Five Key Nutrients for a Healthy Pregnancy
By: Maiya Ahluwalia, RD, MAN, BASc & Angela Le
As mothers, we want the very best for our growing fetus, and that includes ensuring they are being given exactly what they need to develop healthy. What we eat will also be what our baby gets. Supplements can be helpful, but it is best to consume nutrients through food first as they are often better absorbed and accessible. It is most important to have a diet made up of different colours and variety during pregnancy to help ensure you and your baby are getting the nutrients you both need through foods. In fact, it is important if you are considering getting pregnant in the next year to start making the steps to consume a variety of different foods and the key nutrients below.
This information is created for the general public and is not meant to replace personalized information that your healthcare professionals have given you. If you are looking to speak to a registered dietitian about your specific needs, reach out to Maiya Ahluwalia, RD (email@example.com).
Here are five key nutrients (and their food sources) that will be incredibly healthy and helpful for both you and your baby.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Let’s start off with a nutrient with lots of growing research. Omega-3’s are fatty acids that help greatly in making a healthy nervous system which is important for developing a baby's brain, nerves, and eyes. Omega-3’s are also used to create hormones that control blood clotting, swelling, and allergies. It has also been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke as well as improve mood during and postpartum (6,7). After birth, omega-3’s still play an important role for you and the baby, as it is used by the body to make breast milk and helps improve cognition for both mom and baby (8).
Sources of Omega-3’s
Looking to get Omega-3’s from food-you can find them in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, herring, and char (2). These fish contain high amounts of omega-3’s, as well as low amounts of mercury that should be consumed in minute amounts during pregnancy. Omega-3’s are also found in shell-fish, enriched eggs, soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts, and flax seeds (5). Try incorporating omega-3’s by adding flaxseed and walnuts to top off your yogurt, or replacing butter with canola oil when cooking.
- Vitamin B (Folate)
The next nutrient is folate, which is a B vitamin and is especially important during the first trimester of pregnancy. This is because the fetus begins to develop it’s neural tube during the first month and appropriate amounts of folate lowers neural tube defects. Overall, this nutrient is important in preventing birth defects and also helps make healthy blood for yourself and the baby (1). Folate is also associated with reducing preterm birth, low birth weight, and different heart disorders (4).
Sources of Folate
Foods high in folate include romaine lettuce, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, green peas, brussel sprouts, beans and lentils, avocado, oranges, and berries. Oftentimes, you will see folic acid being fortified to products such as all white flour, enriched pasta, and cornmeal products in Canada.
As pregnancy progresses, you will need to consume more iron. Iron helps in transporting oxygen to your own tissues and the fetus. This nutrient helps in building new red blood cells, and developing the baby’s brain (3). During the third trimester, the fetus begins to build its own iron stores, which is when iron is especially important. Consuming enough iron prevents iron-deficiency anemia, which can cause you to feel very tired and weak (3). Not getting enough iron may increase risks of low birth weight, preterm delivery, and birth defects, making iron very important during this time (3).
Sources of Iron
Dietary iron comes in heme and non-heme forms. While both are excellent sources, the heme form of iron is best absorbed. Heme iron is found in animal sources such as beef, shrimp, sardines, lamb, chicken, pork, fish, duck, heart, kidney, oysters, and mussels. Non-heme iron includes vegetarian sources such as pumpkin seed kernels, tofu, legumes, enriched cereals, bread, and pasta, pumpkin, artichoke hearts, peas, potatoes, spinach, nuts, peanuts, eggs, prune juice, and nut butters. It is also beneficial to pair iron rich foods with vitamin C rich foods such as strawberries, bell peppers, kiwis, and oranges to help iron absorption. Try adding bell peppers to a spinach salad for example. Another tip is to try to avoid pairing black teas and coffee with these iron rich foods, as they can lower iron absorption.
- Calcium and Vitamin D
The next two nutrients paired together are calcium and vitamin D, as they often work together and have similar food sources. Calcium helps in the development of the baby’s bones, teeth, heart, muscles, and nerves. Not having enough may cause the body to take calcium from your own bones to help the baby’s development (2). Calcium can also help lower developing high blood pressure during pregnancy (4). Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, while having its own list of benefits. Vitamin D helps in nervous system functions, and immune system functions. Not having enough vitamin D can potentially increase risk of gestational diabetes, low birth weight, and preterm delivery (2).
Sources of Calcium and Vitamin D
Foods containing high amounts of calcium include milk, yogurt, cheese, broccoli, kale, fortified juices and cereals (2). Food containing high amounts of vitamin D also include fortified juices and cereals, as well as salmon, sardines, egg yolk, and cheese.
Last but not least is a nutrient not commonly talked about, but is just as important as the rest. Choline is helpful for a variety of things during pregnancy, including brain development for the fetus, gene expression, tissue growth, and cell division. Overall choline is very important for the fetus’s growth (9). Consuming more choline in the third trimester, can reduce risk of high blood pressure and other heart problems during pregnancy (9). Studies have also shown children of mother’s who consumed enough choline during pregnancy, had better cognition such as better memory (9).
Sources of Choline
Choline is found primarily in animal products such as meat, poultry, beef and chicken liver, fish, shrimp, eggs, and dairy. Plant-based foods containing choline include navy beans, lima beans, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (10).
So there you have it. Five key nutrients that are important before, during, and after pregnancy. These are just some nutrients that will help your baby grow, while also helping you stay strong and healthy throughout. A lot of nutrient needs will be met through prenatal vitamins and supplements. But, consuming a variety of fresh foods and attention to your diet will ensure great health for you and your baby. Keep your plate colourful and full of foods you enjoy. Pregnancy can also be a fun time to explore different recipes and dishes with some of the food items listed above, that will be excellent for all aspects of your pregnancy.
For more information, speak to our dietitian Maiya Ahluwalia, RD by emailing her: firstname.lastname@example.org.