Pregnancy is a time of excitement, but it also has its fair share of stress.
Sorting through all the nutritional information can be particularly challenging.
Do I need to take prenatal supplements? What should I be eating? Which nutrients does my growing baby need?
It’s even more difficult when your friends, your midwife and the mama forum all have different recommendations.
Perhaps you’ve been pregnant before and the advice has changed since you gave birth.
Recommendations change continually as professionals learn more about how nutrition affects the body – especially during pregnancy.
Although it can be challenging to keep up, it’s important you do your best to find the latest information for each of your pregnancies.
Iron Intake During Pregnancy – 6 FAQs Answered
Research into nutrition is a growing field. For a long time we’ve known iron is important for everyone, and especially for pregnant mothers.
Current research shows just how important iron is. We’re also learning more about the best ways to consume it.
Here are six frequently asked questions about iron intake during pregnancy:
#1: What Is Iron?
Iron is a mineral that is vital for the human body. It is a component of the haemoglobin in the red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. This process allows cells to create energy. Iron also plays a role in removing carbon dioxide from the body.
When you’re pregnant, your blood volume increases by 50% to help meet your growing baby’s needs. This makes adequate iron intake even more vital during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, your blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your baby, via the placenta and umbilical cord. If a mother’s iron levels get too low, it can increase the risk of serious pregnancy complications.
For this reason, women’s iron levels are routinely checked during pregnancy.
#2: Why Is Adequate Iron Vital To A Healthy Pregnancy?
As mentioned above, iron plays a role in carrying oxygen to your baby. Your iron stores and iron intake affect your baby’s iron stores at birth; these are used to support a baby’s body for the first 6 months of life.
You need adequate iron to:
- Provide oxygen transport throughout the body
- Aid the formation of new red blood cells and haemoglobin
- Metabolise nutrition effectively (get energy from food)
- Support a healthy immune system
- Ensure proper cognitive function
- Maintain healthy energy levels.
During pregnancy, you need adequate iron to:
- Help carry adequate oxygen to your baby
- Develop your baby’s iron stores for the first 6 months of life
- Reduce the risk of preterm labour
- Reduce the risk of low-birth weight and infant mortality
- Prepare your body sufficiently for the expected blood loss during and after birth.
Adequate iron helps you feel your best. When your iron levels are low, especially during pregnancy, you might feel generally unwell. Many expectant mamas with low iron report feeling extra fatigued, lightheaded, dizzy, or even more nauseated.
#3: How Do I Consume Enough Iron?
Iron is an essential component of the human diet. It can be found in several sources. People who have a well-rounded diet usually get adequate iron from foods.
People who are at risk for iron deficiency or who are iron deficient, might need an iron supplement.
There are many iron rich foods, both animal and plant based. Some animal based iron sources are:
- Red meat
- Oysters and clams
Some plant based (vegan) sources of iron are:
- Spinach and other leafy greens
- Dark chocolate
- Pumpkin seeds
Iron rich foods are best eaten with vitamin C, which aids in the absorption of the iron. They should not be eaten at the same time as major sources of calcium, because calcium can block the absorption of iron.
Calcium is another necessary nutrient, so avoiding calcium isn’t beneficial in increasing your iron levels. Avoiding excessive amounts of calcium, or consuming calcium a couple of hours before or after your iron rich meal (or supplements) will help your body absorb sufficient iron.
There are two forms of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in animal-based foods, and non-heme is found in plant-based foods, including iron fortified foods. A higher percentage of heme iron is absorbed compared with the absorbed amount of non-heme iron.
This doesn’t necessarily mean animal-based iron is preferable, but knowing the difference in absorption levels can help you make choices about the quantity and type of iron rich foods you consume.
Many processed grains such as cereals, white breads, and pasta are fortified with iron. Although these can be a source of iron, consuming too many processed grains can have negative effects, especially during pregnancy. In most situations, the closer a food is to its natural state, the healthier it is.
Overall, our diets are healthier when we consume whole grains and rely on naturally iron rich foods for iron intake.
