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Top 10 Nutrients for a Healthy Pregnancy

Feature, Healthy Eating, Kids Nutrition, Women's Health | May 24, 2021

A smiling woman sitting down to eat a healthy green salad.
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Whether you’ve just found out you’re pregnant or are planning on getting pregnant soon, it’s never too early to start thinking about your nutrition. Research now shows that your nutrition while pregnant not only affects your child throughout their lifetime, but it may actually affect your future grandchildren as well. Crazy right!? To help you get your nutrition on the right track we are going to discuss the top 10 nutrients to include in your diet for a healthy pregnancy.

Pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant? Here are the top 10 nutrients for a health pregnancy. For more support work with one of our registered dietitians at Ignite Nutrition in Calgary, Alberta

Folate

The first nutrient we are going to talk about is folate, which is a B vitamin that is essential for the growth of your baby’s spine, brain, and skull during the first 4 weeks of pregnancy. You may have heard of this vitamin before because it has a crucial role in preventing neural tube defects.

Some common food sources of folate are whole-grain bread and cereals, leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and citrus fruits. On your supplements, you may see folate called ‘folic acid’; they are essentially the same.

Ideally, women should start taking a multivitamin or prenatal supplement that contains 400 mcg of folic acid daily, 3 months before becoming pregnant and throughout pregnancy. Along with this, it is also important to eat folate-rich foods to ensure adequate folate intake and prevent neural tube defects.

Iron

Iron is an important nutrient in pregnancy because it is needed for making new red blood cells for your expanding blood volume and the growth and development of your baby. If you aren’t consuming enough iron prior to and during pregnancy, it can lead to iron-deficiency anemia which can then lead to poor health outcomes for both you and your baby.

Ideally, women should get their iron levels checked before trying to get pregnant to correct any deficiencies, and throughout pregnancy to ensure they’re getting enough. Ways that you can prevent iron deficiency include eating iron-rich foods and taking a multivitamin with 16-20 mg of iron daily.

Iron can be found in two different forms in foods, but the most highly absorbable form is found in meat, poultry, fish, and seafood. Other iron-rich foods include whole-grains, pulses (chickpeas, beans, lentils), eggs, nuts, and seeds but the iron in these foods is not as well absorbed by the body. One way to help your body absorb this iron better is by pairing foods rich in vitamin C like citrus fruits, peppers, berries, tomatoes, broccoli, and mangos.

Vitamin D

In the body, vitamin D plays an important role in the immune system and calcium absorption to aid in building strong bones and teeth. In pregnancy, vitamin D is needed for your baby’s growth and the development of skeletal tissue.

It is true that our bodies can make vitamin D via sun exposure, however, living in Canada, it’s really hard to get enough vitamin D from the sun. This is partially because of our long winters, but also because we wear sunscreen in the warmer months. This means we should be topping off our vitamin D with food and supplements.

Vitamin D is not found in many foods other than fortified cow’s milk, fish with bones (herring, rainbow trout, salmon, and halibut), eggs, and fortified plant-based beverages. In those foods, the vitamin D content is often inadequate to consistently meet our needs. We recommend our patients take 1000 IU of supplemental vitamin D, in addition to any ‘bonuses’ they get from food sources.

Calcium

Calcium helps to keep your bones strong and it is also required for hormone balance and the proper functioning of your muscles and nerves. During pregnancy, the need for calcium is increased as it is used to help build your baby’s bones.

The best sources of calcium are dairy foods & fortified plant beverages such as plant-based and dairy milk, yogurt, and cheese. Calcium can also be found in foods such as tofu, almonds, bok choy, brazil nuts, collard greens, soybeans, and white beans.

During pregnancy, you need 1000 mg of calcium per day. To ensure you are getting enough calcium, aim for 3 servings of dairy or plant-based fortified alternatives a day, and be sure to include other food sources of calcium as well.

Iodine

Iodine is essential for regulating growth, development, and metabolism via its role in the production of thyroid hormones. In pregnancy, it is also needed for the development of your baby’s skeletal and nervous system. Iodine deficiency can lead to poor pregnancy outcomes, but this is rare in Canada since iodized salt was made mandatory in 1949. If you use sea salt this is not iodized, however, the majority of our salt intake comes from packaged foods, so even if you use sea salt in cooking and to flavour your foods an iodine deficiency is extremely rare. Apart from salt, food sources of iodine to include in your diet include seafood, eggs, milk, and grain products.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A supports several functions in the body like vision, growth, immune function, gene regulation, and antioxidant activity. It is a unique nutrient in pregnancy because while you need additional amounts to support the growth and development of your baby, it’s also extremely important not to take too much as it can lead to birth defects if consumed in high amounts.

Now with that being said, it’s important to understand that there are two different types of vitamin A found in foods and supplements. The first form is beta-carotene which is found in some orange and yellow vegetables and fruits and dark leafy greens as well as some multivitamins and prenatal supplements. This form is not associated with any negative effects during pregnancy.

