The 6 Nutrients You Need When Pregnant
Written by Gabrielle McPherson, MS, RDN, LDN
Between the cravings and the morning sickness, figuring out the right foods to eat when you are pregnant can be tricky. But we all know that good nutrition is key to knitting together a healthy baby in the womb…and preparing them for their postpartum debut. While many nutrients are vital for supporting your growing bump, some are a wee bit more critical than others. Give your little one the best start by peppering your pregnancy diet with these top nutrients.
Pregnancy Diet Must No. 1: Iron
Now that you are pregnant, your body needs twice the amount of iron it did pre-pregnancy. Iron is a key mineral because it delivers oxygen and nutrients directly to your growing baby. And the iron your baby-to-be gets before they are born continues to be important afterward. You see, babies store iron in their bodies and depend on it for their first six months. The problem? Iron deficiency in pregnancy is rampant, impacting one in two pregnancies. To help avoid iron deficiency—and to stack the safe-uncomplicated-pregnancy deck in your favour—it is important to take a prenatal vitamin that contains iron and to eat a diet rich in this important mineral. Mums-to-be need 27 milligrams of iron every day. Here, foods to get you there:
- Fortified breakfast cereal: 18 milligrams
- White beans: 8 milligrams
- Lentils: 7 milligrams
- Flank steak: 6.7 milligrams
- Dark chocolate: 6 milligrams
- Fully cooked mussels: 5.7 milligrams
- Cooked spinach: 3 milligrams
- Cashews 2 milligrams
For an iron-focused lunch, prep 210 grams of lentils with 10 milligrams of cooked spinach and you’re already at 37% of your daily iron needs. For snack help, mix 85 grams of dark chocolate with 18 cashews (8 milligrams) for 30% of your daily dose.
Did you know? It’s best to pair iron-filled eats with vitamin C-rich foods, like bell peppers or citrus fruits. Vitamin C works with iron to help your body absorb more of the mineral. Talk about teamwork!
Pregnancy Diet Must No. 2: Iodine
Iodine is a mineral with a couple of important jobs: To buoy thyroid health, which helps you use and store energy from food…and to bolster the development of Baby’s nervous system, including their brain, spinal cord, and nerves. And remember, if you don’t get enough iodine during pregnancy, your baby doesn’t either. While severe iodine deficiency is pretty rare in the United States, even a mild deficiency during pregnancy may still cause cognitive impairment in children. It’s best for pregnant folks to get 220 micrograms of iodine daily. But don’t expect your prenatal to always deliver the goods, since not all contain iodine. Some good sources of iodine include:
- Dried seaweed: 33 sheets (220 micrograms)
- Baked cod: 158 micrograms
- Plain Greek yogurt: 116 micrograms
- Cow’s milk: 85 micrograms
- Iodised table salt: 76 micrograms
Snacking on 33 dried seaweed sheets (220 milligrams) will give 100% of your daily value! Alternatively, sprinkle 1.5 grams of iodised table salt on .7 litres of olive oil drizzled air-popped popcorn (76 milligrams) and pair that with 85 milligrams of milk for 76% of your daily requirements.
Did you know? Sea salt usually contains less iodine than table salt.
Pregnancy Diet Must No. 3: Folate or folic acid
Folate is a top nutrient babies need—and they need it from the start. (Actually, it’s important even before the start!) When your baby is just beginning to develop, folate helps form what’s called the neural tube, which is what eventually becomes Baby’s brain and spinal cord. Having adequate folate before and during pregnancy helps to protect your little one from brain and spine birth defects, including spina bifida. (Folic acid, by the way, is the synthetic form of folate that’s found in fortified foods and prenatal vitamins.) If all women took 400 micrograms of folic acid daily at least one month before getting pregnant and during early pregnancy, it could help prevent up to 70% of neural tube defects, according to the March of Dimes. (That need bumps up to 600 micrograms a day as pregnancy progresses.) To make sure you’re getting enough, take your prenatal vitamins and seek out healthy foods that are rich in this key nutrient, such as:
- Fortified breakfast cereal: 189 micrograms
- Cooked asparagus: 134 micrograms
- Kidney beans: 131 micrograms
- Enriched white rice: 108 micrograms
- Cooked beets: 68 micrograms
- Orange juice: 40 micrograms
For breakfast, consider enjoying 189 micrograms of fortified breakfast cereal with milk and 40 micrograms of orange juice for 38% of your daily value of folate. As a side to your favourite protein-rich entree, try 134 micrograms of sautéed asparagus and 68 micrograms of sautéed beets for 34% of your daily needs.
