Nutrition and Pregnancy: The need for nutrients

A nutrient-rich diet is always important if you want to be your healthiest and feel your best, but it’s even more important when you’re growing another human being inside you! I already talked about why eating nutritiously before becoming pregnant is a very good idea. In a nutshell, it helps ensure you are “stocked up” on the nutrients that play vital roles in the very, very early stages of embryonic development, before most women know they are pregnant. Being proactive with good nutrition helps assure that this early developmental “window” isn’t missed.
But what about the rest of pregnancy? Yes, nutrition matters there, too! The first half of pregnancy is when organs are formed, while the second half is when growth primarily happens. Nutrients are important for both aspects of fetal development, and they are also important for the mother, as her nutrient and calorie needs increase as the pregnancy progresses. For most nutrients, eating a regular healthy diet is sufficient during pregnancy. But a few nutrients are needed in greater amounts due to the roles they play in our bodies:

  • Folate. This is an important pre-conception nutrient, as it plays a key role in formation of the neural tube (the spinal cord precursor) in the first three weeks of pregnancy. Folate (aka folic acid) is important during the creation of our DNA and amino acids (component parts of proteins), which are both essential for forming new cells and tissues. A lack of folate during pregnancy increases the risk of premature delivery, miscarriage and low birth weight. 400 micrograms (mcg) of extra folate (beyond diet) is recommended before pregnancy, but this drops to 200 mcg during pregnancy just to maintain the status quo. Food sources of folate include leafy green vegetables, fruits and dried beans and peas. In addition, many breakfast cereals, pastas, breads and other grain products are fortified with folic acid.
  • Vitamin B6. This vitamin is important in the formation of amino acids and proteins. Specifically, it helps form blood cells, hormones and parts of the immune system. The needs for B6 are greatest later in pregnancy, so it’s important to get enough of it through foods or supplements, because the body doesn’t store it (it’s a water-soluble vitamin, which means that any extra gets eliminated in urine). Food sources of vitamin B6 include chickpeas, fish, organ meats, potatoes, starchy vegetables, and some non-citrus fruits.
  • Iron. Ideally, a woman has healthy levels of iron in her body before she becomes pregnant. The reality is that many women are somewhat iron deficient, in part because of monthly blood loss due to menstrual periods (iron is a component of our red blood cells). If you’re deficient, it can be difficult to get “caught up” on iron once  you know your pregnant, but it’s important to try, because the demand for iron increases as pregnancy progresses. The increased blood supply and tissue and organ growth all require iron.
    If a pregnant woman isn’t getting enough iron, her body will draw from whatever iron she has stored in her tissues in order to serve the growing baby’s needs. So if a mother-to-be comes into pregnancy with low stores of iron, and isn’t getting enough from diet and/or supplements, she will become anemic. (Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common complication of pregnancy.) Since anemia can make you tired, and being a sleep-deprived new mother will make you tired, you’re layering tired on top of tired, which is far from optimal! 
    The best food sources of iron include liver, beef, and dark meat turkey. Pork, other poultry and some seafood contains iron. Plant sources of protein include oatmeal, lentils, beans, spinach, tofu and molasses. Generally, we absorb iron from animal sources (heme iron) better than iron from plant sources (non-heme iron). However, pregnant woman have an increased capacity to absorb non-heme iron (nature at work!). Eating a vitamin C-containing food in the same meal also increases the amount of iron you can absorb.
    It can be hard to get enough iron from the diet, so most women need an extra 30 milligrams (mg) per day from a supplement (if you are showing signs of iron depletion or anemia, your doctor may recommend more iron). If you experience constipation or other discomforts from taking supplemental iron (this is common), talk to your doctor about other formulations that may ease your symptoms.
  • Iodine. Needs for this mineral increase during pregnancy because it is used to produce thyroid hormones. Low iodine levels during pregnancy can lead to hypothyroidism, which can cause a number of problems, including birth defects and stillbirth. Food sources of iodine include sea vegetables (seaweed), seafood, dairy products and, of course, iodized salt.
  • Zinc. This mineral is important for cell division/replication and DNA formation. Two things that are pretty important for a developing fetus! If a pregnant woman doesn’t get enough zinc, the risk of birth defects and premature birth increases. Food sources of zinc include oysters, red meat and poultry, as well as nuts, beans, whole grains, crab and lobster, dairy foods and fortified breakfast cereals.

OK, that’s a lot of info. Especially about iron…which is super important. Next week, I’ll talk about a few types of foods that are best avoided during pregnancy.