Iron (Fe) is very important for both men and women and more so during pregnancy! It is a micronutrient that is essential for a lot of body functions as:
- It makes hemoglobin (the protein component of RBC’s that transports oxygen to cells of your body)
- It forms a component of myoglobin (a protein that that transports oxygen to your muscles)
- It helps in forming collagen (a connective tissue protein)
- It is a part (co-factor) of numerous enzymes (which are essential for various body processes)
- It is needed for the overall wellbeing of the body by aiding the immune system
Why is iron so important in women?
Once women enter menarche (her first menstrual bleed), she then starts to lose <80 ml of blood per menstrual cycle on a monthly basis (>80 ml is considered a heavy period/menstrual cycle). As iron forms the “heme” component of hemoglobin in the blood, it is lost more in women than men due to their menses. Hence, to prevent anemia, the RDA of iron should be incorporated in your diet (or should be supplemented).
Why is iron so important during pregnancy?
During pregnancy, the need for this essential mineral increases because:
- The body makes more blood (50% more) to meet the demands of pregnancy. This, in turn, increases the requirement of iron to make more hemoglobin.
- Your growing baby also needs iron for its development in your womb
- If you are borderline anemic, then you may get iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy. This leads to:
- Low birth weight in the baby
- Infant mortality
- Premature delivery
How much iron is required in your diet?
Pregnant women: 27 – 38 milligrams/day
Non-pregnant women: 18 – 22 milligrams/day
In addition to this, including vitamin C (around 80-90 mg/day) helps in iron absorption mainly from non-heme sources.
What is the difference between heme and non-heme iron?
Heme and non- heme iron are the two variants of iron available in the diet. Heme iron is derived from animal-based sources and in contrast, non-heme iron is seen in plant-based sources.
Heme iron is easily absorbed by the gut (15-35% of all consumed heme iron in the diet) whereas non-heme iron is less rapidly absorbed (20-20% of all consumed non-heme iron in the diet) due to the absence of the heme component.
As the body is more receptive to absorb heme iron over non-heme iron there is an increased chance of toxicity with heme iron over non-heme iron if taken in excess.
What are the sources of heme and non-heme iron?
Heme iron: Mainly seen in animal foods like meat (more in organ meat), poultry, seafood (fish and oyster etc) etc.
Non-heme iron: Mainly seen in plant foods like green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli etc), beans, nuts etc.
How can you ensure that you get the adequate amount of iron during pregnancy?
- First and foremost is to know how much your blood hemoglobin (Hb) is (this is done on a routine blood test)
- Based on your Hb status, your doctor will let you know the required iron that your body needs during pregnancy
- Speak to a nutritionist/dietician and figure out the right amount of iron-rich foods that need to be incorporated into your diet
- You can also try cooking in cast-iron pans (especially good for moist/curry based food to soak up the iron while cooking)
- Know the food that contains “iron inhibitors,” (interfere with iron absorption). These include:
- phytates (present in legumes and whole grains)
- calcium (present in dairy products)
- polyphenols (present in tea and coffee)
- oxalates (present in soy foods, spinach etc.)
The dietary requirements of iron are not met by most Indian women, hence > 50% of the Indian women suffer from anemia and a large number are on borderline (prone to anemia when the iron requirements increase). So, try including this mineral in the right amount and if needed take iron supplements as per your doctor’s prescription.