Iron during pregnancy. Are you getting enough?

Did you know, during pregnancy you need 2-3 times more iron than normal? This dramatic increase can be hard to meet from diet alone and many women may be faced with low iron while pregnant. We know one in 14 New Zealand women are low in iron and many do not get enough iron in their diet each day.

Iron is incredibly important during pregnancy and is needed for mum’s extra blood volume and to provide for the developing baby. Iron is needed to transport oxygen around the body, for energy production and a healthy immune system. Iron is essential for a healthy placenta which is the organ responsible for providing nourishment to the growing baby.

What does iron deficiency look like?

Low iron can greatly impact the way you feel. If you have low iron levels, you may:

  • Feel fatigued and lethargic
  • Become easily irritated
  • Look pale or washed out
  • Have heart palpitations (the feeling of your heart beating abnormally fast or with an irregular rhythm)
  • Feel dizzy
  • Be unable to catch your breath or feel breathless
  • Feel run down and more prone to colds and infections
  • Feel light headed or experience headaches

It’s not uncommon to feel tired or lack energy when pregnant so it can be hard to know if it is normal or a symptom of iron deficiency. You should always talk with your lead maternity carer (LMC) or doctor if you are concerned.

What’s the big deal?

Iron deficiency is the most widespread nutritional disorder in the world and because it’s so common, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s not as serious as it is. Unfortunately, iron deficiency and anaemia have been associated with postnatal depression, increased likelihood of blood transfusion, increased risk of infection and difficulties with bonding and breastfeeding. Severe anaemia is also linked to low birth weight and preterm birth.

Try the following for top iron intake:

  • Eat lean red meat, like beef and lamb, 3-4 times per week
  • Eat regular iron-rich foods rather than one iron-rich meal per day. Small but frequent consumption is better
  • Drink tea and coffee between meals rather than with your meal as these can interfere with iron absorption
  • Choose an iron-fortified breakfast cereal
  • Add brightly coloured vegetables to your meals as these contain vitamin C which helps increase iron absorption
  • Eat citrus fruit, strawberries or kiwifruit straight after your meal or add lemon juice to greens/salads for added vitamin C
  • Soak nuts, seeds, legumes and grains (overnight then discard the water) to remove the phytic acid that blocks iron absorption

If you’re concerned, get tested

All women in New Zealand are offered antenatal blood tests at their first appointment with a LMC. This first blood test will check (among other things) how much iron is in your blood i.e. haemoglobin. You might also have your ferritin levels tested and this indicates your iron stores. A normal haemoglobin level means you do not have iron deficiency anaemia but does not tell you if you have low iron stores, a risk factor for iron deficiency anaemia.
If you have any symptoms of iron deficiency or have been deficient in the past, it’s a good idea to ask for your ferritin levels to be tested as well as haemoglobin – if not offered at your first appointment.

For an iron rich meal try this spaghetti meatballs recipe.