Did you know? If you take a folic acid supplement with food, your body is able to use about 85% of the nutrient. But when you take it without food, nearly 100% of supplemental folic acid is bioavailable.
Pregnancy Diet Must No. 4: Calcium
From the get-go, growing a baby requires calcium—and lots of it. Baby-to-be needs calcium to build strong bones, teeth, and muscles. And mums-to-be need this key pregnancy nutrient to help keep blood pressure in check, which can help prevent preeclampsia, which reduces blood flow to the placenta. Pregnant individuals over the age of 19 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily. You can get the proper amount by taking prenatal vitamins and eating foods that are good sources of calcium, including:
- Plain yogurt: 448 milligrams
- Fortified orange juice: 349 milligrams
- Fortified soymilk: 299 milligrams
- Firm tofu: 253 milligrams
- Canned sardines: 200 milligrams
- Cooked edamame: 131 milligrams
Combine 448 milligrams of plain yogurt with 112 grams of banana slices for a calcium-boosted breakfast that offers up almost half of your daily calcium needs. When you’re looking to snack, reach for 131 milligrams of cooked edamame and 349 milligrams of fortified orange juice for 48% of your daily calcium requirements.
Did you know? Prenatal vitamins are meant to supplement your calcium intake, not be your calcium intake! If you rely solely on prenatals to meet your calcium needs, you won't get enough.
Pregnancy Diet Must No. 5: Omega 3-fatty acids
One omega-3 in particular is a super-important pregnancy nutrient: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This healthy fat is only found in foods and supplements. That means, your body simply cannot make it alone. DHA is absolutely critical for your little one’s growth and development…especially when it comes to your baby’s brain and eyes. While baby’s in progress, you’ll benefit from 1.4 grams of omega-3 fats daily, including DHA. And since not all prenatal vitamins contain DHA, you’ll have to look for food sources, too, like fish. Despite what you may think, fish can be very safe in pregnancy—and important, too. Simply limit intake to 225 grams a week of low mercury fish. Here’s some more guidance:
- Cooked salmon: 1.24 grams
- Canned sardines: 0.74 grams
- Canned, light tuna: 0.17 grams
- Cooked egg: 0.03 grams
If you top your arugula and blueberry salad with 1.24 grams of cooked salmon, you’ll enjoy 88% of your daily value of omega-3 fats.
Did you know? If you suspect you’re running low on DHA, consider asking your healthcare provider for a screening. Recent research found that pregnant individuals who took 1,000 milligrams of DHA daily in the last half of pregnancy had a lower rate of preterm birth than women who took the standard 200 milligram dose.
Pregnancy Diet Must No. 6: Protein
Protein is a powerful pregnancy nutrient that’s considered a basic building block for baby’s growth. It drives the creation, structure, and function of your growing baby’s cells, hair, skin, tiny fingernails, and much more! When it comes to protein, the general rule of thumb is this: At minimum, pregnant women should eat 60 grams of protein daily. That said, some experts believe that the minimum threshold should be higher. In the end, you and your bub-to-be likely need to take in 70 to about 100 grams of protein a day, depending on your weight and trimester Talk to your obstetrician or midwife about your specific needs and look for these protein sources:
- Chicken breast: 26 grams
- Ground beef: 21 grams
- Cottage cheese: 14 grams
- Black beans: 7 grams
- Almond butter: 7 grams
- Cooked egg: 1 egg (6 grams)
For a protein-packed breakfast, try two scrambled eggs (12 grams), freshly chopped mango, and 14 grams of cottage cheese for 43% of your daily protein needs. For lunch, make a single serving high-protein taco with 21 grams of cooked ground beef and 3.5 grams of black beans for 41% of your daily protein requirements.
Did you know? Your body best absorbs and utilises protein when it’s spread out over the course of the whole day—not all eaten at dinner!
For more expert pregnancy nutrition advice from Gabrielle McPherson, MS, RDN, LDN, check these stories out:
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider. Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for babies. It is important that, in preparation for and during breastfeeding, mothers eat a healthy, balanced diet. Combined breast- and bottle-feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of a mother's breastmilk and reversing the decision not to breastfeed is difficult. If you do decide to use infant formula, you should follow instructions carefully.