Most of us will have heard that iron is a mineral and an important component of a healthy, balanced diet but do we really understand how much iron we should be getting during pregnancy and how much babies should be having in the early years of life?
The importance of iron
Iron is a micronutrient that helps to make red blood cells which are responsible for transporting oxygen around the body. Iron also aids in the normal function of the immune system.
Iron deficiency (when we have an insufficient supply of iron) may cause a variety of complications in the body which include symptoms such as tiredness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and headaches.
However, studies have shown that iron deficiency in children may pose an even larger detrimental threat to both brain development and the nervous system. Therefore, ensuring that you and your baby receive the right amount of iron is essential for good health!
First things first, how much iron do I need during pregnancy?
Recently, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) published a paper called “Feeding in the First Year of Life” which demonstrated that iron levels at birth are the most important determinant of iron levels throughout infancy. In other words, the iron you supply your baby with throughout your pregnancy will be incredibly important to their overall iron supplies after birth.
Interestingly in the UK reference intakes for iron during pregnancy are the same as those of non-pregnant women which is 14.8mg/day. This isn’t because pregnant women don’t need more iron for their growing baby, but simply because physiological adaptations (adaptations to haemoglobin and additional haemoglobin) during pregnancy mean that extra blood and iron circulates around the body.
The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) do not recommend that women in the UK take a routine iron supplement during pregnancy. Supplementation is ONLY recommended if women have low iron (measured by haemoglobin) in the blood during the first trimester or at 28 weeks.
Yet, approximately 20% of pregnant women suffer with iron deficiency anaemia so it’s a good idea to become familiar with how much iron you need and exactly where you can get it in the diet!
Why do pregnant women need more iron during pregnancy?
Pregnant women need more iron due to a growing baby’s iron demands increasing significantly throughout gestation. In fact, during the last trimester SACN suggest that the foetus will accumulate about 2mg of iron daily (that’s equivalent to the iron found in 2 tins of tuna!)
On the other hand obesity and smoking can lead to lower iron levels, so it is beneficial to try to achieve a healthy weight and to try to quit smoking before you become pregnant to avoid baby being born with low iron stores.
How much iron does my baby need?
Provided baby is born at term with a healthy birthweight, SACN suggests they are born with the correct iron supplies needed to sustain them throughout the first 6 months of life. Therefore just breastmilk and/or formula are the only food your baby needs during this time.
From 6 months onwards, SACN reports that breast milk and/or fortified formula are no longer sufficient to meet the increasing iron requirements, and infants will need to begin to receive iron from a range of other dietary sources.
Table 1 below, adapted from The British Dietetic Association, breaks down the amount of iron needed for infants and children.
Table 1, Iron Recommendations for Infants and Children
Where does iron come from in the diet?
Iron is available in two forms – we have plant-based iron (called non-haem iron) and animal-based iron (called haem iron).
Haem iron is the easiest type of iron for our bodies to absorb and effectively use. We can acquire haem iron from a variety of animal products such as red meats, pork, fish and liver.
Non-haem iron can be found in foods such as broccoli, beans, cereals and nuts. Our bodies find it a little bit more difficult to absorb iron from non-haem sources therefore it is recommended that a source of vitamin C is consumed alongside iron rich foods to help aid in its absorption.
Here are a few examples of how you can combine iron rich foods with vitamin C:
- A handful of berries with your fortified-cereal at breakfast
- Slices of chopped pepper with your sandwich at lunch
- Having a glass of orange juice or adding slices of lemon to your water alongside dinner
See Table 2 below which shows the iron content of different food sources. Why not screenshot this and use this when you plan your weekly menu!
Table 2, taken from: https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/iron_food_fact_sheet.pdf
Take home points:
- Pregnant women have higher iron needs than non-pregnant women. They also play a vital role in preventing their baby from developing low iron stores at birth.
- From 6 months onwards, infants need to eat a variety of foods including some which are good sources of iron to meet the increasing micronutrient demands of a growing baby.
- Vitamin C is a great way to help your body absorb iron from plant-based food sources and making small changes to incorporate vitamin C into your diet will ensure you are absorbing this iron efficiently.
I hope you found this post interesting and thank you for reading!
Article written by Holly Roper MSc student University of Sheffield with support from SR Nutrition.
Government Dietary Recommendations:
SACN report “Feeding in the First Year of Life”:
SACN paper on iron: