The importance of iron for pregnant mums

1-7 May is World Iron Awareness Week, an annual campaign calling to attention the very real issue of iron deficiency in New Zealand, and worldwide. Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s nutrition manager, Emily Parks, shares her insight.

What you need to know about iron in pregnancy

You might have heard about the importance of iron during pregnancy – perhaps when you found yourself lacking energy and blood test results pointed to iron deficiency anaemia. With one in 14 New Zealand women low in iron, and pregnant women at a higher risk, it’s time to talk about iron and the vital role it plays for pregnant mums and their babies.

Iron is needed to transport oxygen around the body, for energy production and a healthy immune system. Iron is essential for a healthy placenta which is the organ responsible for providing nourishment to the growing baby.

During pregnancy, blood volume increases by around 30% and you need 2-3 times more iron than normal. Even women with normal iron levels in early pregnancy can find it difficult to get enough iron from diet alone and women who begin pregnancy with low iron stores run the risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia in the later stages.

What does iron deficiency look like?

Low iron can greatly impact the way you feel. If you have low iron levels, you may:

  • Feel fatigued and lethargic
  • Become easily irritated
  • Look pale or washed out
  • Have heart palpitations (the feeling of your heart beating abnormally fast or with an irregular rhythm)
  • Feel dizzy
  • Be unable to catch your breath or feel breathless
  • Feel run down and more prone to colds and infections
  • Feel light headed or experience headaches

It’s not uncommon to feel tired or lack energy when pregnant so it can be hard to know if it is normal or a symptom of iron deficiency. You should always talk with your lead maternity carer (LMC) or doctor if you are concerned.

What’s the big deal?

Iron deficiency is the most widespread nutritional disorder in the world and because it’s so common, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s not as serious as it is. Unfortunately, iron deficiency and anaemia have been associated with postnatal depression, increased likelihood of blood transfusion, increased risk of infection and difficulties with bonding and breastfeeding. Severe anaemia is also linked to low birth weight and preterm birth.

Try the following for top iron intake –

  • Eat lean red meat, like beef and lamb, 3-4 times per week
  • Eat regular iron-rich foods rather than one iron-rich meal per day. Small but frequent consumption is better
  • Drink tea and coffee between meals rather than with your meal as these can interfere with iron absorption
  • Choose an iron-fortified breakfast cereal
  • Add brightly coloured vegetables to your meals as these contain vitamin C which helps increase iron absorption
  • Eat citrus fruit, strawberries or kiwifruit straight after your meal or add lemon juice to greens/salads for added vitamin C
  • Soak nuts, seeds, legumes and grains (overnight then discard the water) to remove the phytic acid that blocks iron absorption

If you’re concerned, get tested

All women in New Zealand are offered antenatal blood tests at their first appointment with a LMC. This first blood test will check (among other things) how much iron is in your blood i.e. haemoglobin. You might also have your ferritin levels tested and this indicates your iron stores. A normal haemoglobin level means you do not have iron deficiency anaemia but does not tell you if you have low iron stores, a risk factor for iron deficiency anaemia.

If you have any symptoms of iron deficiency or have been deficient in the past, it’s a good idea to ask for your ferritin levels to be tested as well as haemoglobin – if not offered at your first appointment.

Try this recipe – Asasian-beef-with-noodlesian beef noodles

You’ll love the punchy Asian flavours in the marinade; they add a delicious boost to the dish. Use strips of beef sirloin or rump or if you have cooked steak in the fridge, cut into strips and add to the stir-fry to heat through before serving.

Prep time: 15 minutes | Cook time: 12 minutes
Serves 4


  • 600g Quality Mark sirloin, cut into strips (about 3cm x 1cm)
  • 200g dried noodles
  • 1/2 head broccoli, cut into florets and sliced
  • 150g green beans, sliced
  • 125g button mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 spring onions, trimmed and very finely sliced
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded and very finely sliced
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
  • 2.5cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce



Place all the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to combine.


Place the beef strips in a non-metallic dish and pour over the marinade. Cover and leave to marinate for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles in boiling water until tender, about 6 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold water. Add a dash of oil and toss to prevent them sticking together.

Heat a wok until hot. Add a good dash of oil, and when hot, add half the beef and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining beef. Keep remaining marinade.

Add another dash of oil to the wok. Add the broccoli and beans and stir-fry until partially tender. (Add a dash of water or stock if the vegetables look dry and are colouring too quickly). Add mushrooms, spring onion and chilli. Stir-fry until all vegetables are just tender, about 5 minutes. Return the beef and remaining marinade to the wok, toss quickly then serve immediately.

To serve

Place the noodles in a large shallow serving bowl. Spoon over the beef stir-fry and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.


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