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 popular 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 take 400-800mcg/day of folate, and that pregnant women take 600-800mcg daily. Some good sources include leafy greens (50-60 mcg/cup), broccoli (160mcg/cup), beets (150 mcg/cup), beans and lentils (130-150 mcg/cup), asparagus (130mcg/½ cup), and citrus fruits (55mcg in one orange).
Since it can be tough to consume enough folate in your diet, a targeted vitamin supplement or prenatal vitamin is a good insurance policy. There is little risk in consuming too much folate and taking a supplement on top of what you consume in your diet helps to ensure you and your baby have what you need.
However, there is also an important distinction to understand when looking at supplements. You will see two different types of the B vitamin: folate and folic acid. Folate is the body’s most active form of the vitamin and the one typically found in food. Folic acid is the synthetic form of the vitamin.
While it may be fine for some, synthetic folic acid is not well absorbed by about 40% of the population – those with a genetic mutation that inhibits a process called methylation, needed to convert folic acid to folate. Since most women with this common mutation don’t know they have it, and since folate is so critical to fetal development, it’s smart to play it safe and choose a supplement with folate (shown on the label as L-5-methyltetrahydrofolate, L-5-MTHF, or L-methylfolate), not folic acid.
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 the development of the placenta as well as the fetal brain and neural tube.
The Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for pregnant women is 450mg per day of choline, and some studies have suggested additional benefits from even higher amounts, up to 930mg/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 450mg of choline each day.
This deficiency 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 450mg RDI.
Regarding food sources, one of the best and most convenient is egg yolks. But since the average egg contains only 140mg 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 200-250mg/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 450mg/day.
Since choline can be difficult 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.
- Whole food-based choline supplements like Choline Complex™ are a natural, vegan alternative to the synthetic isolates, and a convenient way to achieve higher levels of supplementation. For example, Choline Complex contains 275mg of choline per tablet and is made with organic, whole plant-based foods and without any artificial fillers or chemical solvents.
DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that is needed for brain health and development. DHA is particularly critical during pregnancy as it is necessary for the development of an infant’s cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for motor function, language and sensory processing, and higher-level thinking required for decision and information analysis. While these skills might not seem relevant to an infant, it’s during pregnancy and infancy that these parts of the brain used later in life are formed.
While there are no official US intake recommendations for DHA, the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) recommends 300mg daily for pregnant and lactating women. The American Pregnancy Association echoes this recommendation. It’s worth noting that there is little risk of too much DHA in an otherwise healthy woman, so aim for at least 300mg but feel confident in consuming more as you like. In addition, DHA is most important beginning in the third trimester and throughout breastfeeding, so if morning sickness or food aversions have you avoiding fish, don’t stress too much and 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 1,000mg 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 getting converted into DHA in the body. These omega-rich healthy 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 needed during pregnancy to support the development of a baby’s bones and teeth. In fact, calcium is so important in development that if an insufficient amount is consumed by a pregnant woman, calcium will be pulled from her bone stores to achieve the level needed for her milk and her unborn baby. It is a great way to ensure proper development of a baby, since the baby’s bones will be protected even if the mother is not consuming enough calcium. Of course, since maintaining the mother’s bone density is also a priority, focusing on adequate calcium remains an important aspect of pregnancy nutrition.
The recommended daily requirement for calcium in pregnant women is 1,000mg. 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 a healthier balance of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids, which helps to manage inflammation in the body (grassmilk 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 (350mg/3.5 oz serving), sesame seeds (350mg/¼ cup), spinach or collard greens (200mg/cup), kale (100mg/cup), blackstrap molasses (180mg/1 tbsp.), and almonds (150mg/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, Bone Renewal® contains high quality plant-based sources of calcium and synergistic bone building ingredients like Icelandic red algae, wasabi, heirloom white sesame seeds, and sargassum algae extract.
Iron is a mineral found in both plants and animals. It makes 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 is needed for fetal development and to support 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 18mg/day for a menstruating woman to 27mg/day for pregnant women.
Iron comes 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 (2.2mg/3-oz serving), oysters (6mg/6 oysters), and organ meats (6mg/3 oz). Good sources of non-heme iron include lentils (3mg/cup), spinach (2mg/cup), and many nuts and seeds (2.5mg/1 oz of pumpkin seeds).
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 be constipating. It’s also important to note that taken in excess for long periods of time, iron can cause digestive distress and lead to damaging oxidative stress in the body, so look at your personal intake and supplement only as needed with a gentle, well-absorbed form of iron. For instance, the iron in PureNatal® is made with organic vegetables and fruits that are fermented for better absorption and digestion.
Unlike the other vitamins and minerals discussed above, iron is one mineral that can be monitored to some extent without testing (although iron levels can still be tested). Signs of deficiency 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.
You’ve Got This
While it might seem like a lot to keep up with all of your nutrient needs 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.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.