There are many changes that accompany pregnancy, and nutritional needs are certainly one of them! Which nutrients should we be paying special attention to, why, and how do we incorporate them into our daily food choices?
Protein, carbohydrate, and fat are the three energy-yielding nutrients for mom during pregnancy. These are going to supply you with the energy you need in addition to carrying out many structural and functional roles as your baby grows and develops.
- Keep quality in mind when choosing protein, carbohydrate and fat sources.
- Aim for high quality proteins like fish, lean meats and dairy as protein is needed for tissue and muscle development. Vegetarian or Vegan? Aim for a variety of legumes, nuts, and beans.
- Choose nutrient-dense carbohydrates like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and beans that also deliver vitamins, minerals and fiber. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the primary source of energy for baby during pregnancy.
- Not all fat should be limited. During pregnancy, dietary fat is needed as a major building block of baby’s cells and tissues and for healthy brain and eye development. Reach for strong sources of “good” fats like omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, halibut, avocado, almonds and olive oil.
Two micronutrients to pay particular attention to are the B vitamin folate and the mineral iron—both of which are needed in amounts 50% greater than before pregnancy.
Folate plays a very important role in the formation and development of your baby’s brain and spine. This major developmental stage takes place within the first three to four weeks of pregnancy—oftentimes before a woman may even realize she is pregnant—and is monumental in reducing the risk of life-threatening neural tube defect such as spina bifida. With that in mind, I encourage all women of childbearing age to pay close attention to their intake of folate (400 mcg/day before pregnancy; 600 mcg/day during pregnancy), especially since conception can take place when pregnancy is not part of the “plan.” Folate is naturally occurring in green leafy vegetables, garbanzo beans, lima beans, citrus fruit juices and avocados.
Iron is needed to form a component of red blood cells called hemoglobin that is responsible for the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood. When mom becomes pregnant, her blood volume expands and that means more red blood cells, more hemoglobin and yep, more iron! Pregnancy marks a 50% increase in a woman’s daily iron requirement—from 18 mg to 27 mg. Baby needs iron for his/her own growth and development, especially brain development, and depends on mom for supplying enough of this important mineral. Iron deficiency is common during pregnancy, making it essential for expecting moms to get enough iron through foods (beef, chicken, raisins, prunes, firm tofu). If consuming iron from non-animal sources (this includes supplements), mom should consider eating something rich in vitamin C—like a grapefruit, orange or bell pepper—to optimize iron absorption.
Although folate and iron are two standouts in terms of critical importance, there are many other nutrients to pay special attention to for the health and well-being of both mom and baby during pregnancy.
Choline supports the growth and integrity of baby’s cells and promotes healthy nerve function. During pregnancy, mom should consume at least 450 mg of choline per day. Good food sources of choline include eggs, salmon, brussel sprouts, oats, and chicken.
Vitamin C is best known for its role in immune health and is needed during pregnancy for both mom and baby. It is also a powerful antioxidant, which means it has protective properties helpful for protecting the healthy cells of mom and baby. Additionally, vitamin C is essential to the formation of collagen, which is very important throughout pregnancy as collagen helps build healthy blood vessels, bones, skin, tendons and ligaments for baby. Citrus fruits are the best sources, but you can also get vitamin C from bell peppers, sweet potatoes and broccoli.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, an essential mineral for building strong bones and teeth. In more recent years, vitamin D has been recognized for its role in immune health and in particular how mom’s intake of vitamin D during pregnancy can make a lasting impression on baby’s immunity early in life. Very few foods naturally provide adequate amounts of vitamin D, but thankfully our bodies can make vitamin D when we soak up the sun! Don’t live in a region with plentiful sun? Well don’t worry. Every prenatal supplement that I am aware of contains this important vitamin!
Vitamin B12 supports healthy nerve and brain development of baby. An interesting thing about vitamin B12 is that it is found in animal-based foods like beef, chicken, eggs, milk and fish. If mom avoids such foods during pregnancy, she must rely on her prenatal supplement for her B12 needs.
Calcium is needed to build and maintain strong bones and teeth for both mom and baby. Even though mom doesn’t require more calcium during pregnancy, it is crucial that she consumes a variety of calcium-containing foods such as green leafy veggies, almonds, blackstrap molasses, and yogurt. Calcium is also involved in muscle contraction, nerve function and hormone activity, and can help lower mom’s risk of developing preeclampsia—a serious condition characterized by swelling, high blood pressure and protein in the urine—during her pregnancy.
Zinc plays an important role in immune function, wound healing and the production of DNA, which is crucial as a baby develops. During pregnancy, mom has a 40% greater need for zinc making this mineral another one to keep an eye on. What’s more, inadequate intake of zinc during pregnancy is associated with preterm delivery, low-birth weight of baby, and complications during delivery. Good food sources include beef, chicken, pork, cooked oysters and crab, pumpkin and sesame seeds, lentils, and nuts.