Iron is an essential mineral and it forms part of the haemoglobin in red cells that carries oxygen to the body’s cells, tissues, and muscles. Signs of iron deficiency include feeling tired and weak, pale skin, breathlessness, decreased work and educational performance, difficulty in maintaining body temperature, and decreased resistance to infection. Low iron levels, also called anaemia, can cause problems during pregnancy. These include preterm births, stillbirths, foetal and perinatal deaths, cardiac failure in mothers, and excessive bleeding during childbirth. The World Health Organisation report in 2005 described maternal anaemia as the ‘silent killer’ and effects on average 23% of pregnant women in industrialised countries.
To prevent anaemia, men need 8.7 mg a day and women (including pregnant and breastfeeding) need at least 14.8 mg a day of iron. This can be achieved by having 1-2 portions of iron-rich foods at least 3 times a day; for example, breakfast, lunch, and evening meal. Red meats (such as lamb and beef) and oily fish (such as herring, tuna, sardines) are good sources of iron. Iron-rich vegan foods include beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and dark leafy green vegetables.
Additionally, women can improve the amount of iron they absorb from their diet by avoiding factors that interfere with its uptake, such as tannins from tea and using actors that enhance its uptake; such as the natural vitamin C in fresh fruit and vegetables.