Iron – building a healthy brain
Iron is an important nutrient for pregnancy, with essential roles to play in your baby’s development and your own health.
An adequate intake supports your baby’s rapidly developing brain, as well as their growing muscles1. Iron is also needed to make haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carry oxygen around your body and to your baby2.
“The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI – the amount considered to be enough to meet most people’s needs) for women is 14.8mg per day.”
Iron in your pregnancy diet
During pregnancy, your body uses more iron than usual. This is partly due to your increased blood supply, with more iron required to create and maintain a greater volume of blood cells. Your baby’s demand for iron also rises as they grow.
Added to this, your baby’s body starts accumulating iron stores in the third trimester of pregnancy, ready to support them during their first 6 months of life.
Surprisingly, as long as you had good iron levels before conceiving, your recommended intake is the same as if you weren’t pregnant. This is because without the loss of blood through monthly periods, you retain more of your body’s iron stores. Your body also becomes more efficient at absorbing iron as pregnancy progresses – one of the amazing ways your body naturally adapts to the ever-changing demands of growing a new person1.
Why it’s important to get enough
A lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia, a condition where the blood doesn’t contain enough red blood cells for your body’s needs. Symptoms include some that are common to pregnancy, such as tiredness, a lack of energy, and breathlessness. It can also bring on the racing sensation of heart palpitations and leave you looking pale and washed out. The immune system can also be affected, leaving you more vulnerable to infection and illness3.
Maintaining healthy iron levels during pregnancy means you’re less likely to become anaemic4, in turn lowering the possible risks of premature birth, a low birth weight5 and low iron levels in your baby6.
Your midwife will check your iron levels regularly. They may suggest taking an iron supplement during pregnancy if your levels run low, and if you do develop anaemia, they will help you manage the condition to keep you and your baby healthy.
Iron in your pregnancy diet
Iron is present in a variety of foods. The iron found in animal products is called haem iron, and is more easily absorbed than the non-haem iron provided by plant sources.
”Vegetarian diets may provide less haem-iron, so if you eat little or no meat, be sure to let your midwife know.”
Include the following iron sources as part of your balanced pregnancy diet to ensure an adequate intake:
- Meat, including red meat and poultry
- Dark, leafy vegetables
- Dried fruit
- Fortified breakfast cereals
Interestingly, the cookware you use may affect the iron content of your food. Some research suggests that using cast iron pots and pans can help to increase your iron intake1.
A little extra help from vitamin C7
Vitamin C helps your body to get the less-easily absorbed non-haem iron. So when eating iron-rich plant-based food, up your intake by having a glass of orange juice or a piece of citrus fruit with it or for dessert.
This is especially relevant if you follow a vegetarian diet, which misses out on the more absorbable haem iron found in meat and fish.
It is also important to note that the tannins in tea and coffee can reduce the absorption of iron. So if you enjoy a hot drink after a meal, try choosing a pregnancy-safe fruit tea instead. Take care to limit your intake of chamomile and peppermint teas as these can contain polyphenolic compounds (such as tannins) which can inhibit iron absorption8.
Add the following foods containing iron to your shopping list1:
- Beef, lamb, pork and chicken
- Spinach, kale and broccoli
- Chickpeas and lentils
- Pilchards and sardines
- Apricots, prunes and raisins