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Why are Iron rich foods important in Pregnancy?

Iron is an essential micro-nutrient. That means we need it for our body to function normally. Iron is a really important part of how our body makes red blood cells (haemoglobin), which carry oxygen to every organ, tissue and cell in the body.

It is also important for energy production, immune system health, cognitive function and many other vital bodily systems. We literally can’t function without it. Our bodies don’t produce it so we need to get it from the food or supplements we eat.

Getting enough iron rich foods in your diet is incredibly important, especially in pregnancy, but sometimes it can be confusing as to where the best sources are.

In this guide, we will do a deep dive into how to get enough iron in your diet to keep you healthy and well during pregnancy. Not having enough iron in your diet may lead to inadequate iron levels . This can lead to feeling tired and lacking in energy. It can also have long term health implications for you and for the growing baby.

Why pregnant women need iron

In pregnancy the amount of blood in your body increases by up to 50%. This is to ensure both mum and baby have enough oxygen filled red blood cells and nutrients to feed both the pregnant body and the growing foetus.

To satisfy all this extra blood volume and to make all the extra red blood cells, you need to increase the amount of iron you take in your diet by two or even three times – that’s a lot of iron.

When you go in for your initial check-up, your bloods are taken and as part of this blood test your haemoglobin (iron levels) are checked.

Because of the way iron is stored in the body, even if your iron levels are ‘normal’ in the first trimester, you still need to take in sufficient iron rich foods.

Inadequate iron levels affect 2.1 billion people worldwide, it is estimated that 40% of pregnant women do not get enough iron during pregnancy*.

Some of the symptoms of inadequate iron levels, such as feeling tired & fatigued, happen even in the healthiest of pregnancies. It is essential that your diet is balanced and that you meet your daily iron requirement in pregnancy to ensure you feel well throughout.

How much iron do pregnant women need?

It is recommended that every pregnant woman should consume about 30mg of iron in their diet every single day.

If you have a previous history of inadequate iron levels, have had heavy periods, have a restricted diet, are having a multiple pregnancy or have had short spaces between pregnancies (< 18 months) this might increase to 60 mg daily.

Because lots of women might never have gotten their bloods checked before, it can be very difficult to know what your ‘normal’ iron levels are.

While the general blood test checks iron levels in your blood, it doesn’t check your iron stores (ferritin levels). If you are concerned it may be well worth asking your health care provider to do this additional test to see if your iron stores in the body are in the normal range.

As you move to your second and third trimesters and on to the postnatal period, your body requires ever increasing amounts of foods high in iron for pregnancy.

Having normal iron levels at the beginning is no guarantee that you will still have normal levels at the end. That’s why it is vital you think about iron rich foods during pregnancy and how to get enough of them in your diet.

How to ensure you have an iron rich diet in pregnancy

Variety is the spice of life and this is very true with a diet high in iron content. An easy way to remember is a diet rich in iron is a diet rich in colour and balance.

What that means is by having a varied and mixed diet you can help your body get enough of this vital micro nutrient to satisfy the increased need.

It is first important to understand that not all iron in the diet is of equal value. There are two types of iron in food, heme iron (usually animal sources) and non-heme iron sources. (usually plant based sources).

Unlike other nutrients that we get from our diet, iron is not directly absorbed from food but is broken down and then transported, via a carrier mechanism, in part of the small intestine (called the duodenum).

Heme sources are more easily broken down and more easily absorbed than non-heme sources, therefore if you have lots of both, you can help yourself have an iron rich diet. However, this can be challenging for a number of reasons:

  • Lots of women have vegetarian or restricted diets
  • People have likes and dislikes
  • If you are prone or have a history of inadequate iron (many women are unaware of their iron status and maybe unaware of inadequate iron stores as previously explained)
  • If you have a history of heavy periods
  • The amount and type of food you eat can be hugely impacted by your pregnancy for example if you have nausea
  • Towards the end of your pregnancy when your stomach size is reduced eating large amounts of any food is very tough.

