Iron is essential for making the haemoglobin that carries oxygen in red blood cells to all parts of the body. During pregnancy your body needs to increase its blood supply by 50%, so you need plenty of iron to make all the extra haemoglobin for new red blood cells.
With such a big increase in blood supply in pregnancy your blood tends to be more dilute than usual, so it’s normal for pregnant women to have a slightly lower level of iron in their blood, over 10.5 g/dl. But if you aren’t getting enough iron then your blood is less able to carry oxygen to all your organs and you may suffer from anaemia leaving you feeling tired, washed out, breathless, dizzy, headachy and with a loss of appetite. You might even have heart palpitations. Not what you want with everything else you have to cope with right now!
Where to get it
More easily absorbed forms of iron (HAEM) are found in meat, oily fish and poultry. Less easily absorbed iron (NON-HAEM) is found in fruits, beans, nuts, vegetables and grains.
Vegetables: Brocolli, spinach, kale, brussel sprouts, peas
Cereals: Wholemeal breads and pasta, fortified breakfast cereals
Dried fruits: Raisins, sultanas, prunes, figs and apricots
Beans: Lentils, soya beans
Nuts and seeds: Pistachios, almonds. Hazelnuts, cashews, sunflower seeds
Sweets: Dark chocolate, liquorice
If you’re mainly relying on NON-HAEM intakes of iron, if you’re a vegetarian for instance, then you can help absorption by taking your iron with a good source of vitamin C or by cooking the iron-rich food in an iron-based pot, like a skillet.
Just as eating in combination can help absorption of iron, it can also hinder absorption if you combine the iron source with calcium, caffeine or high-fibre intake, so there goes the excuse for sitting down with a nice coffee and a piece of dark chocolate! Try combining your iron intake instead with orange or grapefruit juice.
Why not just pop a supplement?
Iron tablets can cause, or aggravate, digestive problems like constipation, so unless you are actually anaemic the best way to get your iron is through natural sources. And even if you take an iron supplement you should still try to get plenty of iron through your diet.
And if you’re not getting enough
Your doctor will conduct routine tests of your iron levels during pregnancy, but if the above symptoms of anaemia sound all too familiar to you then tell him or her as soon as you can. There’s no need to panic, anaemia can usually be sorted out by increasing your iron intake and if you have a positive test then your doctor will probably prescribe an iron supplement.