Why do I need iron during pregnancy?

You need iron to produce haemoglobin - the protein in red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the various organs and tissues in the body. When you are pregnant, your body needs 50 per cent more blood than usual and hence your iron needs increase accordingly.

If your diet does not provide the iron required by your body, you may be at risk of suffering from iron deficiency or anaemia. The World Health Organisation estimates indicate that nearly 65 to 75 per cent of pregnant women in India are anaemic. Anaemia in pregnancy can also be caused by folic acid deficiency called folate deficiency anaemia or by severe morning sickness (hyperemesis gravidarum).

Research shows that iron deficiency anaemia in the first two trimesters increases the risk of premature birth and low birth weight in the baby.

How much iron do I need during pregnancy?

Before pregnancy, the recommended dietary allowance of iron is 30 mg a day. For pregnant women, it is 38 mg a day. The highest requirement of iron is in the first and third trimester. So the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and the Ministry of Health recommend that all pregnant women should be prescribed an iron supplement containing 100mg of iron per day for at least 100 days. At your first antenatal visit, your doctor will recommend a blood test to check your haemoglobin levels. It's normal for the levels to drop a little during pregnancy because there's far more fluid in your blood to dilute the red blood cells. If your blood report says that you are anaemic, you will need two iron tablets a day for three months.

If my iron levels are fine, should I take a supplement?

Even if your iron levels are fine, you will need iron supplements to prevent developing anaemia during the course of pregnancy. Read more about prenatal supplements.

What foods are the best sources of iron?

There are two sources of iron non-vegetarian sources and vegetarian sources. Non-vegetarian sources of iron are more easily absorbed by the body. Vegetarian sources of iron are less easily absorbed by the body.

Non-vegetarian sources of iron include:120 mg mutton (lamb) chops: 2 mg
100 gm chicken
boiled (dark meat found in chicken thighs has more iron than white meat in the breast of chicken): 1 mg
100 gm fish: 0.4 to 1 mg
6 prawns (120 mg): 2 mg
12 mussels: 8 mg

Liver is traditionally recommended as a rich source of iron. However, many experts caution against consuming it during pregnancy. Read more about eating liver and liver products during pregnancy.

Vegetarian sources of iron are:

  • Vegetables and leafy green vegetables are a good source of iron, so try to include them in some form daily either as a salad or a lentil based vegetable like dal paalak/keerai masiyal made with amaranth, mint (pudina), and turnip greens. Other iron rich vegetables are broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, beetroot, pumpkin, asparagus and sweet potato.
  • Nuts, seeds and dried fruits such as cashew nuts, coconut, pumpkin seeds, mustard seeds, pistachios, raisins, coriander seeds (sabut dhania) and walnuts.
  • Legumes like soya bean, cow peas (lobhia), kidney beans, dried peas, chickpeas, and lentils.
  • Fruits such as watermelon, grapefruit, apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries, and avocados.
  • Condiments and spices like turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, oregano, rosemary and thyme.
  • Wholegrain flour (chakki atta) and pasta, multigrain bread, oats, and rice bran.

Find out how you can boost your iron levels if you are vegetarian and anaemic!

How do I ensure the iron I take is absorbed?

A combination of iron and protein works best in increasing absorption of iron into the body. If you are vegetarian, eating dal with leafy green vegetables is a way of combining protein and iron intake. Why not try our iron-enriched recipes?

Vitamin C also helps in the absorption of iron. As vegetarian sources of iron are not easily absorbed into the body, eat them at the same time as you take Vitamin C. You can get vitamin C from citrus fruits so have nimbu pani or orange juice with your meal. You can also just sprinkle a few drops of lime juice in your dal or vegetables.

Caffeine, alcohol and tannin (found in many plants including grapes) inhibit absorption of iron. So it is best to avoid any food containing them such as coffee, tea and red wine, within a couple of hours before and after taking your supplement or after a meal.

Calcium also interferes in the absorption of iron, so don't take your calcium supplement with your meals or along with your iron supplement. Avoid drinking milk with or just after your meals too for the same reason. Cooking in iron utensils is traditionally recommended to increase iron absorption. But there's not much research to confirm this.

Iron supplements can, however, cause constipation, which is common in pregnancy. Increasing your fibre intake in the form of fruits and vegetables and drinking plenty of fluids can help you improve this condition. You can also consult your doctor and he might be able to change the supplement to another brand or type.

Source: Babycenter India

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