You need to eat A LOT of some of these foods to get enough iron, for example 1 cup of cooked spinach gives you just 2mg of iron.

List of iron rich foods in pregnancy

Heme-iron rich foods for pregnant women:

• Beef
• Lamb
• Chicken
• Turkey
• Pork
• Ham
• Veal
• Fish
• Eggs

Non-heme iron: Which vegetables have the most iron?:

• Green leafy vegetables(Spinach{cooked}, broccoli, chard, kale, cabbage)
• Potatoes (skin on)
• Sweet potatoes
• Legumes (lentils, soy beans, green beans, black eyes peas)
• Beans (chickpeas, kidney beans, white beans)
• Fortified cereals
• Fortified rice and pasta
• Canned or stewed tomatoes
• Beets
• Dried apricots or peaches
• Figs
• Raisins
• Pumpkin seeds
• Pistachio nuts
• Cashew nuts
• Oats (Porridge)
• Branflakes

How to compliment an iron rich diet in pregnancy

Iron absorption can be affected by our diet also. In heme sources about 40% of the available iron is absorbed in a healthy person. Only about 5-15% of the iron content of nonheme iron sources is absorbed. That is why it is not just about the types of iron rich foods you eat, but ensuring you are getting the right amount of the food to actually provide you with enough sources iron in your diet.

Consuming a diet that is also rich in vitamin C can aid absorption, particularly for nonheme iron sources in the diet. Foods high in Vitamin C include citrus fruits, bells peppers, raspberries, strawberries and melon.

Other factors that can affect iron absorption in the body are absorption issues (such as coeliac and Crohn’s disease), medications (such as non- steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medication and some antibiotics), calcium, too much tea or coffee (because they contain high levels of tannins), a substance called phytates (found in bran containing cereals).

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Once you becomes iron deficient during pregnancy, then diet alone will never be enough to replenish levels and get sufficient iron to meet all your needs. That’s why iron supplementation is so important.

Iron supplements for pregnant women

It is because of the challenges of getting enough iron in the diet, that taking an iron supplement is a great way to not only compliment an iron rich diet, but to ensure you are meeting the greatly increased needs during pregnancy and right the way through to the 4th trimester (3 months postnatal period).

However, not all iron supplements are created equally!

For many years, pregnant women had very little choice but to take less than satisfactory supplements that offered poor absorption (10-15% of the available iron), and had a very high likelihood of causing nasty side effects like gastrointestinal discomfort, constipation and nausea.

That is why Active Iron have developed products that utterly change the game. Active Iron is a clinically proven formula that is both kind and strong. Active Iron Pregnancy Plus contains 25mg of iron which is 2X better absorbed compared to standard ferrous sulfate.

The iron biospheres are surrounded by a whey protein covering, which means it not broken down higher up in the stomach meaning that not only I sit clinically proven to increase iron stores by up to 94% but it also causes 6X less gut irritation compared to other iron supplements.

Pregnancy plus also has omega 3 and a multivitamin, with key nutrients such as folic acid as L-Methylfolate (an easily absorbed form of folic acid) and vitamin D.

This makes it the a complete pregnancy supplement, and the only one as a Midwife that I recommend.

Conclusion: Iron rich foods in pregnancy Conclusion

Iron is an essential component for life and is especially important in pregnancy.

During pregnancy it is important to ensure your diet that has lots of iron rich foods, from both heme and nonheme sources, to support healthy blood formation and support energy levels.

This however, can be challenging for a number of reasons and therefore taking Active Iron Pregnancy Plus can ensure you have enough iron in your diet for your entire pregnancy.

It’s clinically proven formula is designed to help avoid the common side effects that other less superior supplements cause. Ensuring you have enough Iron has huge long term health benefits for mum and baby.

*Garzon et al, Oman Med J. 2020 Sep; 35(5): e166.

About Avril Flynn

Avril Flynn is a registered midwife and mum of one. As an expert in women’s health, Avril has been helping women gain knowledge and confidence for years. She takes a holistic approach to ensure parents feel empowered as they navigate parenthood.@AvrilTheMidwife

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