Iron is a crucial building block for healthy blood. Studies done in the 1950’s showed that the majority of menstruating women had little to no iron stores. This is probably due to the fact that menstrual blood contains much of the iron consumed during the previous menstrual cycle. It was clear that women were not consuming enough iron, high-quality protein, and/or other nutritional factors which contribute to healthy blood.
The experts say that a woman cannot obtain the additional iron needed for her pregnant body and developing baby through dietary means……that means they don’t think you can eat and absorb enough iron to meet the demands of pregnancy if you depend on food sources alone for your iron. Your unborn baby will be parasitic for it’s iron needs…….it will obtain what it needs from your body even if you are left even more anemic………all the more reason to assure that you are not anemic before you become pregnant.
It has been recommended that all pregnant women take an iron supplement. Iron in large supplemental doses is difficult for some women to absorb without some digestive system side effects. It can cause nausea, constipation, and make one’s stools turn black. All these symptoms may be worsened by pregnancy even without the iron (well, maybe not the darkened stools). Because of this some women will not take the recommended iron supplement during pregnancy. Many pay for this later. It was not too long ago, that a woman’s reproductive years were marked by anemia which grew progressively worse with each pregnancy and menstrual period. Over the years, an anemic woman’s general health and resistance to disease would decline.
Iron is stored in the blood, liver, and bone marrow. If you are considering pregnancy, now is the time to build up those stores. You will need it during pregnancy (and you may not tolerate the iron as well when you’re pregnant). Likewise, do the same after each pregnancy to rebuild your stores. But don’t over-do it. Too much iron may block the absorption of zinc and copper, in addition to upsetting your digestive system. Different compounds of iron affect the intestinal system in different ways. The most common and cheapest compound of supplemental iron is ferrous sulfate……it is also the most upsetting to your gut. You may try either ferrous fumarate or ferrous gluconate if iron is particularly upsetting to you. But read labels carefully……..the amount of iron in a supplement may be expressed in several ways:
- “elemental iron”- This is the exact amount (in weight) of the iron molecule available
- amount, in milligrams, of the iron compound- The amount of elemental iron available in any one of the three common compounds is much less than this number (Fe sulfate, Fe fumarate, and Fe gluconate are all less than 30% elemental iron)
- percentage of the RDA- The Recommended Daily Allowance is a phrase used to describe “the safe and adequate level” of a nutrient. RDAs are quoted in terms of daily intake, but they “are intended to be average intakes over at least 3 days”.
- percentage of the DV- The Daily Value is the government’s new way of recommending daily nutritional intake for all nutrients, since RDAs do not exist for every nutrient.
The RDA for iron in an adult woman is 15 mg/day. If you are anemic (from iron deficiency), you should take a supplement of at least 30 mg of elemental iron every day. But you also probably need sufficient high quality protein and many of the other micronutrients that are essential in good nutrition. Women being treated for iron-deficiency anemia should also be receiving a supplement of zinc (15 mg/day) and copper (2 mg/day), since iron may disrupt the absorption of these essential minerals.
If you don’t tolerate iron supplements well, but need to correct anemia before you get pregnant, eat iron-rich foods and high-quality proteins. Foods high in iron include processed foods that are fortified (cereals), beans (“that musical fruit….”), meats (especially organ meats…..yecch), raisins (and other dried fruits), and some leafy green vegetables. If you are a vegetarian most of your iron comes in the “ferric” state as opposed to the “ferrous” state. Iron in the ferric state is much less “bioavailable”. Iron in the ferric state is absorbed much better if it is consumed with adequate amounts of Vitamin C. Take a look at the list below……..it surprises most people.
Here are some comparisons of the food sources of iron (milligrams [mg] of elemental iron):
*Table derived from information provided by the USDA’s Nutrient Database.