Good nutrition throughout pregnancy can have a profound effect on the health and wellbeing of your baby.
While it can be all too easy to give into your carb cravings or ‘eat for two’ while you’re pregnant, focusing on six vital nutrients can ensure the best possible health of your baby.
“It’s important to focus on your baby’s requirements because they can deplete your nutrient reserves which can lead to deficiencies later on,” says naturopath and nutritionist Leah Hechtman.
Folic acid is recognised as an important nutrient before and during pregnancy for the prevention of neural tube defects (NTD), such as spina bifida. But folic acid is not to be confused with folate, which are often used interchangeably.
Folate is the naturally-occurring form of vitamin B9 found in foods such as leafy green vegetables and citrus fruits. Folic acid, on the other hand, is the synthetic form found in supplements and added in food products such as flour and breakfast cereals.
Folic acid is recognised as an important nutrient before and during pregnancy for the prevention of neural tube defects (NTD), such as spina bifida.
If you’re planning to have a baby or are pregnant, a folate-rich diet is not enough to support a developing foetus. “Supplementation is crucial,” says Hechtman. “The recommendation is 500 mcg of folic acid per day but some studies suggest up to 800 mcg can be beneficial in the three months before you conceive, and in the first three months of pregnancy.”
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of essential fats that we must get from our diet. The three main types of omega-3s are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Research suggests it’s especially important for pregnant women to get enough omega-3s, particularly DHA, to support the development of your baby’s brain, nervous system and retinas of the eyes.
Dietary sources of omega-3s include oily fish (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, herring), flaxseeds (linseed), walnuts, chia seeds and dark green vegetables. The Western diet is typically deficient in omega-3 fatty acids so aim to get two servings of oily fish per week, which is the best dietary source, along with a variety of other omega-3 sources in your diet.
If you’re not getting enough of these foods, consider taking a high quality, practitioner-only fish oil supplement. “Many over-the-counter fish oil products do not contain the amounts of EPA and DHA shown on the label and a high proportion are rancid,” says Belinda Kirkpatrick, nutritionist and author of Healthy Hormones. “This means that with many oils, you are not getting what you are paying for and are also risking these oils being pro-inflammatory, rather than being anti-inflammatory which is a primary reason fish oil supplements are prescribed.” If you’re vegetarian or vegan, Hechtman suggests you can also get large doses of EPA and DHA from supplements derived from algae and seaweed, which are also good sources.
Vitamin D plays an important role in bone growth and maintaining healthy bones for you and your baby. Calcium and phosphorus are essential nutrients for developing denser and stronger bones and vitamin D helps to absorb these minerals.
You get this vitamin when you expose your skin to sunlight, and also in minimal amounts from foods such as salmon, egg yolks and fortified milk. Depending on the time of year you’re pregnant and whether you get exposure to the sun, you may not be getting enough vitamin D for you and your developing baby.
Depending on the time of year you’re pregnant and whether you get exposure to the sun, you may not be getting enough vitamin D for you and your developing baby.
“If you’re pregnant, supplementation is almost always required. It’s really important to get a blood test to see if you’re deficient. I’ve had some clients who have their second or third baby and realise they’re deficient in vitamin D because their babies have taken their reserves. This then predisposes them to osteoporosis,” says Hetchman.
“Iron requirements are increased in pregnancy and women who don’t eat meat will often struggle to maintain adequate iron levels,” says Kirkpatrick. Iron plays a crucial role in transporting oxygen to your developing baby and maintaining healthy red blood cells as your blood volume increases during pregnancy. In fact, the developing foetus draws from your body’s reserves to last them through the first six months after birth. Given this, it’s important to be eating iron-rich foods every day or getting the recommended 27 mg daily.
Iron from animal sources is absorbed more easily than plant sources. This includes meat, chicken and fish. “Non-animal sources of iron include asparagus, chard, spinach, lentils, apricots and garbanzo beans,” says Kirkpatrick. “Iron (including ferritin, stored iron) should be checked in each trimester of pregnancy to ensure optimal levels are being maintained.” Iron deficiency is common among pregnant women in Australia so talk to your healthcare professional to see if you need to take a supplement.
Calcium is needed to build strong bones and teeth for your baby, as well as to grow a healthy heart, nerves and muscles. It’s found mostly in milk, yoghurt and cheese, with smaller amounts found in green leafy vegetables, canned salmon and sardines (with bones), almonds, dried figs, tahini and tofu.
“During pregnancy, women need around 1300-1500mg of calcium daily,” says Kirkpatrick. “But it can pretty hard to meet the requirements every day from non-dairy sources.” If you don’t get enough calcium while you’re pregnant, your baby will draw it from your bones, which could increase your risk of osteoporosis later in life.
Aim for two or three servings of dairy products or calcium-rich foods a day. “The non-dairy foods with the highest amounts of calcium are calcium-fortified plant milks, unhulled tahini, chia seeds, almonds, dried figs, sardines, broccoli and spinach,” says Kirkpatrick. If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough calcium from your diet, speak to your healthcare professional.
If you don’t get enough calcium while you’re pregnant, your baby will draw it from your bones, which could increase your risk of osteoporosis later in life.
During pregnancy, iodine is needed to produce hormones that are important for the development of your baby’s brain and nervous system. In severe deficiency, it can cause major effects on your baby, such as impaired mental and physical development. “Iodine deficiency is the most common world-wide cause of preventable intellectual impairment and can be associated with losses of up to 10 -15 IQ points,” says Kirkpatrick.
Iodine is found in foods like dairy products, seafood, seaweed (nori and kelp), eggs, fortified bread and iodised salt. Iodine is also found in some vegetables depending on the environment and soil in which they are grown. The recommended daily intake for pregnant women is 220 mcg a day. Most pregnant women, however, require supplementation so make sure you speak to your healthcare practitioner to see if your baby’s needs are met.
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