Be sure to read Pregnancy Nutrition – The Most Important Things You Need To Know to learn more about how to get adequate nutrition during pregnancy.
#4: Should I Take An Iron Supplement During Pregnancy?
A well-rounded diet provides adequate nutrition for many people. However, certain people need additional nutrient supplements to remain healthy. Women who receive adequate prenatal care are routinely monitored for iron levels.
If your midwife or doctor determines you have iron-deficient anaemia, or if you’re at risk for iron-deficient anaemia, they will recommend you take an iron supplement.
In some situations, the anaemia is severe and an iron infusion (given via IV) or a blood transfusion might be recommended. This is rare for otherwise healthy pregnant women who consume adequate iron. It’s more common in women experiencing hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme pregnancy sickness), those with nutrient absorption problems (such as Crohn’s disease), or those with blood disorders.
According to information published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, women who aren’t anaemic shouldn’t need iron supplements during pregnancy provided they consume enough iron rich foods.
“Iron supplements are particularly important for pregnant women who have anaemia. In women who have normal iron levels, taking iron supplements as a precautionary measure probably doesn’t have any health benefits. They can get enough iron in their diet”.
Excess iron consumption isn’t beneficial and can have side effects. Even those who need iron supplements sometimes experience side effects.
Gastric upset and constipation are common side effects of iron supplements. They’re also ailments many pregnant women already battle.
For people who are not anaemic, because of potential side effects, most healthcare professionals don’t believe the benefit of supplements outweighs the risk of the discomfort associated with taking them.
#5: How Much Iron Do I Need?
If you need a supplement because you are anaemic, it’s important to follow the recommended doses your midwife, doctor or registered dietician prescribes. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to supplementing; there are many variables, such as current iron stores, reason for anaemia, gestation, etc.
An adult woman should consume 18mg of iron per day. During pregnancy, the daily recommended amount of iron increases to 27mg per day.
Even if a supplement is recommended, it’s still important to focus on an iron rich diet; food based sources are often more easily absorbed and can help you get your iron levels back up quickly. Getting iron from food means you will probably avoid unpleasant side effects such as constipation and gastric pain.
#6: What Are Symptoms Of Anaemia During Pregnancy?
Pregnancy is a time when many women feel different from the way they normally feel. This makes it more difficult to separate typical pregnancy symptoms from symptoms of greater concern. If, at any time you’re uncertain about how you’re feeling, be sure to talk to your care provider.
In most care situations, your care provider will monitor your iron levels at your first prenatal appointment and again before or just as you enter the third trimester. If you’re at an increased risk or you’re anaemic, your provider will probably check your blood levels more frequently.
Even if you have a blood test that shows adequate iron levels, it’s important to contact your provider if you feel different. It is possible to have adequate iron levels at the beginning of your pregnancy but to develop anaemia as your pregnancy progresses.
Some symptoms of anaemia are:
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Pale skin
- Brittle hair and nails
- Bruising easily
- Nose bleeds
- Heart palpitations, including tachycardia (fast heart rate)
- Difficulty concentrating or brain ‘fog’
- Feeling of weakness
- Excessive fatigue
- Pica – the craving of non-food items
- Shortness of breath.
Many of these symptoms can also be experienced during pregnancy, so it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause. However, if you suddenly have an increase in these symptoms, it’s important to speak with your care provider.
Despite a decent diet, I experienced anaemia, of varying degrees, during all of my pregnancies. The one symptom that always stood out to me was bruising easily. I also experienced extreme fatigue (more severe than regular pregnancy fatigue).
In one pregnancy, my iron levels were okay but within a week of having the blood test they dropped. Being aware of symptoms meant I was able to contact my provider long before I was due for my next blood test.
If you experience a sudden change of symptoms, even though they might seem like normal pregnancy fluctuations, it’s a good idea to touch base with your provider.
Iron-deficient anaemia during pregnancy is reasonably common. When properly treated, it poses little risk. Untreated anaemia, on the other hand, increases many risks during pregnancy.
Be sure to read Anaemia During Pregnancy | Causes, Symptoms and Treatment to learn more.