Q. I have struggled with low iron levels for most of my life but now that I am pregnant, iron has become a bigger issue than ever. My doctor has told me that my iron levels are too low and that I need to take an iron supplement. The problem is that iron supplements make me very constipated as well as upsetting my tummy. Are there any foods I can eat to boost iron – I have a very good diet with lots of chicken and green vegetables so I am not sure if there is anything else I can do. Help!
Low iron levels are a common problem for women – whether they are pregnant or not – and low iron levels can have lots of causes. We need iron to help make healthy red blood cells and low levels of iron can leave us feeling wiped out. During pregnancy, iron is also crucial for healthy blood for your baby as well as for baby’s brain development. This is why doctors and dietitians really stress iron at this time. Low iron can be caused by diseases like coeliac disease and colitis, but the most common cause is simply not eating enough. A whopping 48% of women in Ireland do not eat enough iron. Irish men eat much more iron, mainly due to eating more red meat and overall larger portions. Why do women eat so little iron? The main reason is that foods we think are good sources of iron are actually quite low. Although chicken is a good source of iron, the iron is almost all in the leg. This means that if you only eat chicken breast, you are actually getting very little iron. Green vegetables will give you a little iron but you would need to eat two pounds of spinach a day to get what you need.
So where can we get iron? Red meat is a great source of easily-absorbed iron. And it is actually quite good for you if you trim off the fat and make sure you don’t burn it. This means going for red meat in dishes like Bolognese, stews and casseroles instead of barbecued or well-done roasts. Aim to have red meat at least three times a week. Eggs are a good source of iron and you can add one to breakfast or go for an egg sandwich at lunch. Chickpeas are very rich in iron so go for hummus or a chickpea salad. Barley and lentils are also a great source of iron: try a lentil curry or add barley and lentils to a chicken casserole to top up the iron. Green veg will help to add iron, so it is great to “eat your greens,” as our mothers often said. Hazelnuts, raisins and pumpkin seeds are great high-iron snacks and breakfast cereals fortified with iron are another great source.
You need to have a food with iron at every meal – this means fortified cereal at breakfast, egg sandwich at lunch and chilli-con-carne for dinner with a green salad. Pregnancy multivitamins will also include a small amount of iron and shouldn’t be enough to cause digestive upsets.
You do still need to keep in touch with your doctor as you may need to go down the supplement route if your iron levels don’t come up even with eating more iron. Good luck!