Nutrients of Special Concern During Pregnancy

By Consumer Dummies

Some nutrients are of special concern during pregnancy, and you may want to take a closer look at them so you can really understand what they do for your growing baby, how much of them you need, and what you can eat to get them.

Folate (folic acid)

Folate (the food form), also called folic acid (the supplement form), plays a key role in developing your baby’s spinal cord early in pregnancy, but it’s also an important nutrient to get later in pregnancy. Aim to get 600 micrograms (mcg) per day throughout your pregnancy. Your prenatal vitamin probably contains about this amount (check the label to make sure), but because vitamins are generally absorbed and utilized better through food than supplements, try to get it naturally in food, too.

You find folate in oranges (and orange juice), strawberries, avocados, beans (specifically black, garbanzo, kidney, navy, and pinto), black-eyed peas, lentils, nuts, dark-green leafy vegetables (like spinach, kale, and collards), asparagus, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. You can also find folate-fortified grain products, such as flour and cereal.

Iron

Your daily iron needs practically double during pregnancy, from 18 to 27 milligrams (mg). This increase is due in large part to the increase in blood volume you’re experiencing. Iron helps your body form hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen to the blood. You need this oxygen to get to your placenta to help your baby develop.

Aside from your prenatal vitamin, you find iron in animal foods like beef, poultry (higher in dark meat), pork, fish, and egg yolks, although you can also get iron in seeds, beans, lentils, dark-green leafy vegetables, dried fruit (like prunes, raisins, and apricots), and whole grains. Manufacturers often add iron into other grains such as rice and cereals as well. In packaged food products, you can find the amount of iron per serving listed on the food label, but be aware that the percentage listed is based on the average 18 mg daily requirement and you now need 27 mg.

Iron, especially the form found in vegetable sources, is often not absorbed in high quantities by your body. To help improve absorption, eat foods that are high in vitamin C along with your iron-rich foods. For example, include oranges, tomatoes, cantaloupe, strawberries, kiwi, peppers, or broccoli in the same meal as your iron-rich foods. The vitamin C in these foods helps your body absorb more iron. Cooking iron-rich foods in an iron skillet may also help boost your iron intake because some of the iron actually gets into the foods.

Your doctor will probably check your iron levels periodically throughout your pregnancy to make sure they’re within the normal range. One symptom of iron deficiency is fatigue, but you may have a hard time figuring out whether you’re tired because you’re iron deficient (called anemic) or because you’re just plain exhausted from pregnancy! A blood test is the only way to know for sure. If you find out that you’re iron deficient, your doctor may recommend that you take a higher dose of supplemental iron. Iron supplements can cause nausea, loss of appetite, and constipation, though, so if you’re suffering, talk to your doctor about taking a lower dose and focus on getting as much iron as possible from food.

Calcium

Calcium helps with blood pressure control, but it’s best known for its role in bone health — both maintaining yours and building your baby’s. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet (1,000 mg), your body will take it from your bones, leaving you at higher risk of osteoporosis. The good news is that your body actually absorbs calcium better when you’re pregnant.

Most prenatal vitamins contain only about 250 mg of calcium, so plan to supplement that amount by eating dairy foods (like milk, cheese, and yogurt) daily. You can also find calcium-fortified soymilk, orange juice, breads, cereals, and nutrition bars. Some vegetables and fruits, like dark-green leafy vegetables, broccoli, okra, and figs, also contain calcium.

For packaged foods, calcium has to appear on food labels, so you can easily find out how much calcium the food you’re eating contains. Fortunately, the daily recommendation is the same for pregnant and nonpregnant people, so looking at the percent on food labels is a good way to see whether you’re getting enough calcium.

Choline

Although you may not have heard of it, choline is pretty important to your little one. Preliminary evidence suggests that it works along with folate to ensure the proper development of the neural tube and central nervous system. In addition, choline plays a key role in developing the hippocampus, which is the memory center of the brain. So if you want your child to remember Mother’s Day, get plenty of choline — 450 mg of it.

Choline isn’t difficult to get in your diet, but purposely include some of the best food sources daily so you get your fill. Eggs are the best source of choline, with 125 mg; just make sure you eat the yolk because all the choline is in the yolk, not in the white part. You also find choline in meats such as beef, poultry, pork, and fish. If you’re looking for vegetarian sources, try wheat germ, cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, and nuts (especially pistachios). Check the label of your prenatal vitamin to see if it includes choline; most prenatal vitamins have it, but some may not.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce the risk of preterm births, preeclampsia, and hypertension in pregnancy. Two specific omega-3 fatty acids found mainly in fish and seafood are essential during pregnancy:

  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): Most research emphasizes getting plenty of DHA in pregnancy because the brain is made up primarily of DHA. Aim to get a minimum of 300 mg of DHA a day while pregnant.
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): EPA is essential to building every structural cell in the body. Aim to get a minimum of 220 mg per day (which is actually the same amount you need when you’re not pregnant).

The key to getting plenty of omega-3s in pregnancy is focusing on the best sources of omega-3s while avoiding the sources with higher mercury contents. How do you know which sources are best? Take a look at the following table. It shows a list of high-omega-3 fish that are also low in mercury (and, thus, safe to eat during pregnancy).

Low-Mercury Sources of DHA and EPA Omega-3s
Fish DHA — EPA Content
Atlantic salmon, farmed, 3 ounces cooked 1,835 mg
Coho salmon, farmed, 3 ounces cooked 1,087 mg
Anchovies, 2 ounces canned 924 mg
Sardines, 3 ounces canned 835 mg
Crab, 3 ounces cooked 335 mg
Flounder, 3 ounces cooked 255 mg
Clams, 3 ounces cooked 241 mg
Light tuna, 3 ounces canned 230 mg
Scallops, 3 ounces cooked 80 mg
Shrimp, 3 ounces cooked 80 mg
Catfish, 3 ounces cooked 77 mg

Source:USDA nutrient database.

If you’re not a fan of fish, look for sources of algae because the algae the fish eat produce their high omega-3 content. But before you start scraping the sides of your fish tank, look for food products on store shelves that boast high DHA contents. Most of these products are fortified with algal oil and contain between 30 and 50 mg of DHA per serving.

A great nonfish source of omega-3s is a DHA-enhanced egg. Eggland’s Best farms feed their hens sea kelp, which results in each egg having about 57 mg of DHA per large egg. Regular eggs have 29 mg on average.

If you can’t fathom eating a ton of fish or omega-3-fortified food, consider taking an omega-3 supplement. Your prenatal vitamin may already have some omega-3s in it, so look at the label for DHA and EPA. Aim to get a minimum of 300 mg of DHA but ideally more like a total of 1,000 mg of DHA and EPA combined. If your prenatal vitamin doesn’t have enough omega-3s, consider a fish-oil supplement. Just be sure to read the label carefully to see how many pills you need to take to get to the 1,000 mg amount.

Fish oil supplements can cause a nasty case of fish burps. If you don’t think you can handle tasting fish for a while after taking a supplement, look for a supplement that’s made from high-quality, highly purified fish oil, like Nordic Naturals. Alternatively, choose one that’s enteric coated, like Vital Remedy MD’s VitalOils1000 or a store-shelf brand like Nature Made’s Ultra Omega-3 Minis, which give you 1,000 mg of combined DHA and EPA in three small pills that are easier to swallow. If you’re a vegan, look for Ascenta brand NutraVege, which has 400 mg of DHA in 2 teaspoons.