5 Key Nutrients for a Healthy Pregnancy
Pregnancy places a lot of demands on the body and requires extra nutrients to both support a growing baby and ensure that mama stays well-nourished herself. Here are the top five vitamins and minerals needed to give you and your baby the best start together!
Folate, or vitamin B9, is probably the most familiar pregnancy nutrient of this bunch. That’s because it is widely known to support neural tube development from the first day of conception. Neural tube defects usually develop in the first 28 days of pregnancy, and since women don’t know that they are pregnant until at least 2 weeks after conception, it’s especially critical to make sure you’re getting enough folate even when you’re still just trying to get pregnant (or even just not not trying – it’s that important).
The American Pregnancy Association recommends that all women of childbearing age consume 400-mcg/day of folate, and that pregnant women acquire up to 1000 mcg daily. Some good sources include leafy greens (50-60 mcg/cup), broccoli (160 mcg/cup), beets (150 mcg/cup), beans and lentils (130-150 mcg/cup), asparagus (130 mcg/½ cup), and citrus fruits (55 mcg in one orange).
If consuming sufficient dietary folate is a challenge, a targeted vitamin supplement or prenatal multivitamin is an excellent option. During pre-conception and pregnancy, taking a supplement on top of what you consume in your diet can help ensure you and your baby have what you need.
When choosing a folate supplement, it’s important to note a critical distinction. You will often see two different names for this essential B vitamin: folate and folic acid. While folate is the official name of the active vitamin in the body, most common supplements derive folate from synthetic folic acid.
While it may provide sufficient folate for some individuals, synthetic folic acid may not be well absorbed by up to 40% of the population – those with a genetic mutation that restricts the process of methylation, which converts folic acid to folate. Since most women with this gene variant don’t know they have it, and since folate is so critical to fetal development, most experts recommend adding a folate supplement from L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate, L-5-MTHF, or L-methylfolate), not folic acid, which has already been methylated.
Choline is an essential nutrient that supports liver, brain, nerve, and muscle health. In the context of nutrients, essential means that the human body cannot synthesize the substance in sufficient quantities itself. This means choline must be consumed in your diet or through supplementation.
Choline is particularly critical during pregnancy. In addition to maintaining a mother’s health, it plays a crucial role in supporting the development of the placenta as well as the fetal brain and neural tube.
The Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for pregnant women is 450 mg per day of choline, but some studies have suggested additional benefits from even higher amounts, up to 930 mg/day. However, as important as choline is to overall health and fetal development, it is estimated that only eight percent of pregnant women are meeting the recommended 450 mg of choline each day.
This insufficiency is likely happening for two reasons. First, choline is not abundant in many foods and is concentrated primarily in animal products. Second, choline is often not found in prenatal vitamins, and even when it is included, it’s generally much less than the 450 mg RDI.
Regarding food sources, one of the best and most convenient is egg yolks. But since the average egg contains only 140 mg of choline, a pregnant woman would need to eat four eggs daily to meet her needs. Beef and chicken liver also contain high levels of choline (approximately 200-250 mg/3 oz.), but liver is not a daily staple in most diets. Salmon, shrimp, and scallops contain small amounts of choline, as do cruciferous vegetables and grass-fed dairy, but it takes large quantities of these foods to add up to 450 mg/day.
Since choline can be challenging to obtain in necessary amounts through diet, especially for those who follow a vegan diet, a choline supplement can be a helpful option. There are different types of choline available in supplemental form and understanding how they vary is important.
- Choline bitartrate and choline citrate are basic synthetic isolates. The benefit is that they are inexpensive, but they often contain artificial additives, preservatives, or chemicals.
- Phosphatidylcholine is a more natural source of choline found in soy lecithin, sunflower lecithin, and egg lecithin. However, the percentage of actual choline in these products is quite low, so the amount of phosphatidylcholine you need to take to achieve the RDI might not be practical or affordable.
- Fermented choline supplements like Pure Synergy’s Choline Complex™ are a natural, vegan alternative to synthetic isolates, and a convenient way to consume higher amounts of supplemental choline. For example, Choline Complex contains 275 mg of choline per tablet and is made with organic, whole plant-based foods and without any artificial fillers or chemical solvents.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that promotes optimal brain health and development. DHA is particularly critical during pregnancy as it supports the development of the baby’s cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for motor function, language and sensory processing, and the higher-level thinking required for decision and information analysis. While these skills might not seem relevant during pregnancy and infancy, our lifetime brain functions develop during this time.
