Nourishing your pregnancy: 8 key nutrients you’ll want to prioritise

Introduction

Pregnancy is a transformative journey that requires special attention to nutrition to support both maternal health and fetal development. A well-balanced pregnancy diet rich in essential nutrients is crucial for ensuring a healthy pregnancy and preparing for the arrival of your little one. Let’s explore eight key nutrients that should be prioritized in your prenatal nutrition plan.

Importance of Pregnancy Nutrition

There are three main reasons why focusing on your nutrition is so important, during this short and transformative time. 

Firstly, the nutritional demands of your body increase and the growth of your baby is so rapid that you want to ensure you are consuming ample amounts of all the essential nutrients to meet both of your requirements and to avoid any depletion from your existing nutritional stores. 

Secondly, pregnancy is a time where genetic programming of the baby is taking place and genes that will define the future health of the baby are being switched on or off. Nutrition is one of the factors that can strongly influence genetic programming and the baby’s chances of developing conditions such as obesity, heart disease and allergies, in the future. 

Thirdly, nutrition has an important role to play in the prevention and management of possible pregnancy side effects and complications, which include minor conditions such as nausea and constipation, and more severe conditions such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia.

8 key nutrients for pregnancy

pregnancy nutrition and prenatal diet key nutrients

In this blog post, we’ll explore eight essential nutrients that every pregnant mama should focus on, along with their importance and top food sources. By meeting your requirements for these nutrients, you can help to ensure a healthy pregnancy and give your baby the best start in life.

1. Folate

I am sure you have heard of folic acid and it is recommended that all pregnant women should be taking a folic acid supplement of 400mg/day throughout their pregnancy, and this is because folic acid can prevent the risk of neural tube defects in the baby. 

Folate is a form of folic acid found naturally in food, and you should be making sure you are consuming foods high in folate as well as taking your folic acid supplement. Folate is needed for healthy cell division, DNA synthesis and neurological development, and because during pregnancy there is rapid growth of new cells and neurones, demands for folate increase. 

Folate-rich sources for pregnancy nutrition

Good sources of folate include leafy greens like spinach and collard greens, asparagus, oranges, strawberries, beans, peas, lentils and fortified grains.

2. Choline

Choline is an essential nutrient during pregnancy which is not often talked about and is not even included in the majority of prenatal supplements. It can be synthesised by the body but demands are so high during pregnancy that they cannot be met by the body alone. Recent data from Australia and the US show that only 10% of pregnant women are actually meeting their choline needs. Choline is essential for the baby’s brain and nervous system development and is also involved in the prevention of neural tube defects and may also impact cognitive development.

Great sources of Choline for pregnancy

Great sources include whole eggs (the choline is in the yolk!), liver, chicken, fish, broccoli, quinoa and kidney beans.

3. Calcium

We often think of strong bones and teeth when we think of calcium, but it is also essential in cell signalling, hormone secretion and regulating muscle contraction, including the muscle in our blood vessels and heart. During pregnancy, the mama’s body becomes more efficient at absorbing calcium to make sure her baby is getting enough however, consuming low levels of calcium increases her risk of pre-eclampsia and osteoporosis later in life.

Food for pregnancy rich in Calcium

Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese are excellent sources, and good non-dairy sources include leafy greens, fortified plant-based milks, almonds, tofu, dried figs and dried apricots.

4. Iron

Iron requirements increase significantly during the second and third trimester of pregnancy since the baby’s blood is being produced and high blood volumes need to be sustained. Iron is essential for transporting oxygen around the mother’s body as well as her baby’s, to be used by the cells for energy and growth. Low iron levels can lead to maternal anaemia, which causes fatigue and may lead to preterm birth and maternal depression however, high iron supplementation can lead to other complications so it is important to seek professional advice if you are concerned about your iron levels.

Iron-rich sources for pregnancy

Good sources include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, tofu, fortified cereals, and leafy greens like spinach and kale.

5. Vitamin C

Vitamin C supports the immune system, which is extremely important during pregnancy to protect the mama from illness. It is also an essential nutrient for the growth and repair of tissues and bone and is an antioxidant, protecting cells from damage. It is also vital in helping the body absorb iron and it is recommended that food sources of iron and vitamin C are consumed together, for this reason.

Foods rich in Vitamin C

Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits, strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers, potatoes and broccoli are rich sources of vitamin C.

6. Omega-3 

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of nutrients that are extremely beneficial for the health of the mama and baby during pregnancy. The fatty acid DHA, is crucial for the baby’s brain, nervous system and eye development, and since babies cannot produce sufficient amounts of DHA themselves, they rely heavily on the mother’s intake. DHA and the other omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and ALA, also support the mother’s cardiovascular health and reduce inflammation. We can use the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid ALA to produce DHA and EPA but it is not at all efficient at doing this.

Major sources of Omega-3 for pregnancy

The major source of DHA and EPA in our diet is from oily fish such as salmon, sardines, and trout and so you may benefit from taking these in supplement form if you do not eat fish. Vegan supplements are also available which contain DHA from algae. Plant sources of the Omega-3 fatty acid ALA include chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts. 

7. Fluid

Fluid is not mentioned enough during pregnancy and meeting those hydration needs during pregnancy is extremely important. Fluid requirements increase throughout pregnancy and could reach up to an additional litre by the end of pregnancy and interestingly, up to around 8kg of weight gained during pregnancy is a form of fluid. Fluid is needed to support the great increase in blood volume, it is the basis of amniotic fluid and essential for the production of breastmilk. Dehydration during pregnancy can cause constipation, water retention, UTI’s, nausea and fatigue.

Fluids for pregnancy

Fluid is not just plain water! You can get plenty of fluid from fruit and vegetables, milk, plant milks, soups and herbal teas.

8. Fibre

Fibre helps prevent constipation, a common pregnancy symptom, and supports digestive health by maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. It also helps regulate blood sugar levels and reduces the risk of gestational diabetes. 

Fibre-rich foods for pregnancy

Whole grains like oats and quinoa, fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts are rich sources of fibre.

Conclusion

Prioritising proper nutrition during pregnancy is paramount for both the mother and her baby. By making informed choices and incorporating nutrient-dense foods into their diets, mamas can lay the foundation for a healthy pregnancy and foster optimal growth and development for their little ones.

Author

  • Kika Christofi

    Fertility and Prenatal Dietitian
    Instagram – @pregnancy.nutrition.cy, @thefertilityedit
    Facebook – Kika Christofi, Clinical Dietitian

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