When planning for a baby, you probably already know that there are some key nutrients that are essential before you get pregnant, during pregnancy and after you've given birth. One of these nutrients is iron.
So, why is it so important?
Iron is a mineral, important for making red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. It can be common to be deficient in iron during pregnancy as well as before and after, which can lead to anaemia (when you lack enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body). That’s why we should be aware of how much we need in a day, and how much we actually get from our diet!
Before pregnancy, iron is essential in order to have healthy and regular ovulation. It is also important to have good iron stores before pregnancy to reduce the risk of iron deficiency throughout this important time.
During pregnancy, more iron is required as it supports the normal growth of the placenta & foetus, as well as the increase in maternal red blood cells (i.e. more red blood cells are now produced for you and your baby too). Keep in mind that some blood will be lost during the delivery of the baby which will make the iron level in your body decrease again (i.e. as iron is present in the blood).
After pregnancy, you still have to be mindful how much iron you are getting from your diet. Why? Not only are your iron stores lower now after pregnancy, but if you choose to feed your baby, although breast milk contains little iron, the level will continue to decrease as it is lost in milk. The amount of iron present in breast milk will fall as lactation goes over time therefore, monitoring and even considering supplementation may be necessary.
Where should I get my iron from?
There are many food sources of iron you can include in your diet. There are plant-based foods such as green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, broccoli), pulses & legumes (peas, chickpeas, lentils, beans), tofu, nuts & seeds and fortified foods (i.e. breakfast cereals, bread) that are good sources of iron. However, plant-based products contain non-haem iron (i.e. the type of iron which is found in vegetables) which is better absorbed by the body when consumed with vitamin C found in citrus fruits (e.g. lemon, orange, lime, kiwi etc.) or animal protein. Next time you eat green leafy vegetables, tofu or nuts, try to have some citrus fruits/juice alongside, or accompany with meat for better absorption of iron. You should also know that the absorption of non-haem iron can be decreased/blocked by some factors present in the diet such as phytates found in bran cereals and tannins found in coffee & tea. Try to avoid consuming such products during and right after the meal (i.e. have a gap of time of at least 30 minutes).
For those of you who regularly consume animal protein foods, including red meat, poultry and fish in your diet, you are more likely to get the recommended amount of iron as they are a great source of this mineral. As animal products contain haem iron (i.e. the type of iron found in animal products only), it is more easily absorbed than non-haem iron and it is also less likely that its absorption interferes with dietary factors.
You may know that liver is also a good source of iron, right? Yeah, that’s true! However, try to avoid it during pregnancy as it also contains a high amount of vitamin A which is harmful to the unborn baby. So this is a food to cut out of your diet during pregnancy!
There are also supplements available that you may take which can help you if your body cannot assimilate enough iron from the diet. In order to avoid any complications that may appear (e.g. having a high level of iron in the blood), I'd recommend seeking medical advice/talk with your GP before starting to take supplements. This way, the doctor can check the iron level in your blood and then recommend the right supplement and dosage for you (if you really need it). Remember, high doses of iron can be harmful!
How much iron should I take?
In order to lower the risk of low birth weight and premature baby delivery, it is essential to ensure your diet has enough iron before conception. If you are a woman aged between 19 to 50, the recommended intake of iron is 14.8mg per day and you should be able to get enough of it from your diet. Also, be mindful of the fact that during your period when the blood is lost, especially for those who have heavy periods, iron supplements should be considered in order to prevent iron deficiency anaemia.
During pregnancy, a high amount of your iron goes to the foetus and you may experience anaemia. This will make you feel very tired, you’ll have a lack of energy, you may experience headache, dizziness, pale skin, shortness of breath, cravings, fast heartbeat, low blood pressure and difficulty concentrating. A lot, right? That’s why, during pregnancy, women who can not take enough iron from diet or have twins, need iron supplementation and the dosage may be a bit higher than normal (i.e. 27mg per day for pregnant women). However, it is better to consult with your doctor before taking it!
Too much iron can cause you constipation, stomach pain and sickness. Also, when pregnant, high doses of iron can cause other problems too such as low birth weight, maternal high blood pressure and preterm birth. You should know that it is less probable to get a high dose of iron from food and it often occurs when taking it as a supplement.
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Blog written by Bianca Colceru (ANutr)