Iron Baby: A Nutrient of Fe-tal Importance

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Iron Baby: A Nutrient of Fe-tal Importance

The Red Blood Cell Crew: Iron and Vitamin C

Iron is truly a vital element, symbolized as Fe. A deficiency in this mineral can lead to a condition called iron deficiency anemia which currently holds the record as the most prevalent nutritional deficiency in the world (3). Untreated iron deficiency anemia can cause life-threatening complications. The numerous roles iron plays in healthy fetal development make this metal indispensable to a developing baby. A healthy-weight newborn baby will have around 250 mg of elemental iron packed into that tiny body (2)! For comparison, an average adult woman has around 300 mg stored (7).

What would life without iron look like?

So why exactly is this mineral so important? Without iron, the oxygen you breathe in would not be transported throughout your body and would remain in your lungs. Your muscles would experience hypoxia and stop functioning. All the cells throughout your body would fail to make ATP and die, with brain cells beginning to die off within 5 minutes. Does iron have your attention yet?

What is iron’s function?

Iron is used to create hemoglobin and myoglobin, a protein in red blood cells and muscle cells responsible for transporting oxygen out of your lungs to the rest of your body. It is a key component in physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, and the production of some hormones (1).

How does iron deficiency affect an unborn baby?

A developing baby needs iron for the function of multiple body systems. When not enough iron is consumed by a pregnant woman to meet a baby’s needs, the red blood cells take priority and receive what is available. Any extra gets sent to the brain, followed by the muscles, and lastly, the liver (2). Serum ferritin is one way to measure how much iron is stored in the body. Neurologic symptoms are seen in newborns when ferritin level drops below 76 μg/L (2). While iron deficiency in unborn babies can be made up with supplementation after birth, fetal iron deficiency causes epigenetic changes that affect the brain into adulthood, leading to an increased risk of schizophrenia and depression later in life, even after prompt correction of the deficiency (3). According to NIH, “iron deficiency anemia in infancy can lead to adverse cognitive and psychological effects, including delayed attention and social withdrawal; some of these effects might be irreversible” (1). When making dietary choices during pregnancy, PUMP THAT IRON!

What are the best food sources of iron?

Dietary sources of iron can be broadly categorized into two groups: heme and nonheme. Heme iron, the type found in meats, is better absorbed and utilized by the body than nonheme iron, the type found in plants. One reason for this is that chemicals called phytates in beans and grains and certain polyphenols in cereals and legumes inhibit, or block, some iron from absorption (1). Because of this, the iron content listed on food labels is not the amount that is bioavailable to the body for use. Egg yolks contain both heme and nonheme iron and are a good vegetarian option if meat is off the table.

What about supplements?

When it comes to supplements, according to the NIH, “ferrous iron in dietary supplements is more bioavailable than ferric iron” (1). For adult women, the recommended daily allowance increases from 18mg/day for women between the ages of 18-50 to a hefty 27mg/day for pregnant women, reflecting the significant amount of iron required to carry out a healthy pregnancy (4). Calcium interferes with iron absorption, so iron supplementation or meals high in iron should ideally be consumed two hours apart from calcium supplementation (4).

Does iron have any helpers?

Absolutely! The antioxidant Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble powerhouse with many roles, and boosting iron absorption happens to be one of them. Consuming vitamin C along with iron can significantly increase iron bioavailability, particularly of nonheme iron (6). Prolonged storage and cooking destroy a notable amount of vitamin C content, so this vitamin is best taken in the form of raw produce (5). To make the most of iron-rich meals, consider including some good sources of vitamin C on the menu!

This blog is intended to be informational and should not be used as medical advice. As always, your doctor is the best source for health advice.

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – iron. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements.
  2. The importance of iron deficiency in pregnancy on fetal … (n.d.-b).
  3. Physiology. (n.d.-b).
  4. Iron. The Nutrition Source. (2023a, March 7).
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.-c). Office of dietary supplements – vitamin C. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements.
  6. Piskin, E., Cianciosi, D., Gulec, S., Tomas, M., & Capanoglu, E. (2022, June 10). Iron absorption: Factors, limitations, and improvement methods. ACS omega.
  7. The importance of iron in your body. American Red Cross. (n.d.).