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Eat Your Spinach! PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laura Maxson LM   

Popeye may have popularized spinach for instant energy, but there are many foods that pack a bigger punch. Iron-rich foods are necessary to build our red blood cells, which are key to delivering oxygen everywhere in the body. Iron helps us feel energized and be better able to fend off infection.


During pregnancy, a woman almost doubles her blood supply in order to support her growing baby and to prepare for normal blood loss at birth. It is common for a woman’s blood work to show a decrease in the hematocrit and/or hemoglobin (indicating iron levels) in mid-pregnancy. It takes about 3 weeks to grow a red blood cell, so while a woman’s plasma levels expand fairly rapidly, until the red blood cells catch up, she should expect to see her iron levels dip, then recover as she nears her due date. This shows that her blood supply is expanding normally.


At birth a woman can expect to lose up to two cups of blood in the normal course of events, but all too often a woman will lose more than what is considered normal. The use of pitocin induction and augmentation of labor increases the chance of hemorrhage. And almost one-third of women giving birth in the United States will do so by cesarean, losing on average four cups of blood - double that of a vaginal birth, also putting them at higher risk of infection. The bottom line is that it is essential to have enough iron reserves in pregnancy.


Adequate iron stores can make a real difference in how a new mother feels after birth.  A woman beginning pregnancy with low iron levels is likely to become anemic by mid-pregnancy without some dietary intervention. And a woman who is anemic may feel dizzy and weak after birth, and be more susceptible to infection after losing even a small amount of blood.


It is recommended that pregnant women consume at least 27 milligrams (mg) of iron every day. Although many women take prenatal vitamins with extra iron, much of the daily requirement will be met through food. Iron from an animal source is called heme and is more readily absorbed than plant-based, non-heme iron. Consuming vitamin C with non-heme foods can increase iron absorption. Eating non-heme foods along with an animal source of iron (heme) also increases absorption of the non-heme iron. Avoid calcium with non-heme foods if actively working to increase iron. Cooking acidic food in cast iron can give meals an iron boost as well.


Most everyone knows that eating meat, especially red meat or the dark meat from poultry, is high in iron. But, of course this isn’t going to work for vegans or vegetarians. In that case, beans, beans and more beans (including tofu) are usually top on the menu.


There are many easy ways to increase iron consumption:

Hummus, with raw green peppers as dippers.

A trail mix with pumpkin seeds, cashews, and dried apricots will provide quite a punch of iron. (Dried pumpkin seeds are very high in iron.)

Add orange segments to a spinach salad to provide vitamin C for better absorption.

Sprinkle kidney beans on a salad and sesame seeds on anything!

Make chili in a cast iron pot or skillet for an added iron boost. The tomato sauce not only provides vitamin C to enhance absorption of non-heme iron in the beans, but also leaches extra iron from the cast iron pan. Add a little meat to maximize this great, iron-rich meal.

Shrimp and canned sardines (up to 12 oz a week) can be safely consumed by pregnant women and are high in iron.

Snack on dried figs or dried apricots with a handful of almonds.

Iron-fortified cereals such as cream of wheat or boxed cold cereals can provide an easy addition of iron.

Sip some nettles tea.

Please note that liver is not recommended in pregnancy because of high levels of vitamin A.


Some iron deficiencies can be caused by recent miscarriage, low levels of B-12 or folate or severe morning sickness. Being a little low on iron is different from being anemic. While food-based iron is the preferred method to add iron to the diet, iron supplements may be needed. Iron such as ferrous sulfate, can cause constipation, so increasing fiber and liquids in the diet can help minimize this side effect.  Plant-based iron supplements such as Floradix have been used by many women for additional iron, as well. Please note that iron pills are a leading cause of poisoning in children. Take care to keep any supplements well away from toddlers.


Laura Maxson, LM, CPM, the mother of three grown children, has been working with pregnant and breastfeeding women for over 20 years. Currently she is the executive director of Birth Network of Santa Cruz County and has a homebirth midwifery practice. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



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