The other form of vitamin A, which is preformed vitamin A, is the form that can cause birth defects when consumed in high amounts. This type of vitamin A is found in some multivitamin and prenatal supplements, as well as animal products including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy. During pregnancy, you need 770 mcg (2567 IU) of vitamin A per day but consuming more than 3000 mcg (10,000 IU) of preformed vitamin A per day can be harmful. Taking a multivitamin or prenatal supplement and eating foods rich in vitamin A will give you enough vitamin A to meet your needs. To prevent consuming too much, avoid single supplements with just vitamin A in them and fish liver oil supplements, and do not eat liver or liver products as these contain high amounts of vitamin A.

Choline

In recent years choline has become increasingly known as a critical nutrient in pregnancy. This is because it plays an important role in helping your baby’s brain grow and it may also protect against neural tube defects. Your body actually makes small amounts of choline on its own, however, it’s not enough to meet your daily needs or the needs of your growing baby. Therefore, it’s important to get enough choline from food and supplements.

Foods that contain the highest amounts of choline are eggs, beef, and milk. Other food sources of choline include wheat germ, salmon, chicken, navy or kidney beans, pork, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, salad greens, and spinach. You need 450 mg of choline a day during pregnancy, but many pregnant women are not meeting this recommendation. So, if the foods listed here are not foods you regularly consume, then it is important to talk with your dietitian about whether you should be supplementing with choline.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are important during pregnancy for your baby’s brain and eye development. The best way to make sure you are getting enough omega-3’s during pregnancy is to eat two 75g servings of fish each week that is low in mercury and high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, trout, mackerel, and herring. Other sources of omega-3’s include shrimp, sardines, clams, ground flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, and omega-3 enriched eggs. If you do not consume fish, it may be necessary to take an omega-3 supplement (EPA & DHA). When choosing a supplement make sure that there is a natural product number (NPN) on the package and that it does not contain more than 3000 mg of EPA and DHA per day.

Protein

Additional protein is needed during pregnancy to help support your growing baby. However, in the first half of pregnancy, your protein needs are the same as before you were pregnant and then in the second half you require ~25 g more each day. This may sound like a lot of extra protein, but most people in developed countries are already far exceeding their protein needs pre-pregnancy. So, you do not need to consume a protein supplement, instead, you can get this extra protein from having an extra snack or small meal during the day that includes a protein source. Some common protein sources to include in your meals and snacks are eggs, lean meats, poultry, nuts and seeds, fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, yogurt, cheese, beans, peas, lentils, fortified soy beverages, and tofu.

Carbohydrates

Lately, carbohydrates have been getting a bad reputation, however, eating complex carbohydrates is super important for making sure you are getting enough energy and nutrients for you and your baby. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, peas, and lentils. These foods not only have a lot of the nutrients in them that are important for a healthy pregnancy but are also rich in fibre which can have a positive impact on your gut microbiome. If you’re interested in learning more about the microbiome in pregnancy, check out this blog post on your gut microbiome in pregnancy!

Supplements

Along with consuming foods that are rich in these top ten nutrients, it’s also important to take a multivitamin or prenatal supplement every day. What’s the difference? Prenatal vitamins are just multivitamins made specifically for pregnant women and they contain higher amounts of key nutrients like folic acid and iron. Some common women’s multivitamin brands contain high enough amounts of the important nutrients to meet your needs as well, but the most important thing to do though is to check the label as different multivitamin and prenatal vitamin brands contain different types and amounts of nutrients.

Here is a list of the most important nutrients to check for on the label and the minimum amounts they should contain:

  • Folic acid: 0.4 mg (400mcg)
  • Iron: 16-20 mg
  • Vitamin D: at least 400 IU

In addition to taking a daily multivitamin or prenatal supplement, it may also be necessary to take a choline and omega-3 supplement as these nutrients are not commonly found in multivitamins or prenatal vitamins. Talk to your dietitian to determine if these supplements would be beneficial for you.

Key Takeaways:

  • During pregnancy, your nutrient needs are increased in order to help support te growth and development of your baby
  • To help you have a healthy pregnancy it’s important to eat a diet rich in these top ten nutrients in addition to taking a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin each day
  • Pregnancy nutrition can be confusing and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! Working with a dietitian can help!

Pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant? Here are the top 10 nutrients for a health pregnancy. For more support work with one of our registered dietitians at Ignite Nutrition in Calgary, Alberta

References

  1. Mousa, A., Naqash, A., & Lim, S. (2019). Macronutrient and micronutrient intake during pregnancy: an overview of recent evidence. Nutrients, 11(2), 443-463

  2. Alberta Health Services. (2019). Pregnancy Nutrition Guideline.

  3. Zeisel, S. H., & Costa, K. D. (2009). Choline: An essential nutrient for public health. Nutrition Reviews, 67(11), 615-623.

  4. Health Canada. (2014). Omega-3 fatty acids and fish during pregnancy. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/pregnancy/omega-3-fatty-acids-fish-during-pregnancy.html