I eat a mostly plant-based diet, but I’m certainly no vegan, so I was a bit surprised when my doctor called me with results from a recent blood test. I’m pregnant and had just taken the test for gestational diabetes, which I fortunately don’t have. But my ob-gyn said that my hemoglobin and hematocrit were both low, as was my red blood cell count. Ugh, I was anemic.
As a third time mom-to-be and the author of a pregnancy nutrition handbook ("Feed the Belly"), it certainly didn’t come as a surprise that I could become anemic during pregnancy. Iron is essential to the formation of new blood cells, which my body is busy making as it increases my blood volume by a whopping 50 percent. Also, babies load up on iron in the womb to get them through the first few months of life. Very smart on their part, as breast milk is quite low in iron. Even if you’re not pregnant, anemia is an issue that women in their childbearing years are susceptible to due to losing blood every month through menstruation.
Red blood cells bring oxygen to all the muscles, tissues and organs in the body. And they have the important task of delivering oxygen to a growing baby via the placenta. Once they’ve dropped off the oxygen, they pick up carbon dioxide and drop it off with your lungs so you can exhale it. This is why anemic women often feel out of breath and sluggish – they don’t have enough RBCs to do this pick up and delivery cycle efficiently.
Signs You Might Be Anemic
In addition to breathlessness and fatigue, other symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia include an unusually rapid heartbeat or headache, especially during exercise. Dizziness and difficulty concentrating are other signs you may be anemic.
I hadn’t experienced any symptoms, likely because my anemia was just in the early stages and your body will compensate for quite a while.
Anemia affects about 3.5 million Americans, making it the leading blood condition in the U.S. There are more than 400 different types of anemia. Causes include sickle cell, vitamin B-12 deficiency, chronic lead poisoning, chronic or sudden red blood cell destruction, and iron deficiency. Since my doctor wasn’t sure if I had run-of-the-mill iron deficiency anemia or a lack of B-12, she recommended I add an extra iron supplement and a B-12 supplement to the prenatal I was taking, plus up my intake of iron- and B-12-rich foods.
How to Boost Your Iron Intake
In addition to taking about 30 mg per day through a prenatal vitamin or 18 mg/day if you’re not expecting, you want to get additional iron through the food you eat. Animal protein contains “heme” iron, which gets absorbed by your body more readily than plant-based, non-heme iron. It’s smart to include both types in your diet for the maximum benefit. The good news is that it’s finally grilling season! So fire up that Weber, and try some new lean cuts of meat.
Here are different cuts of meat and seafood and the amount of iron (in milligrams) they provide per 3-ounce serving:
Lamb: 1.85 mg
Sirloin steak: 1.75 mg
Chicken breast: 1 mg
Salmon: 0.5 mg
Most people have grilled steaks, burgers or chicken breasts before, but lamb may be uncharted territory. Don’t be afraid! Lean cuts include leg, loin and rack and are just 170 calories per 3-ounce serving. I personally love making lamb sliders, but loin and shoulder chops are also really easy to make and only take 7 to 9 minutes per side to cook to medium. Like ground beef and pork, ground lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature (check it with a meat thermometer) to 160 Fahrenheit. Whole pieces of lamb and steaks should be cooked to 145 Fahrenheit. Chicken should be cooked to 165 Fahrenheit. Seafood should be cooked until it’s opaque.
[Read: Prenatal Yoga: What You Should Know.]
What if I’m a Vegetarian/Vegan?
I realize that not everyone eats meat these days. You can definitely get your iron through plant sources – just keep in mind that iron from plant sources can be difficult for your body to absorb. The good news is that pairing a food that’s high in vitamin C with those iron-rich foods will help boost the absorption of the mineral.
Vegan Sources of Iron (per 1 cup)
Cooked spinach: 6.43 mg
Fortified instant oatmeal: 3.96 mg
Cooked Swiss chard: 3.95 mg
Dried apricots: 3.46 mg
Dried figs: 3 mg
Vitamin C-Rich Foods to Pair Them With (per 1 cup)
Raw bell pepper: 118 mg
Cooked Brussels sprouts: 97 mg
Strawberries: 89 mg
[See: U.S. News Best Diets .]
Other Tips for Pumping Up Iron
Cooking iron-rich veggies such as spinach and kale can leach some of their iron content, so don’t boil them. It’s better to steam or sauté them. Also, cooking foods in a cast-iron skillet can actually boost their iron content.
B-12 helps in the formation of red blood cells, so if you’re not getting enough from your diet, you’ll eventually become anemic. B-12 is found in a variety of animal foods, but not in plant foods – unless they’re fortified. Men and women older than 14 need 2.4 micrograms/day. During pregnancy your body requires 2.6 mcg daily and breastfeeding hikes your needs up to 2.8 mcg.
Here are the best B-12 sources:
3-oz salmon: 2.6 mcg
3-oz lamb: 2.38 mcg
1/4-pound hamburger: 2.2 mcg
8 ounces 1-percent milk: 1 mcg
1 cup Whole Grain Total: 6 mcg
It took a month, but the good news for me is that after adding the supplements to my diet, adding a couple extra servings of lamb and beef to my weekly diet, and having a few bowls of fortified cereal for breakfast, I was able to get my lab values back where they should be. Of course, after baby arrives, I’ll have to pay just as close attention to my nutrition as I am now, but that’s a small price to pay for a healthy baby and the ability to stroll her around the park without huffing and puffing. And for new moms, anything that helps fight fatigue is on par with a lifetime supply of diapers.