Nutrition plays a key role in the health of a mother and her baby during pregnancy. Proper nutrition will help ensure that the fetus is getting all the nutrients it needs to grow and develop normally. For the mother, it helps prepare her body for childbirth and breastfeeding that follows, as well as keeps her body weight at normal levels relative to the stage of pregnancy that she is at.
All macro- and micronutrients are essential during pregnancy, but there are certain ones that are key to a healthy pregnancy, which are.
Folic acid is a water-soluble B vitamin that is essential for healthy growth and development. Pregnant women who take folic acid during early pregnancy can help decrease the chances of their baby developing neural tube defects, such as spina bifida (the improper formation of the spinal cord).
A great way to reach folic acid requirements is to take prenatal vitamins with 600 micrograms off folic acid. Taking this vitamin in the early weeks of pregnancy (and even before getting pregnant) is key to preventing neural tube defects. After such time, folic acid helps the fetus develop.
You can also supplement your diet with foods that are rich in folate, such as:
- Brussel sprouts
- Leafy green vegetables
- Fortified cereal
- Kidney beans
Liver is another good source of folic acid, but try to avoid it during pregnancy.
The body uses iron in the formation of hemoglobin, which is the protein that transports oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body. Women need twice as much iron during pregnancy than they do when they are not pregnant. This is so that the body can produce more blood and transport oxygen to the growing fetus, as well as help it make its own blood.
Pregnant women can reach their recommended iron intake of 27 milligrams by taking ferrous fumarate or prenatal vitamins. Alternatively, they can get iron through foods such as:
- Lean meat, poultry, seafood
- Green leafy vegetables
- Beans and nuts
- Dried fruits
- Fortified cereal, bread, pasta
The absorption of iron in the body can be increased by eating foods rich in Vitamin C (mango, papaya, tomatoes, cabbage, grapefruit, spinach, etc.).
Calcium is the key to building the baby’s teeth, bones, heart, muscles, and nerves. For the mother, proper intake of calcium will prevent the fetus from taking the calcium that is in their bones, helping prevent bone conditions later in life.
During pregnancy, a mother needs to take 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily. Good sources of calcium include:
- Milk, cheese, and other dairy products
- Green leafy vegetables
- Sardines, pilchards
- Soya drinks with calcium
- Bread with fortified flour
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps absorb calcium into the body. Lack of Vitamin D can lead to bone deformities in children and bone pain in adults. During pregnancy, a mother needs to have 600 IU (international units) of Vitamin D every day. She can get this amount with a prenatal vitamin or through foods like:
- Oily fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel)
- Red meats
- Egg yolks
- Fortified milk
- Fortified cereals
Early morning sunlight is another excellent source of Vitamin D. When possible, expecting mothers should get at least ten minutes of sunlight in the early morning to absorb Vitamin D. Sunlight that is beyond morning (or at noon) already contains harmful ultraviolet rays, so it is recommended to stay out of the sun in late morning up to early afternoon.
Iodine helps the body produce thyroid hormones, which are essential in maintaining normal metabolic rates. Pregnant women should get 220 micrograms of iodine each day. Some prenatal vitamins may not contain iodine, so it is essential that mothers supplement their diet with iodine-rich foods like:
- Milk, cheese, yogurt
- Seafish, shellfish
- Fortified cereal and bread
- Iodized salt
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is a omega-3 fatty acid that aids growth and development. An expecting mother needs at least 200 milligrams of DHA every day. Similar to iodine, not all prenatal vitamins have DHA. If this is the case, a pregnant woman can eat more of these foods rich in DHA:
- Fish with low mercury (trout, anchovies, salmon, herring, etc.)
- Products with DHA added
It is best to consult with a doctor before taking DHA vitamins. But in general, it is better to consume DHA through natural foods.
Paying attention to nutrition is extremely important during pregnancy–even before conception. If a woman is trying to conceive or is already pregnant, she must pay special attention to these certain nutrients to ensure the healthy development of her baby.