Iron requirements increase in pregnancy due to the needs of the growing baby and the mother’s increased blood volume. Iron requirements are even higher in the third trimester, when the baby starts to lay down important stores of iron. Your iron level should be monitored throughout your pregnancy by your midwife / doctor. Usually this is checked at least at 12 weeks and at 32-34 weeks of pregnancy. If your level drops below normal you will be advised to take an iron supplement and ensure you have an iron-rich diet.

Vitamin C is also recommended to aid iron absorption, so having a glass of citrus juice or a piece of fresh fruit at the same time of day as your iron tablet is a great idea. Your iron level will be checked a few weeks later to ensure it has improved prior to the birth, as this is essential for the safe delivery of the after birth, or placenta.

Dietary iron-

There are two types of dietary iron in the food we eat:

Iron from animal based foods (haem iron)

The iron that comes from red meat, chicken and fish is easily absorbed and utilised by the body. The best sources include:

  • beef
  • lamb
  • chicken
  • fish and mussels (must be cooked and served hot and eaten immediately)
  • liver (limit to 100g per week due to high vitamin A levels and ensure it is well cooked, served hot and eaten immediately after cooking).

Iron from plant based foods (non-haem iron)

Good sources of this iron include:

  • wholegrain breads and cereals (especially breakfast cereals with iron added)
  • vegetables and legumes (dried beans)
  • dried fruit, nuts* and seeds

As this iron found in plant based foods is not as easily absorbed as the iron found in red meat, chicken or fish you need to include a food which is high in Vitamin C at the same meal to assist the iron absorption. This can be achieved by including one of the following at meal times: fruit juice, potatoes, tomatoes, fresh or dried fruit.

Some useful articles and resources on nutrition in pregnancy

To read about folate and how to ensure you’re getting enough for you and your baby, read our article on Folate, or Folic Acid, in Pregnancy.

For information on which foods you need in pregnancy and which to avoid, read our article on Nutrition in Pregnancy.

Preconception Care covers healthy eating and exercise in pregnancy and advises you on what to avoid prior to conception. We also have some great nutritional tips on how to manage Nausea, Constipation & Heartburn.

You should also consider taking a pregnancy multivitamin to ensure you’re getting enough folic acid and iodine right throughout your pregnancy.

Reference: Ministry of Health. Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women, a background paper. 2006. Wellington. NZ Government.

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Fiona Boyle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She runs a private practice and gives nutrition advice to individuals and families to help meet their health needs and personal goals.

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