Iron levels-boosting prior to pregnancy

I am planning on becoming pregnant in the near future. My family physician recently told me that my iron levels are somewhat low. I have started taking prenatal vitamins to build them back up before pregnancy. Do you have any other suggestions?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

I am wondering if you want other suggestions about helping to boost your iron intake, or about prenatal nutrition in general? Being the nutritionist that I am, I am going to jump at the chance to hope it is the latter, and will sneak in a few other important prepregnancy tidbits.

I'll start with the iron. To help increase your dietary intake of iron, and thus increase your blood levels of iron, begin by becoming aware of some iron-rich sources of food and start to include them regularly in your diet. The following lists some of the top sources:

  • Liver -- all types
  • Brewers yeast
  • Beef
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Oysters
  • Clams
  • Tofu
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes with skin
  • Dried kidney beans
  • Cashew nuts
  • Clams
  • Sardines
  • Dried apricots, raisins and prunes,
  • Cod
  • Turkey and chicken
  • Bulgur
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Enriched cereals -- Total, Product 19, Cream of Wheat, Cheerios

Some knowledge you will need to apply to get the most of the iron in these foods:

  1. Not all iron is created equal. The iron from animal sources, known as heme iron, is a more potent form of iron. It is readily absorbed and is not susceptible to damage or interference by other dietary factors. The iron from plant sources, such as spinach and potatoes, is more fragile; its absorption is put into peril by all sorts of things, such as food fiber, tannins, phytates, protein and phosphates.
  2. Eating even a little heme iron with some nonheme iron will greatly increase the absorption of the nonheme iron. Therefore, if you are not a big meat eater, you can rely on eating just a little bit along with your iron-containing vegetables to derive the most benefit. A small serving of beef steak will ensure the iron in the spinach and potatoes you are eating is absorbed maximally.
  3. Add a little vitamin C to your meals where iron is present and dramatically increase the amount of absorbed iron. The amount of iron absorbed goes up in direct proportion to the amount of vitamin C consumed. Put this knowledge into practice in this way: Drink a tall glass of orange juice along with the iron-enriched breakfast cereal. Take a vitamin C supplement with your vegetarian dinner.
  4. Avoid drinking your daily cup of tea with a meal that contains nonheme iron. That is because tea contains tannins that when mixed with an nonheme iron forms an insoluble complex making the iron less absorbable. Tea won't interfere with heme iron.
  5. Cook your foods in iron skillets. The iron that leeches out of the pots and into the foods will add a lot of nonheme iron to your diet. Interestingly, there is some evidence that iron deficiency anemia in women began with the passage of the use of iron-containing pots and pans.

Now a plug for some other prepregnancy nutritional preparation. First, and very importantly, make sure you are getting plenty of folic acid. Folic acid supplementation before conception can reduce the risk of neural tube defects by as much as 70 percent. Check to see that your prenatal vitamins contain folic acid and then be sure to include two daily servings of foods rich in folic acid, such as fresh green leafy spinach, a tall glass of orange juice, sunflower seeds, asparagus, filberts, collards, cashews, avocados and wheat germ.

If you are overweight, gradually try to lose weight prior to conception, or if you are underweight, gradually gain weight before conception. A women much below her ideal body weight before pregnancy is at higher risks for complications during pregnancy -- complications that can affect her developing baby. An overweight women risks developing diabetes and hypertension, and can have trouble during labor and delivery.

Your children are very lucky to have a mom who is wise enough to know that how she takes care of herself prior to pregnancy will greatly affect how healthy they will be. What a great advantage you will have given those kids!

Thank you for writing.

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