While cheeseburgers and juicy steaks aren’t the most common recommendation for a healthy pregnancy diet, red meat actually provides a big benefit to mom’s growing blood supply. Although pregnant women should steer clear of raw and undercooked meat, eating more red meat can help them meet their body’s new nutritional needs.
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Biggest Benefit: Iron
Although iron is an important mineral for everyone, it becomes particularly important during pregnancy. During the three trimesters of pregnancy, the pregnant woman’s blood volume increases by nearly 50 percent. This increased blood volume brings oxygen and nutrients to the woman’s growing placenta and the baby. Each red blood cell contains a protein that’s specifically made to carry oxygen; iron is responsible for making this protein, known as hemoglobin. Without iron, the mother’s blood would have less oxygen-carrying capacity. And since the body cannot make iron, it relies on iron consumed in your diet.
Recommended Iron Intake
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that pregnant women consume approximately 27 milligrams of iron per day, regardless of maternal age. This recommended amount is significantly higher than the recommended amount of 18 milligrams per day for women who aren't pregnant. One 3-ounce serving of lean beef provides around 3 milligrams of iron, which is significantly higher than other types of meat. For example, 3 ounces of chicken, fish or pork provide only about 1 milligram of iron.
Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron
Two forms of iron exist: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is easier for the body to absorb; this type comes from animal products. Non-heme iron, on the other hand, is more difficult for the body to absorb. In fact, the amount of non-heme iron absorbed by the body depends heavily on the other types of foods eaten at the same time. For example, foods rich in vitamin C enhance non-heme iron absorption, while dairy products decrease absorption. Non-heme iron comes from beans, leafy green vegetables, dried fruits and fortified breads and cereals.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency for pregnant women. If iron stores become too low, the body cannot produce enough red blood cells, resulting in a condition called iron deficiency anemia. Common symptoms include fatigue and muscle weakness. Although the condition often can be corrected through diet, iron supplements are available for pregnant women who remain deficient despite dietary changes. Since iron supplements can cause constipation, women should eat more fiber and stay hydrated to help prevent the problem.