To supplement or not to supplement? That is the big question that plagues many pregnant women.
The importance of iron during pregnancy
More than any other nutrient, we know about how important iron in pregnancy is, but before we start buying iron supplements and dosing our way through the next nine months, is there an alternative and do we even need supplements to begin with?
Why is iron an issue during pregnancy?
The main reason that we hear so much about iron in pregnancy is that lack of iron can have an effect on the baby, which is something no one wants. Iron’s job in the body is to carry oxygen to all the different organs and tissues. During pregnancy, this includes your baby and placenta. A reduction in the amount of oxygen delivered to the placenta and baby can lead to a number of problems.
Women who are low in iron are more likely to have a premature baby and also to have babies who are a low birth weight. A smaller baby may sound like a great idea when it comes to labour, but smaller babies have a slightly increased risk of diseases like obesity and heart disease in later life. In saying that, the chances are small so there is no need to panic, but it is no harm to do all that we can to keep our children as healthy as possible.
Women who are low in iron in pregnancy are also more open to infections during and after pregnancy and are more prone to post-natal depression.
Another problem with being low in iron in pregnancy is that the baby can’t develop their own iron stores, which means they are low in iron themselves from birth. Lack of iron leaves adults tired, grumpy and irritable – not something you want for your newborn. Iron is also essential for brain development in babies and toddlers so, again, making sure you have enough iron in pregnancy is very important.
How can I get enough iron?
The most important time to start is before you get pregnant. If you are planning a baby, have a good look at what you are eating at the moment.
You need to aim for 14mg of iron everyday and 15mg per day once you are pregnant and this means you need to eat iron-rich foods everyday.
Start by keeping a food diary for a week and see how often you are eating foods rich in iron. This is also useful to do while you are pregnant to check your intake.
One of the most important things to remember is that very few foods have a lot of iron in them. You need to think about iron-rich foods at every meal, not just at dinner, if you are going to get enough. Lots of foods will have small amounts of iron so you will pick up a little in other foods but do try to include some of the foods below at every meal. You may not feel like eating much in the first three months of pregnancy, but your baby will be able to get iron from your body so don’t panic if nausea means you can’t face beef stew at this time! You do need to catch up later in the pregnancy so once your appetite comes back, make sure iron-rich foods are on the menu.
Why are so many women low in iron during pregnancy?
The main reason a women is low in iron in pregnancy is if she has been low in iron generally beforehand. Many women don’t eat enough iron – studies in Ireland show that more than 50% of Irish women are not eating enough iron. If you are low in iron when you start your pregnancy, it can be difficult to catch up. Some women may lose iron due to bowel diseases like Crohn’s or colitis or someone who is coeliac may also struggle with iron. Not eating enough iron is generally the main cause.
What about supplements?
There was a time when every woman who was pregnant was given an iron supplement but studies now show that too much iron may also be a problem so supplements are not recommended unless you need them. So what do you do? The best thing is to get your iron checked before you become pregnant or within the first three months. If you are low in iron, talk to your GP as you may need a supplement. Or you can take good care of what you eat – iron from food is more easily absorbed than iron from supplements. If you do need an iron supplement, those with added vitamin C are a little easier on your tummy.
Iron that comes from meat, poultry and fish is very easily absorbed by the body. This type of iron is called haem iron. The type of iron found in vegetables like chickpeas or broccoli is called non-haem iron. It is more difficult for your body to absorb this type of iron but eating a food rich in vitamin C will boost iron absorption from these foods. Some good iron-rich ideas are below:
- Fortified breakfast cereal with a glass of orange juice
- Bean salad with fresh tomatoes
- Baked beans with baked potato
- Roast chicken leg with carrots and broccoli
- Red lentils added to vegetable soup
- Tinned sardines on toast
- Lamb shank with peas and carrots
- Beans on toast (try this for an iron-rich breakfast)
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