While there are no official US intake recommendations for DHA, the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) recommends 300 mg daily for pregnant and lactating women. The American Pregnancy Association echoes this recommendation. Since evidence suggests that there is little risk of an otherwise healthy woman consuming too much DHA, ask your doctor about taking more. DHA is most important beginning in the third trimester and throughout breastfeeding, so if morning sickness or food aversions have you avoiding fish, start incorporating DHA rich foods and supplements once some of the early pregnancy symptoms ease.
The best food sources of DHA are fatty fish like salmon and sardines. A 3-ounce serving of salmon has about 1,000 mg of DHA! There are also plant foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids, like walnuts and flax seeds. However, it comes in the form of ALA. While DHA can be synthesized from ALA, the process is inefficient, with less than 10% of ALA being converted into DHA in the body. These omega-rich plant foods are still great choices during pregnancy for their nutrient content, but when it comes to DHA, they aren’t a reliable source. For those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet or are otherwise opposed to fish, there are algae-based DHA supplements that serve as a good alternative.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body. It is essential during pregnancy to support the development of a baby’s bones and teeth. In fact, calcium is so important for growth that if a pregnant woman does not consume a sufficient amount, calcium may be pulled from her bone stores to achieve healthy fetal bone growth and accommodate milk production. Of course, since maintaining the mother’s bone integrity is also a priority, focusing on adequate calcium remains an important aspect of pregnancy nutrition.
The recommended daily intake of calcium for pregnant and lactating women is 1,000 mg. While dairy products are the most widely known sources of calcium, there are plenty of other calcium-rich foods from which to choose. But first, it’s worth noting that when choosing dairy, full fat grass-fed sources of milk and cheese are richer in nutrients than their conventional counterparts. These sources come from cows who eat a diet as nature intended which results in milk that has elevated levels of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This provides an optimal balance of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids, which is critical for supporting the immune system (grass-fed milk contains nearly a 1:1 ratio as compared to a 5:1 to 7:1 ratio in conventional whole milk).
If you don’t consume dairy, some good sources of calcium include sardines (350 mg/3.5 oz serving), sesame seeds (350 mg/¼ cup), spinach or collard greens (200 mg/cup), kale (100 mg/cup), blackstrap molasses (180 mg/1 tbsp.), and almonds (150 mg/2 oz.). If it’s not possible to obtain an adequate amount of calcium from food, it’s wise to consider supplementation. Be sure it contains a combination of calcium, magnesium, and vitamins D3 and K2, as these vitamins and minerals work together to ensure proper absorption and assimilation. It is also wise to seek out a supplement with bioavailable sources of calcium and without mineral isolates, synthetic ingredients, or limestone. For example, Pure Synergy’s Bone Renewal® contains high quality plant-based sources of calcium and synergistic trace minerals and bone-nourishing botanicals.
Iron is a mineral found in both plants and animals. It’s a central component of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, and myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. In a pregnant woman, iron supports proper fetal development by facilitating the 30-50% increase in blood volume in a woman’s body during this time.
Iron is so important that the recommended amount for pregnant women increases significantly, from 18 mg/day for a menstruating woman to 27 mg/day for pregnant women.
Iron exists in two forms - heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found only in animal sources while non-heme iron is found in plant foods. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body, but consuming vitamin C alongside non-heme iron can boost its absorption if you are not a meat eater. Good sources of heme iron include red meat (2.2 mg/3-oz serving), oysters (6 mg/6 oysters), and organ meats (6 mg/3 oz). Good sources of non-heme iron include lentils (3 mg/cup), spinach (2 mg/cup), and many nuts and seeds (2.5 mg/1 oz of pumpkin seeds, for example).
Of course, if sufficient iron cannot be obtained through diet, you can take a supplement. Just be aware that quality matters as certain forms of iron can upset the gut. It’s also important to note that taken in excess for long periods of time, iron can cause digestive distress and promote oxidative stress in the body. So check with your doctor and supplement only as needed with a gentle, well-absorbed form of iron.
Signs of insufficient iron include extreme fatigue (recognizing this one might be hard during those first few months of pregnancy fatigue), pale skin, irregular breath or lightheadedness, sore tongue, brittle nails, and unusual cravings for non-food substances like ice or dirt. For best results, choose a high-quality iron supplement that’s synergized with essential cofactors. Pure Synergy’s PureNatal® is fermented with organic whole foods for optimal absorption and digestion.
You've Got This
While it might seem overwhelming to learn about the nutrients you and your baby need during pregnancy, focusing on these five as part of a healthy whole foods diet, and supplementing with a high-quality prenatal vitamin as needed, will set you and your little one up for a healthy start together.