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According to a European study, about 35 percent of pregnant women are iron deficient—a staggering number when you consider that such a deficiency can lead to major pregnancy complications like preterm labor and low birth weight.
The study may come from Europe, but its findings apply here, too. You see, Fit Pregnancy spoke with an American OBGYN to gain a bit of insight into the frequency of iron deficiency in pregnant women within the United States. “We do see quite a bit of iron deficiency in pregnancy, definitely to varying levels of acuteness," Jan R. Penvose-Yi, MD, an OBGYN with Tri-City Medical Center, said. She added that pregnant women in the U.S. are generally screened for iron deficiency at 28 weeks gestation. If they show low levels, they'll be encouraged to try consuming more iron via dietary changes or supplements.
How much iron is enough? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that the average adult intake 18 milligrams of iron per day. For pregnant women, though, most experts advise that number rise to 30 milligrams per day.
Here's why pregnant women need more iron than the average adult: With iron deficiency comes insufficient levels of hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to other tissues in the body. Low counts of hemoglobin can cause fatigue, shortness of breath and chest palpitations, and pregnant women are at greater risk when their hemoglobin levels decrease, as the protein is essential for fetal and placental growth. Iron also helps the function of a protein called thyroid peroxidase, which in turn produces the thyroid hormone, which helps a baby's brain develop.
For this particular study, which was published in the European Journal of Endocrinology, researchers examined the link between iron deficiency and thyroid issues. In order to do so, they monitored 1,900 pregnant women during the first trimester of pregnancy. Researchers measured amounts of ferritin, a protein that indicates iron levels. They then looked at thyroid function and found a strong association between the two: They found 35 percent of the women sampled had iron deficiencies—and 10 percent of these women also had thyroid autoimmunity, which meant their immune systems mistakenly attacked their healthy thyroid cells. Just six percent of the women without iron deficiency showed thyroid autoimmunity.
But those effects aren't the only dangers of iron deficiency during pregnancy. According to Dr. Penvose-Yi, a woman can already expect to lose quite a bit of blood during delivery—and an iron deficiency might put you at greater risk for needing a transfusion after the fact. This deficiency can also exacerbate the fatigue pregnant women commonly face.
The good news? This issue is usually easily remedied. Iron deficiency is a form of anemia that develops—as one might imagine—from a lack of iron in the body. There are great dietary sources of iron, including beef, beans, nuts, whole grains and dried fruits. You can also purchase iron supplements over the counter.
“I first try to recommend an iron-rich diet [for less severe cases]. If the patient is properly motivated, that can work," Dr. Penvose-Yi said, adding that many women prefer switching up their diets to taking iron supplements, as they can cause constipation. “The majority of the patients will respond to either a supplement or an iron-rich diet regimen.”