Here are some key nutrients (and foods) that will help to support your growing baby’s nutritional needs (as well as yours!) during pregnancy
If you’re expecting a baby, chances are, you’ve cut back on caffeine, ditched alcohol, and are avoiding certain foods such as raw sushi and deli meat. But are you covering all of your bases nutrition-wise? What I often find in my nutrition counselling practice, is that many women don’t realize that there are certain nutrients of concern during pregnancy, and that they can’t rely solely on their prenatal multivitamin to supply them (or enough of them). Nutrients such as omega-3, protein, and iron are important not only to support baby’s growth and development, but also to maintain your own health!
Here are 5 nutrients that you should pay extra attention to during pregnancy (and foods that supply them):
Protein for a healthy pregnancy
Protein is an important macronutrient that helps to build and maintain structural components of your body (and our baby’s!), such as muscle, skin and hair. Protein also helps to support a healthy placenta, which supplies your baby’s nutrition while during pregnancy, and prevents harmful substances from passing to your baby’s bloodstream. Many protein-rich foods also supply important nutrients for pregnancy. For example, fish is a fantastic source of protein, vitamin B-12, omega-3 and in some cases–like salmon, trout and snapper–even vitamin D! I’m always encouraging my pregnant and breastfeeding clients to consume more low-mercury fish (two to three servings a week), because it’s such an easy way to get more protein into their diets, but also a long list of other important nutrients.
10% to 35% of your diet should consist of protein, and you should consume extra protein during pregnancy (about 10-25 grams per day), depending on weight, especially during your second and third trimesters. This added protein will help to support your (and your baby’s) nutritional needs during pregnancy. Protein-rich foods include meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, lentils and nuts and seeds.
Omega-3 for pregnancy
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for proper health in both babies and adults. Specifically when it comes to pregnancy, recommended amounts of Omega 3 have not been established yet, however we know that Omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA and EPA) are important for proper brain, eye and nerve development in a growing baby in utero. When it comes to omega-3, oily fish is the gold standard–it’s by far the best way to ensure that you’re getting enough. What’s recommended in Canada is consuming five ounces of fatty, low mercury fish per week to obtain enough DHA and EPA. Low mercury omega-3-rich fish include salmon, light flaked tuna, halibut, and trout. Note: It’s important to avoid high mercury fish such as shark, ahi tuna, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish during pregnancy.
Where to buy high quality, sustainable (and affordable) fish:
One of the first questions I’m asked when I recommend to my clients to consume more fish is “where do you buy your fish?”. Up until now, I’ve struggled to find good quality, decently priced fish that I feel good about serving my family. A dietitian friend of mine recommended that I try Skipper Otto Community Supported Fishery, which I later learned is a fishery that creates a direct connection between local, Canadian fishermen and consumers, with the joint goal of protecting ocean resources and improving Canada’s food system. I decided to become a member, which allows me to order high quality seasonal fish–flash frozen for optimal nutrition and freshness–and pick it up at my local natural grocery store. And it’s really cost-effective too!
If you’re not a fan of fish, I recommend that you take a regulated, high quality Omega-3 fish oil supplement during pregnancy, containing between 500-900 mg of DHA and EPA combined, per day. Fish liver oil supplements however, are not recommended during pregnancy and breastfeeding because of their high levels of Vitamin A.
Iron for a healthy pregnancy
Iron is important for oxygen transport and helps to reduce the risk of pre-term birth as well as low birth weight. When you become pregnant, your iron needs triple, so it’s important that you consume foods that are high in iron everyday while pregnant. Animal sources of iron (heme-iron) include all meats, poultry, fish, and eggs, and are the best absorbed. Plant sources of iron (non-heme iron) are are not as well absorbed, so it’s important that you pair them with foods that are high in Vitamin C, such as oranges, strawberries, cantaloupe or kiwi fruit, as Vitamin C increases non-heme iron absorption. It’s hard to obtain this extra iron from diet alone, so what’s recommended is pregnant women take a pre-natal multivitamin supplement with 27 mg per day. If you become anemic during pregnancy (which is not uncommon), your Doctor, Dietitian or Midwife may recommend an additional iron supplement.
Calcium during pregnancy
Calcium is important for building and maintaining healthy bones and teeth, as well as for proper muscle function, nerve transmission and hormonal balance. It is especially important during pregnancy, because you are not only maintaining your own bone health, but also supporting your baby’s calcium needs. What’s recommended during pregnancy, is consuming 1000 mg of calcium per day (if you are over the age of 18) and 1300 mg of calcium if you are between the ages of 14-18. Some dairy products (and calcium-fortified dairy alternatives) are great dietary sources of calcium. One serving of milk (1 cup) or yogurt (3/4 cup) or cheese (1.5 oz) contain approximately 300 mg of calcium. Your pre-natal multivitamin likely contains another 200-300 mg of calcium and if you are eating a balanced healthy diet, you will likely be consuming another 200-300 mg of calcium from non-dairy foods. Another excellent source of calcium (and Vitamin D!) is canned salmon!
Vitamin D and pregnancy
Vitamin D helps your body use calcium and phosphorous to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. Vitamin D may also help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cancer, and is also linked to a stronger immune system.
Vitamin D can be synthesized by the body after exposure to the sun, however, in Canada, because of the climate, the positioning of the sun, and the fact that we wear sunscreen, we don’t synthesize a whole lot of it from sun exposure. Too little vitamin D can cause calcium and phosphorus levels in the blood to decrease, leading to calcium being leeched from bones to help maintain stable blood levels. This can cause rickets in children and osteomalacia (softening of the bones) or osteoporosis (fragile bones) in adults.
During pregnancy, it’s important to get enough Vitamin D for proper health and for your baby’s health. The recommended amount is 600 IUs (international units) per day. There are some food sources of vitamin D such as milk, salmon and fortified orange juice, but because there aren’t many food sources, it’s important to take a supplement. Your pre-natal multivitamin will likely have between 200 and 400 IU’s, but I recommend topping up with another 400-1000 IU’s per day. According to Health Canada, the Tolerable Upper Limit for pregnant and breastfeeding women is 4000 IUs per day, so 1000-2000 IU’s total is well below this.