It’s no secret that pregnant women requires extra nutrients. You are, quite literally, creating another life- and that takes a lot, both for the baby and from mama. Though our female bodies are beautifully designed to support this new life growing inside of us, we do need more nutrients- some more than others, to support our baby’s health and just as importantly- our own. It has been shown time and time again that maternal nutrition has a huge effect on the health of our babies (1, 2, 3)- and our baby’s babies (for real!!). So let’s dig into what I consider the Top 10 Nutrients for a healthy pregnancy, that I recommend to all of my pregnant, and soon-to-be pregnant, mamas.
Protein is beyond essential for growing baby- after all, it is the building block of our cells, which means our daily requirements increase substantially (protein is the only nutrient our body doesn’t store). The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends at least 71 grams; most pregnant need at least 80 grams; sometimes up to 100-120 grams. A high protein diet in pregnancy has been shown (4) to reduce risk of high blood pressure, preeclampsia, swelling, and even premature labor.
Food Sources: organic meats, dairy and wild fish and seafood and/or plant based sources such as whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds
Recipe: Hawaiian Chicken Stuffed Peppers
2. Folic Acid (Folate)
Folic acid (folate in foods) is a b-vitamin that is essential for cell growth and neural health. Needs double during pregnancy and are especially needed in the first few weeks to prevent neural tube defects. It is recommended that women who are looking to conceive should begin supplementing before pregnancy even occurs. Pregnant women need 600 mcg/day.
Food Sources: black eyed peas and northern beans, beef liver, raw and cooked spinach, asparagus, peas, broccoli, avocado and eggs
3. Omega 3’s
Two types of polyunsaturated fats, Omega-3 and Omega-6 are considered essential (EFA’s), as the body is unable to synthesize them, and requires them for proper function- even moreso for developing fetuses. Omega 3’s specifically are crucial for brain and nervous system development. An ideal ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is 1:1 to 3:1. Unfortunately, our modern diets contain an average ratio of 20:1- 50:1, Omega 6 to Omega 3’s. A lack of essential Omega 3 fats, DHA and EPA, can cause long term neural deficiencies. A March 1991 study done by the Mayo Clinic showed ALL 19 participants were deficient in Omega 3’s, and that number is not decreasing. The best way to increase your Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio? Ditch the processed seed oils (canola, soy, corn, sunflower, safflower) and boost the fatty fish, chia seeds, walnuts and flax seeds, instead.
Food Sources: Wild, fatty fish is the best source such as mackerel, salmon, sardines and anchovies. It is also found in lamb and grass-fed beef to some extent; as well as fortified eggs, chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts.
Recipe: Salmon with dill sauce
Due to a 50% increase in blood volume seen in pregnant women, Iron deficiency anemia is incredibly common in mothers and babies. Iron is essential in the production of hemoglobin, and can prevent low birth weight and premature delivery. Pregnant women need 27 mg/day (along with 80-85mg vitamin C).
Food Sources: Iron can be found in plant-based sources (non-heme- spinach, tomatoes, asparagus, prunes, apricots, beets, pumpkin seeds) or the more absorbable animal sources (heme- red and dark meats). It’s important get enough Vitamin C as well, as it aids in iron absorption.
Calcium, along with magnesium and vitamin D, is essential for bone growth for mother and baby. The baby will take as much calcium as it needs from the mother’s blood, so it is important the mother is constantly replenishing her supply as to not harm herself. In addition to creating strong bones and teeth, calcium aids in preventing blood clotting, nerve and muscle functioning. Pregnant women need 1,000-1300 mg/day.
Food Sources: dairy products such as milk and yogurt; dark green vegetables (such as spinach, kale and broccoli), sesame seeds, tofu, chia seeds and figs.
6. Vitamin D
Vitamin D, also known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ is crucial for helping the body use calcium and phosphorus; promoting strong teeth and bones, and has been shown to help prevent pre-eclampsia. Though it can be obtained from the sun, most of us simply do not get enough from the sun (40-60% of the American population is deficient) and as food sources are limited; supplementation is often required. A recent study found women taking 4,000 IU of vitamin D daily had the greatest benefits in preventing preterm labor/births and infections. (6)
Food Sources: eggs, salmon, sardines, milk products and mushrooms; fat based liquid supplement
7. Vitamin A
Vitamin A gets a bad rap during pregnancy, because an overabundance of Vitamin A has been shown to cause birth defects. However, not to fear- Vitamin A toxicity is incredibly rare and hard to obtain from food sources, in fact most of us aren’t getting enough Vitamin A, during or aside from pregnancy! In pregnancy, this fat soluble vitamin is crucial for bone and dental health, as well as acts as an antioxidant that is important in cell division and DNA creation (pretty important, if you ask me!). Pregnant women need around 700mcg/day.
Food Sources: Liver, milk, eggs, carrots, spinach, green and yellow vegetables, broccoli, potatoes, pumpkin, yellow fruits, cantaloupe
Recipe: Veggie Egg Muffins
8. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is another antioxidant that is positively associated with fetal growth and development. This fat soluble vitamin helps the body form and use red blood cells and muscles, aiding in blood flow and nutrient supply to the baby.
Food Sources: nuts, seeds, avocados, wheat germ and green leafy vegetables.
Zinc, an essential mineral, is necessary for cell growth and DNA production. Deficiency in Zinc has been associated with pre-term delivery and low birth weight. It also helps support the immune system (bonus!) and aids in wound healing (especially important post-birth). Pregnant women need 11-12 mg a day.
Food Sources: oysters, seeds (like pumpkin and sunflower), nuts, whole grains, beans
These might be one of THE most underrated, and important nutrients for both mothers and our baby’s future health. A healthy gut is linked to a healthy immune system, brain health and nutrient absorption- and this starts in the womb. In addition, probiotics in the pregnancy diet have been positively associated with reduced instance of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and IUGR. (7)
Food Sources: fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, pickles and pickled vegetables such as sauerkraut, miso and tempeh.
I know some of you might be thinking- I’m taking a prenatal, I don’t have to worry about all of this! Think again: a prenatal should not act as your only source of good nutrition. The body will ALWAYS absorb food based sources most readily and moreover, prenatals often do not contain the full amount of nutrients necessary for a healthy pregnancy (and unless you’ve gotten extensive micronutrient testing done, you have no idea of your pre-pregnancy status, in the first place!). Think of a good prenatal as your ‘insurance policy’- focus on real food, first.