Iron. It’s one of those nutrients that we don’t think about much – until we’re deficient in it, and when that happens, you know about it: your energy drops drastically, you may have headaches or lack concentration, people may comment on how ‘pale’ you look, and you might even experience dizzy spells. And that’s just for starters!
Iron and pregnancy
Iron is an important mineral involved in various bodily functions, including producing energy and boosting our immune function, which helps us fight infection. Iron also makes red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. If you don’t have enough iron, your body can’t make enough of those essential, oxygen-rich red blood cells. When you’re growing a baby, your blood volume increases and your baby’s blood is also developing – so your need for iron is greater than it’s ever been.
How much iron do you need?
According to Nutrition Australia, pregnant women need 27mg of iron per day (and no more than 45 mg per day), and lactating women need between 9-10mg of iron per day. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you’re in a high risk group for iron deficiency so it’s important to bump up your iron via your diet at this time, or get tested. Extreme exhaustion is usually a key factor in iron deficiency, but it’s hard to differentiate when you have a newborn and are knackered anyway! Best to always check with your GP if you’re concerned.
How do you get adequate iron?
There are two types of iron we can consume from foods – iron from animal sources, known as ‘haem iron’ – which is taken up by the body around 10 times better than iron from plant sources, known as ‘non-haem iron’. In other words, Popeye and his spinach-guzzling ways are all good, but if you’re trying to get more bang for your iron buck, meat is the best source.
For a healthy diet rich in iron, you need to eat at least two serves of red meat,
chicken, fish, legumes or nuts every day. As a rule of thumb, beef, kangaroo and lamb are higher in iron than pork, chicken or fish, but coloured fish such as tuna and mullet are higher in iron than reef fish such as barramundi. If you’re vegetarian, you’ll need to shoehorn in wholegrain and iron-fortified breads and cereals, legumes such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas, green leafy veg such as spinach or broccoli and nuts and dried fruit.
During pregnancy always follow dietary advice from your health care team – although offal is high in iron, too much is not recommended as its large amounts of vitamin A can cause birth defects.
Tips to boosting your iron absorption
The iron stores in the body can affect how much iron you absorb from animal and plant sources. However, there are ways to increase iron absorption.
- Cook your veggies. Studies show in most cases, cooking vegetables bumps up the available iron – for example, your body will absorb 6 percent iron from raw broccoli, but 30 percent from cooked broccoli. (1 cup of cooked broccoli yields nearly 1mg of iron.)
- Vitamin C boosts iron absorption. Eating fruit with a meal can help, or drink a glass of orange juice with meals will help your body absorb more iron from food.
- Team iron-rich protein and veg. If you’re eating a steak with broccoli, the protein will help you absorb the iron from the veggies.
- Avoid tea, coffee and wine with iron-rich foods. The tannins in these beverages interfere with iron absorption because they cling to the iron and carry it out of the body.
- Take a supplement. Our Maternity Formula is designed to help support you and your baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
What if you’re deficient and can’t catch up?
Your GP may send you for a ferritin blood test to diagnose iron deficiency. Ferritin is the protein that stores iron, releasing it when your body needs it. The test measures the level of ferritin in the body. If you have low haemoglobin levels, you could have anaemia. A normal haemoglobin range for women is 12.0 -15.5 grams of haemoglobin per decilitre of blood.
Low iron levels in pregnancy or after your six-week post-natal check-up may require treatment with an iron supplement – especially if you’re breastfeeding, to ensure adequate iron levels in breastfed babies. Be warned – it will turn your stools black, which is disconcerting when you first notice it!
Iron supplements can also increase the risk of constipation so you’ll need to drink more water, eat more fruit and veg (preferably with the skin on), exercise more and, if your GP agrees, drop your iron tablet to every second day.
If you feel you may be low in iron or need more advice about iron in pregnancy and breastfeeding, please be sure to contact your health care team or your GP.