Growing a baby inside of you is an exciting and unique time but it can also present you with worry and anxiety. As much as you love the little bundle of joy growing inside your womb, you may be struggling with severe morning sickness or you’ve passed the early sickness stage but can’t stomach the thought of certain food groups so you avoid them entirely.
When I was pregnant with my last child, I went through a phase where I could only eat chicken strips and apple juice. I worried about the nutrition of my baby but couldn’t force anything else down. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I hope this article will help you discover your optimal prenatal nutrition options.
The 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans recently released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offer you great advice on how to compose a healthy diet with a detailed breakdown of how much you need from each food group type. Ideally, you should eat a balanced diet and meet your nutritional needs primarily through healthy foods and beverages. However, this may be difficult for some pregnant women hence the need to resort to nutritional supplementation. To support a healthy dietary pattern, you should take a prenatal vitamin and a mineral supplement daily.
Nutrients of public health concern in pregnant women are calcium, vitamin D, potassium, iron, and dietary fiber. Special dietary considerations involve folate (folic acid), iodine, choline, seafood, alcoholic and caffeinated beverages. Expectant mothers who are vegetarian will also need to ensure they’re getting enough iron, vitamin B12, choline, zinc, iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). After your baby is born, it’s best to adjust to a postnatal or lactating supplement as prenatal vitamins are no longer suitable with their higher levels of folic acid and iron.
Vital pregnancy vitamins for healthy development
Folic acid (also known as folate) is important in the 1st trimester as it helps prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus. Naturally, folate is found in dark green veggies, beans, peas, lentils, and some enriched grains and fortified flours. Most women don’t get enough folate during the early stages of pregnancy hence are advised to take folic acid supplements. Folic acid supplement benefits can begin just after conception, so you should start taking them 1 month before conception and through the first 2-3 months of pregnancy. Most prenatal supplements sold in the US contain folic acid with the daily recommended dose at 400-800 mcg.
If you’re wondering how much vitamin C a pregnant woman should take daily, then your answer is 85 mg. It’s probably one of the easiest vitamins to get daily as one 6 oz glass of orange juice, or 1 cup of strawberries is about 85 mg. Try to go for 3 servings of vitamin C rich foods such as oranges, pineapple, lemons, and mangoes daily. It would help if you took this in combination with your iron supplement to increase iron absorption.
Vitamin D is produced in the body when your skin is exposed to sunlight. It’s found in dairy products and many dairy-free alternatives fortified with calcium, vitamin A and D. Still, not many people reach sufficient levels with their daily diet considering you should ideally get 600 IU of vitamin D per day. The USDA recommends that you look for a prenatal supplement that includes vitamin D. You may find that your health practitioner also advises on taking vitamin D supplements for your baby shortly after birth.
Choline is essential in the development of the fetus’s brain and spinal cord. It’s found in eggs, meat, seafood, beans, peas, and lentils. Choline isn’t found in most prenatal supplements in the US, so you may need to discuss with your doctor if you’re concerned about not getting the recommended dose of 450mg. This is particularly important if you follow a vegetarian diet.
Vital pregnancy minerals for healthy development
Iron is vital for fetal development as well as preventing anemia. Naturally, it’s found in meats, poultry, and seafood, where the body more readily absorbs it than in its plant source counterparts (beans, peas, lentils, and dark green vegetables). In the US, iron is added to enriched or fortified foods such as bread and cereals. According to the dietary guidelines, you should take an iron supplement with around 27 mg daily, but your healthcare provider should assess the exact levels required.
Iron from non-meat sources can be absorbed more readily if consumed with vitamin C rich foods such as tomatoes or citrus fruits. Therefore the best way to take an iron supplement for maximum absorption is in combination with vitamin C. You should also avoid taking iron supplements simultaneously with calcium supplements. If you need to take both, spread them at opposite ends of the day. Avoid taking iron supplements with eggs, tea, coffee, and chocolate as they can hinder iron absorption.
Calcium is suitable for your bone health and your developing baby’s. It’s also been found to reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia. Most prenatal vitamins will include the recommended daily dose of 1000 mg.
Magnesium is important for biochemical reactions within the body, including the development of bone and DNA synthesis, and it’s been found to reduce tiredness and fatigue. The recommended daily allowance is 300 mg. Magnesium can be found widely in plant and animal foods like spinach, legumes, nuts, seeds, and many fortified food products. It’s also found in many medications used for heartburn and an upset stomach. Therefore you should first discuss with your doctor to determine if a magnesium supplement is safe during pregnancy for you based on your dietary and medication intake.
Potassium helps alleviate fluid retention, which is very common in pregnancy, particularly in the later stages. Also, it helps maintain your body’s electrolyte balance so that your immune system doesn’t become weakened. When there’s an electrolyte imbalance within the body, such as lack of potassium, you often experience leg cramps and have restless legs. The amount of potassium you require changes between the 1st and 3rd trimester of pregnancy. While you should ensure you’re getting enough potassium (2600-2900mg per day), it is equally important that you don’t consume too much of it. Your doctor will test your current levels and advise you if you need to increase your intake.
Iodine is vital for the neurocognitive development of the fetus. Women who do not regularly consume enough in their diet (through dairy products, eggs, seafood, or iodized salt) should consider adding an iodine supplement. While you shouldn’t increase your regular salt intake, you should switch to iodized salt. If you’re worried about iodine’s dietary levels, speak to your health provider as most prenatal supplements do not automatically contain the recommended 220 mcg of iodine.
Other key considerations
Below are other critical nutritional supplementation considerations and a safety tip to meet your nutrient needs;
- Pregnancy supplements vary based on your diet, lifestyle, and stage of pregnancy. Early prenatal supplements will have differing amounts of vitamins and minerals compared to 3rd trimester and postnatal supplements. So taking prenatal multivitamins before you’re pregnant can also boost your immune system and make sure you’re at optimal health in the early stages of your pregnancy.
- Probiotics may help decrease your morning sickness symptoms, prevent constipation, relieve heartburn and set up healthy gut flora by boosting healthy bacteria levels. They are naturally found in organic superfoods such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and many dairy products.
- There is evidence that taking collagen while pregnant can improve wound healing and overall quality of life. This is a relatively new area under study so you’re advised to discuss this with your doctor before supplementing.
- The presence of nutritional assistance programs for pregnant women with low income has ensured any pregnant woman can still meet their nutrient needs through supplementation. Programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) have increased the availability of supplements. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Healthy Eating on a Budget can help women get more rounded nutrition when they find themselves in economic hardships, while the Micronutrient Supplementation Program can help you attain a fuller diet with the use of micronutrient supplements.
- Food safety is important during pregnancy. You’re at increased risk of getting food-borne illnesses while pregnant so cook all your food thoroughly. Also buy pasteurized products and heat lunch meats to prevent getting listeriosis caused by eating contaminated food.
Always speak to your healthcare provider about what’s best for you and your baby. They can help supervise and approve the intake of any herbal or nutritional pregnancy supplements to ensure your baby safely receives optimal nutrition. You should also confirm whether a nutritional supplement is of good quality and if it’s from a reputable organization.
The pregnancy supplements to avoid are cheaply manufactured by unrecognized organizations and may falsely promise weight loss or prevention, contain high vitamin A levels, or whey protein powder (unless it’s the grass-fed option). Avoid evening primrose and chamomile tea which are believed to trigger uterine contractions. Finally, seek nutritional counseling to suit your individual dietary preferences and needs.