound back.
    Chocolate- Dark. Cocoa powder has lots too.
    Pumpkin and other squash seeds- roast them, salt them, drink lots of water
    Tahini- make hummus- throw some…
    Sun Dried tomatoes!- in the hummus
    Sunflower seeds
    Dried Apricots- get them unsulfured at a health-food store, or apricot nectar in a pinch
    beans- most kinds, like black, kidney, navy, etc
    tofu
    dark leafy greens- to eat more of them, wilt ’em. One cup of cooked kale has a ton of iron.

    For vitamin C:
    Hot peppers
    Guava
    Bell peppers
    Thyme and Parsley
    Kale, mustard greens, swiss chard, etc
    Brassica family- Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower
    Kiwi
    Papaya
    Fresh pineapple
    Oranges

    Also, think about ways to combine some of these foods for a power boost of iron or vitamin C. They could be tasty!

    ex- Dried apricots dipped in 70% dark chocolate, and then dried thyme. That tasty snack would give a jolt of iron to your system.

    Happy snacking!

  13. Try NORA tea? It is nettles, oat straw, red raspberry leaf, and alfalfa. It’s not the tastiest stuff, but seems to kick anemia’s butt in a hurry. It is also vegan (unless you put honey in it) and has a reputation among some midwives as an incredible hemorrhage preventative.

  14. I was anemic while pregnant as well. My levels were almost too low to have a home birth and we needed to get them up quickly. My midwife suggested a plant-based iron supplement called Floridix. It is in liquid format, so you dont have to search around for vegan capsuls, and it doesn’t taste that bad. I took it with a big glass of orange juice in the morning, and took my prenatals at night. Since my prenatals were loaded with calcium I needed to make sure I didn’t take them too closely together. My midwife also informed me that calcium helps induce sleep, so taking prenatals before bed was the best idea. My levels got up, and I had a beautiful home birth. Now I still take my prenatals at night, even though I no longer need the iron.

  15. spinach, kale and other greens; iron-enriched cereals and wheat pastas. i was vegan for 7 years and switched to vegetarian at 14 weeks preggo. doc said my iron levels were perfect. the important thing is to eat a well-balanced diet and to eat vitamin c rich foods with the iron-rich foods to increase the iron absorbtion.

  16. I’m 36 weeks along, and have been a pescatarian for 8 years, which means that I don’t eat any meat except seafood. One of the first questions I asked my doctor when I got pregnant was whether or not I needed to start eating meat again for the health of my baby. He told me that a pescatarian diet is one of the healthiest diets you can have, and that there were plenty of options outside of meat consumption that we could explore. I’ve had low iron levels since the beginning, and taking a daily prenatal vitamin that already has iron in it, along with an iron supplement of 45 mg has kept me 110% healthy and non-anemic. I also make sure to eat tons or iron packed foods such as spinach, soy products, milk and enriched cereals. My baby is healthy and so am I, so I definitely think you can do it too!

  17. Caveat: I am not a mama, I didn’t deal with this in pregnancy.

    BUT I have very heavy periods (still determining cause, no one seems terribly concerned about the cause and its effect on my future fertility so much as making it possible for me to survive through a period). For a three-year timeframe, I was battling iron-deficient anemia due to so much blood loss, and supplements did not help absorption or levels whether they were multi-V’s or straight iron. So I finally had to learn to cope through diet.

    All those foods you listed are great. Personally, I can’t go without meat because it is the fastest way and the way my body craves the iron. BUT cooking in my cast iron pans as much as possible was the final step toward breaking the cycle–and interestingly enough, you actually have to abuse the pans to get the benefits. Cook high-acid foods and especially tomato sauce in them, keep a minimal layer of pan seasoning, that sort of stuff. I have two pans of the same size that I use regularly–one is properly seasoned, the other is kept very minimal, and I just try to cook the high-acid foods in the abused one and baby the other one for the times I need a GOOD cast iron. Nothing beats spaghetti sauce that’s so iron-rich it tastes metallic when you’re bleeding like a sieve and tempted to chew on a fencepost.

    Beware the spinach trap: It has a lot of calcium.

    I crave black beans a lot when I’m anemic, legumes in general, and they seem to stem the craving so they must be absorbing pretty well. A couple months ago I’d been craving steak and beans like mad for a week before my period and had a doctor appt anyway so I got the blood drawn and was dipping pretty low. Ate an entire can of black beans every day for a week and my levels were actually in the (very low but) normal range DURING my period. It was kind of amazing.

  18. Veggie General Tso’s. Super easy!

    Cast iron skillet, two sources of vitamin C. Boost those iron levels! Plus hey, you’re pregnant and you get some Chinese food. 🙂

    Heat oven to 350. Open a package of Morningstar Buffalo Wings, add on top 1/2 cup salsa, and 6 T. frozen orange juice. Cook until bubbling.

    Freaking delicious!

  19. Black Beans are a favorite of mine that are high in Iron I also love Black Bean pasta (http://www.amazon.com/Explore-Asian-Organic-Spaghetti-7-05-Ounce/dp/B004NSG8F6) and then Dark Chocolate has iron too.

    Whats worked for me has been trying to get two sources in each meal – like marinated tofu in a spinach salad. Or a Poppy Seed bagel (the iron is in the seeds) as the bread for a sandwich w/ spinach and avocado.

    Also most breakfast cereals are fortified with Iron – they aren’t all heathy but it can be a good option too.
    Good Luck!

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