Analysis: iron is an important nutrient for both pregnant women and their babies as it transports oxygen around the body
Nutrition and health are always important, but never so much as during pregnancy when a woman takes responsibility for the baby growing inside her.
Iron is a particularly important nutrient for both pregnant women and their babies as it is used in the transportation of oxygen around the body and is critical to the functioning of all cells and organ systems. As iron requirements increase almost 10-fold during pregnancy, with the greatest need during the third trimester, pregnant women need considerably more iron to support their needs and those of their growing child.
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From BBC Forces of Nature, Prof Brian Cox on why iron is so important in our blood
Low iron during pregnancy makes women more likely to experience the unwanted symptoms of tiredness, lethargy, dizziness and weakness. If left untreated, iron deficiency will progress into iron deficiency anaemia with adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and low birth weight. Iron deficiency anaemia during pregnancy also increases the chances that the infant will be born iron deficient.
This is important as iron plays a fundamental role in the growth and development of a child's brain, 90% of which occurs before the age of five years, with most of this growth occurring in the first 1,000 days – the pregnancy and first two years of a child’s life. As a result, iron deficiency can potentially result in poorer intelligence, low cognition, poor motor skills and behavioural problems in young children, with long-reaching effects.
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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today show, Dr Máire Finn GP with health advice for women in the early stages of pregnancy
Fortunately, there are steps that you can take. Here’s what the research shows us about tackling iron deficiency.
Not all iron is created equal
Iron is found in many different foods, including red meats like beef and lamb, green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts and dried fruit. However, the heme iron found in animal products is much more easily absorbed by the body than the non-heme iron found primarily in plant-based products. So eat a wide range of iron-rich foods from both plant and animal sources where possible.
A healthy, balanced and varied diet will provide you with much of the nutrients your body needs. Here’s guidance from the HSE on eating well – and try to have at least two servings of iron-rich foods every day.
Check the nutrition label on your breakfast cereal
Did you know that many breads and cereal products are fortified with vitamins and minerals, including iron? Fortified products are very important contributors of iron in the Irish diet.
A large proportion of the popular ready-to-eat breakfast cereals in Ireland are fortified with iron
Take a look at your favourite foods and try to choose iron-fortified options when available. A large proportion of the popular ready-to-eat breakfast cereals in Ireland are fortified with iron.
Fortified products are especially helpful in meeting iron requirements in individuals that do not consume any animal products. Vegetarian and vegan women may be at an increased risk of iron deficiency during pregnancy, so they should aim to incorporate fortified products in their diet as much as possible.
Consider your accompaniments
While the type of iron found in foods can influence its absorption in the body, the food and drink you consume with those iron-rich foods can also influence this.
Vitamin C, which is found mainly in fruits and vegetables like oranges, strawberries, peppers and tomatoes, helps your body absorb iron. Women should aim to consume foods rich in vitamin C at the same time as your iron-rich foods, especially if those iron-rich foods are plant-based. If you are about to sit down to an iron-rich meal, try and avoid tea and coffee as they both contain a large amount of tannins that can greatly reduce the absorption of iron in the body.
What does this look like in practice? When you’re having your bowl of fortified breakfast cereal in the morning, try swapping out that cup of tea for a glass of orange juice.
Talk to your healthcare professional
Routine pregnancy care will help you monitor your overall diet and health. This should include regular monitoring and assessment of your iron status throughout pregnancy.
Please talk to your healthcare professional if you are concerned that you aren’t getting enough iron in your diet. If your iron status is poor, your doctor may prescribe you an iron supplement, if needed.
Start off on a good foot
Inadequate intakes of iron are very common amongst women, with many struggling with iron deficiency and anaemia throughout their lives. In addition to this, common lifestyle factors like smoking and obesity have also been shown to increase the risk of iron deficiency in both mothers and their children.
This means that many women begin their pregnancy with depleted stores of iron in the body. Given the extra demand for iron during pregnancy, women need to consider their health and diet prior to ever getting pregnant. Eating iron-rich foods daily accompanied by important promotors of iron absorption like vitamin C is just as important prior to pregnancy as it is during pregnancy.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