Iron is an essential mineral that merits special attention as part of your diet before and during pregnancy. Iron is essential to the formation of healthy red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen through your blood to the cells of your body. Almost two thirds of the iron in your body is found in hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to your body’s tissues.
The increase in blood volume that takes place during pregnancy greatly increases a woman’s need for iron. If you do not get enough iron and/or do not have adequate iron stores, the growing baby will take it at your expense. Iron deficiency during pregnancy can cause anemia, extreme fatigue, a low birth-weight baby, and other potential problems. The greater your iron stores before you become pregnant, the better iron will be absorbed during pregnancy.
It is very difficult to get enough iron from foods alone. Most multi-vitamin/mineral supplements and/or prenatal vitamin supplements will provide you with your pre-pregnancy needs of 18 mg per day. If you have anemia before becoming pregnant, your doctor may prescribe a much larger dose.
During pregnancy, your iron requirement climbs to 27 mg per day. Again, as with many other vitamin and minerals, too much iron is not always best. Iron has a tolerable upper intake level of 45 mg. Foods that supply iron include meat, poultry, fish, legumes, and whole-grain and enriched grain products. Iron from plant sources (or “nonheme iron”) is not as easily absorbed as that from animal sources (or “heme iron”).
Supplementing your meals with a food or beverage rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits or juices, broccoli, tomatoes, or kiwi, will help your body better absorb the iron in the foods you consume. The absorption of iron from supplements is best absorbed on an empty stomach or when swallowed with juice containing vitamin C.