Iron and Calcium During Pregnancy

Following a balanced and healthy diet during pregnancy is important both for you and your little one. When you're carrying a growing baby, your iron and calcium intake is something you'll need to pay a little extra attention to. Read on to find out how to get the iron and calcium you need, whether it's from food alone or from food and supplements.

Why Are Iron and Calcium Important During Pregnancy?

Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin — that's the substance in your red blood cells that helps carry oxygen to your organs and tissues. When you're pregnant, your body produces more blood to supply oxygen to your baby, which is why you'll need to double your iron intake. If you don't get enough iron, or you're already low on iron, you could develop iron deficiency anemia, which will not only make you feel more tired in pregnancy, but also, in severe cases, can increase the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, and postpartum depression.

Getting enough calcium helps keep your teeth and bones healthy, and helps your baby develop strong teeth and bones, too. What's more, calcium keeps your circulatory, nervous, and muscular systems running normally.

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How Much Iron and Calcium Do I Need During Pregnancy?

When you're pregnant, you need 27 milligrams of iron daily. Women younger than 19 need 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day, and those 19 and older need 1,000 milligrams each day.

Calcium- and Iron-Rich Foods for Pregnancy

Good sources of iron include poultry, fish, and lean red meat, but you can also get iron from fortified breakfast cereals, beans, peas, and some vegetables, like spinach. Dairy products are the most easy-to-absorb sources of calcium, but you can also get calcium from non-dairy foods like kale, sardines, and broccoli. There are also juices and cereals fortified with calcium. To help you get an idea of foods high in calcium and iron, see the table below. You can use it to gauge what you can eat to get the right nutrients for you and your baby.

Can I Get Enough Iron and Calcium From Diet Alone in Pregnancy?

Not all dietary sources of iron are created equal. Heme iron, which is found in animal foods like red meat and poultry, is more easily absorbed by the body. If you're getting your iron from vegetable sources only, you may not be absorbing enough iron. Talk to your healthcare provider if you think you're at risk of an iron deficiency in pregnancy. You can increase the absorption of iron from vegetable sources by combining it with a vitamin C pill or eating it with fruit, like oranges or strawberries. Low iron during pregnancy has been associated with unusual, non-food cravings for things like ice or dirt. If you experience these cravings, make an appointment with your doctor.

Calcium is easier to get from a balanced diet, even if you're vegetarian. Just be aware that calcium, when consumed together with iron sources or supplements, can interfere with iron absorption. For example, if you choose to drink orange juice for its vitamin C content to boost the absorption of plant-based iron, then make sure it has not been fortified with calcium, or just make sure you're getting your calcium and iron at different times during the day.

Do I Need Supplements?

Even if you're maintaining a balanced diet, you may still be missing some key nutrients, like iron, calcium, or folic acid. Your healthcare provider will be able to test whether any nutrients are lacking and may advise you to take a prenatal vitamin to boost your levels.

If you're taking a prenatal vitamin, that should give you a portion of the recommended daily amount of iron. However, if your blood work shows you're iron deficient, your healthcare provider may recommend a separate iron supplement.

With calcium, you may be able to get enough from dietary sources. If you have problems digesting dairy products, you can either increase your calcium intake from other foods, or talk to your doctor about calcium supplements.

Keep in mind, not all foods are safe for moms-to-be. Read our article to learn more about what foods to avoid eating while you're pregnant.

When Do I Need to Start Taking Supplements?

If you are trying to conceive, consult your healthcare provider about whether you might need to start taking prenatal vitamins now; some experts recommend taking them at least three months before conception. You can also begin taking supplements as soon as you find out you're pregnant in the first trimester. Just make sure your healthcare provider gives you the green light before taking any nutritional supplements.

What You Need to Know About Taking Iron and Calcium Supplements

If a supplement is recommended for you, your healthcare provider will recommend the best way to take it.

Your provider may suggest taking iron supplements on an empty stomach and with juice or a vitamin C tablet. Black stools are a good sign the iron is being absorbed.

Carefully follow your doctor's instructions about the amount of iron you should take. If you miss a dose, do not take double to make up for it, as it is possible to overdose on iron. There is nothing to worry about if you follow your doctor's instructions.

You might experience some side effects when taking iron supplements, such as:

  • Diarrhea

  • Constipation

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Leg cramps.

Less common symptoms may also include:

  • Darkened urine

  • Heartburn

  • Stained teeth.

When it comes to calcium supplements, it really depends on the type you're prescribed — some can be taken with food, others without, so ask your doctor for advice. Also, some prescribed calcium can interfere with other medicines, so check with your doctor or pharmacist if this may affect you.

Getting the right amount of iron and calcium during pregnancy is important and your healthcare provider will help you make sure you're getting all the nutrients you and your baby need. Eating healthily will also help you to keep your pregnancy weight gain on track. For even more information about staying healthy, read up on putting together a healthy, balanced diet during pregnancy.