When you think of the word ‘iron’ you might think of someone lifting weights in the gym, but the iron in your body definitely gets its own kind of workout. Iron transports oxygen throughout your body, enhances the immune system, and helps make collagen. During pregnancy, your body needs extra iron for both you and your developing baby. Iron is found in most prenatal vitamins, but it’s still very important to get a sufficient amount of iron in your diet.
Iron is also crucial for building red blood cells, for both you and your baby. Those who don’t get enough iron in their diets run the risk of developing anemia, a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough red blood cells. Symptoms of anemia include paleness, fatigue, and dizziness.
There are also two types of iron: heme, and non-heme. Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body, and accounts for about 40% of the iron content found in meat, poultry, and fish. The other 60% comes from non-heme iron, which is not as easily absorbed as heme iron, though eating food that’s high in vitamin C, like oranges or red peppers, makes it easy for the body to absorb non-heme iron. Non-heme iron also makes up the entirety of the iron found in plant-based iron, so it’s especially important for vegetarians and vegans to increase their iron intake as they aren’t able to consume the easily-absorbable heme iron. That being said, non-heme iron still does the same job, it just isn’t used as efficiently in the body, so you might need more of it, if it’s your main iron source.
You might have already heard about which foods have the highest amounts of iron: lean beef, chicken, fish, broccoli, and spinach, to name a few. But there are a few foods that you might be surprised to hear are also great places to get iron.
In the past, cumin was both a seasoning and an offering to priests. Later in the Middle Ages, it was seen as a symbol of love – people would fill their pockets with cumin at weddings. Cumin doesn’t just deliver affection though; it also provides a hearty 2.79 mg of iron per teaspoon. Try putting it in your seasonings or roasted vegetables.
- Dried thyme
Thyme is a known antioxidant that also boosts omega-3 fatty acid production in the body. Dried thyme has 5.3 mg of iron per tbsp, which is plenty when you realize the potency of the flavor in a tablespoon of thyme.
- Sundried tomatoes
Tomatoes are great picked fresh from the garden, but once they’re dried and soaked in olive oil and other seasonings, they become a hundred times more delicious. And they’re incredibly nutritious; they have protein, fiber, and 2.9 mg of iron per cup.
- Blackstrap molasses
Blackstrap molasses is the liquid left after the third boil in the sugar-making process. Blackstrap molasses is extremely high in iron, at about 3.5 mg per tbsp. You probably don’t want to eat blackstrap molasses on its own due to its bitter taste, but mix it in with cookie, brownie, or other batter, and add a great deal of iron to your delicious dessert.
- Dried apricots
Only a half of a cup of dried apricots contains 1.7 mg of iron, and they’re easy to add to breakfast foods like oatmeal or granola, or make a tasty snack.
Coffee: the unexpected inhibitor
Many people love their coffee, and there’s no denying that caffeine also brings some health benefits. Unfortunately, coffee has been known to inhibit iron absorption, and one cup can inhibit your iron absorption by 60%. Try not to drink coffee 2 hours before or after an iron-rich meal.
Many women start or end their pregnancy with an iron deficiency, and paying attention to your iron intake before and during pregnancy can help you avoid this. And if you’re not familiar with some of the foods above, maybe now’s a good time to try some new recipes – you might find a new favorite, iron-rich snack.
If you’re concerned with your level of iron intake, it’s always a good idea to call your healthcare provider, as they can help you figure out a solution.