Nutrition During Pregnancy
When it comes to nutrition and pregnancy, it often feels like recommendations are all over the map. And when you’re feeling great one second to feeling terrible the next, many of the expert suggestions can feel daunting and stressful: Am I getting enough? Am I getting too much? Can I eat this? Can I drink that?
Anna Maria Siega-Riz, Ph.D., is the dean and professor of nutrition, biostatistics and epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst—in other words, she knows her foods and nutrients. Siega-Riz was part of the committee that prepared the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for pregnant women. She states that while taking supplements is fine and dandy, it’s the food that we eat that really provides the nutrients we need.
The following six nutrients at the top of the list for expecting mothers, as well as the daily amounts needed and the foods that contain them.
1. Choline (450 mg) – Eggs, edamame, lean beef, chicken, mushrooms, kidney beans
Choline helps make acetylocholine, a chemical in the brain that has been linked to increased brain function in babies. In a few small studies, infants born to mothers who ingested the proper amount of choline during pregnancy displayed better attention and quicker reaction time between five and 13 weeks of age.
One egg yolk has 169 mg of choline.
2. Omega-3 fatty acids (250-300 mg DHA) – Salmon, seaweed and other seafood
Omega-3s in the form of DHA and EPA (not ALA, which has no known benefits for pregnancy) are components of cell membranes and are important for reducing inflammation and oxidative stress. Pregnant women who consume omega-3s have a lower risk of preterm birth, and newborns a lower risk of perinatal death (within 7 days of birth) as well as fewer instances of neonatal care needs and low birth weight.
4 oz of salmon provides 476 mg of DHA and EPA.
Seafood is notorious for being on the “Be Safe, Do Not Eat” list. But small amounts of smaller fish like salmon, herring, pacific oysters and trout are OK. If you’re not a fish person, ask your practitioner about a fish oil supplement.
3. Folate (600 mcg) – Spinach, Brussels sprouts, avocado, black-eyed peas, fortified breakfast cereals, asparagus
Folate helps prevent neural tube defects. Finding enough folate in foods is tricky, which is why many practitioners recommend taking a folic acid supplement. Women on diets full of whole grains, or low carbohydrate diets such as keto, will also have a harder time getting those folic-acid-fortified foods.
½ cup of cooked spinach contains 130 mcgs of folate.
4. Iron (27 mg) – Lean red meat, fortified breakfast cereals, clams, oysters, spinach, lentils, dark turkey and chicken meat, white beans
Oxygen is delivered throughout the body via the hemoglobin protein found in red blood cells. Iron assists with creating enough hemoglobin for the body to do its job. However, the pregnant body is creating another body, and therefore needs more oxygen, hemoglobin and iron. It is said that expecting mothers need 50% more iron than non-pregnant women.
Iron-deficient women have a higher risk of preterm delivery and babies with low birth weight. Moms are also often tired (more so than “normal”) and have higher instances of “brain fog” associated with anemia.
3 oz of lean red meat provide 2 mg of iron. Most experts recommend limiting red meat intake to once per week, so supplement with other sources as needed.
5. Vitamin D (15-50 mcg) – Milk, salmon, tuna, fortified orange juice, yogurt, eggs
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and form bone, and is important for eyesight and skin health. Various studies have also linked vitamin D to lowering risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and low birth weight by 50% each, and reducing the risk of fetal or neonatal mortality by 65%.
1 cup cow’s milk has 3 mcg, 3 oz salmon has 13 mcg. Additionally, soaking up sunlight is a great way increase vitamin D production.
6. Iodine (220 mcg) – Table salt, cod, tuna, seaweed, shrimp, many dairy and grain products
Thyroid hormones rely on iodine. In the everyday body, thyroid hormones assist with metabolism, but for the pregnant woman, they also assist with fetal central nervous system and skeletal development. The woman who doesn’t get enough iodine in her diet could produce a baby with intellectual impairments.
¼ tsp table salt (25% of your daily sodium limit) has 71 mcg of iodine. Salt has gotten a lot of flack in the American diet in the past several years, but it is actually beneficial for the body. Just make sure to ingest the right kind of salt—with iodine.
Source: Gorman, Rachael Moeller. “Nutrition Bump.”
Eat Well. May 2020. 94-100.