Congratulations – you’re expecting! It is undoubtedly a joyous time, but also one filled with many questions. In addition to needing more calories while pregnant, there are certain key nutrients which deserve some extra attention. These include Folic Acid, Calcium, Iron, Iodine, DHA, Choline, and Vitamin D. Read on to understand general diet recommendations, unique health benefits, and nutrition tips for pregnant women and babies.
First and foremost, two of the most basic goals for nutrition during pregnancy, barring any pre-existing conditions are:
- Eat with balance
- Safely gain an appropriate amount of weight
How much weight should you gain during pregnancy
The recommended weight to gain throughout your pregnancy will vary from person to person and will depend on the weight you were prior to getting pregnant. It’s important to discuss this with your doctor so that you can determine what is best for you and your circumstances.
Regarding calories, women who were at a healthy weight before becoming pregnant require anywhere between 2,200 and 2,900 calories per day when they’re expecting. A gradual increase in calories is recommended – your caloric needs will change as you progress through your pregnancy:
- Trimester 1: no requirement for extra calories
- Trimester 2: an extra 340 calories per day are recommended
- Trimester 3: an extra 450 calories per day are recommended (add this on to what you were consuming before you became pregnant)1.
It is best if these calories come from whole foods, rather than sweetened beverages for example. Pregnant women should continue to focus on eating with balance, eating regularly (don’t skip meals), and drinking plenty of water. Ensure each meal has a source of protein (chicken, fish, turkey, tofu, etc.), a nutritious starch (quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, etc.), and non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, green beans, salad, etc.).
Folic Acid is a critical nutrient during pregnancy. It is important for healthy development of the neural tube, which will become your baby’s brain and spinal cord. Also known as Folate or Vitamin B9, this nutrient is essential for many bodily functions, especially during periods of rapid growth and development. If you’re taking a prenatal specific vitamin, it will contain folic acid, however it’s also a good idea to include foods that contain this important nutrient. Foods rich in folic acid include dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts), beans, peanuts, fresh fruits, whole grains and eggs.
How much folic acid to take in pregnancy?
Current guidelines recommend at least 600 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily for mums to be. These should be taken daily up to the 12th week of pregnancy. (For perspective, 90g of cooked broccoli has about 160 mcg of folic acid.) It’s also highly beneficial to start taking folic acid supplements before conception.
Calcium is extremely important for the maintenance of your bones and essential for the growth and development of your baby’s bones, teeth, muscles, and nerves.
How much Calcium to take during pregnancy?
Pregnant mothers should aim to consume 1000 milligrams of calcium a day. Natural sources of calcium are dairy foods such as milk, cheese, yoghurt, soya, breakfast cereals, oily fish with soft bones, dark leafy green vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Iron is needed for the body to make haemoglobin, a red blood cell protein that carries oxygen to tissues. During pregnancy, the amount of iron needed doubles as the body needs it to make more blood to supply oxygen to the baby. Lack of iron could cause iron deficiency anaemia which can increase the chances of premature birth, postpartum depression, and low birth weight baby.
How much Iron to take during pregnancy?
Medical experts recommend 27 milligrams of iron per day. The easiest way to double the intake is to take iron supplements. However, natural sources of iron are cereal, meat, spinach, beans, and poultry. Meat based iron is most easily absorbed.
Iodine promotes the baby’s brain and nervous system development. So, whether it’s pregnancy or breastfeeding, a higher amount of iodine is needed, generally 150 micrograms per day. Natural sources of iodine include fish and dairy products such as milk and cheese.
However, if you have thyroid conditions, it’s best to speak to your healthcare professional for recommended dose or alternative supplements.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and eyes. Naturally found in breastmilk, it supports healthy infant growth and development; years of research support its role in infant brain and eye health. Recent research suggests that DHA may play a role in decreasing pre-term birth2 and even the development of childhood food allergies, such as eggs and peanuts3. In addition, a growing body of evidence suggests getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in pregnancy may affect the development of asthma in kids. Research also suggests there is a link between DHA levels and better sleep.
Dietary sources of DHA include fatty fish (anchovies, salmon, tuna, mackerel, halibut) and eggs. The challenge is that many physicians recommend limiting fatty fish intake during pregnancy due to concerns over mercury. The good news is that most prenatal vitamins include DHA and some even offer DHA from a vegetarian algae source!
How much DHA per day should be taken during pregnancy?
On average, pregnant mums should consume around 200-300 milligrams of DHA per day. The best way to keep track of this is to be on the lookout for a prenatal vitamin that offers a minimum 200 mg DHA/day.
Choline tends to be one of those nutrients we forget about, but it is so vitally important for pregnant women to consume. Our bodies make Choline, but not in sufficient amounts, therefore we have to rely on sources from our diets; but most of us, especially pregnant women, aren’t getting enough.
Choline is important for pregnancy because it supports the neurocognitive development of infants. The Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) of choline is 450 mg/day for pregnant women meaning it is important for pregnant women to consume foods that have a source of Choline in their daily diet. These include beef, eggs, chicken, fish, pork, nuts, legumes and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, or kale4. (For perspective, 90g of cooked broccoli has about 60mg of choline.)
By helping the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, Vitamin D supports healthy bone development in kids. Research also suggests that vitamin D plays a role in immune health. Studies have pointed to a link between low Vitamin D levels in pregnancy and low birth weight, preeclampsia, potentially asthma, and even glucose intolerance.
How much Vitamin D to take in pregnancy?
Also essential for healthy skin and eyesight, it is recommended that pregnant women get 600 International Units (IU) per day.
However, those with a higher risk of deficiency should take 1000 International Units. Natural sources of include fortified milk, fatty fish such as salmon, and 15 minutes exposure to sunlight. In addition, your prenatal vitamin should provide Vitamin D.
We hope our pregnancy nutrition guide has been helpful in explaining what nutrients should be given extra attention when expecting and why. This information will help you carry out a healthy pregnancy diet. Lastly, check out our blog for more pregnancy related advice.
- 1Klemm, Sarah. (2019, July 9). Healthy Weight During Pregnancy. Eat Right: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Retrieved from https://www.eatright.org/health/pregnancy/prenatal-wellness/healthy-weight-during-pregnancy
- 2Middleton P, Gomersall JC, Gould JF, Shepherd E, Olsen SF, Makrides M. Omega-3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, Issue 11 . Art. No.: CD003402. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003402.pub3
- 3Vahdaninia, M. et al: “Omega-3 LCPUFA Supplementation during Pregnancy and Risk of Allergic Outcomes or Sensitization in Offspring: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Annal Allergy Asthma Immunology 122(3):302-313 e2, Mar. 2019.
- 4Korsmo, H. W., Jiang, X., & Caudill, M. A. (2019). Choline: Exploring the Growing Science on Its Benefits for Moms and Babies. Nutrients, 11(8), 1823. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081823