Eating a healthy, varied diet in pregnancy will help you to get all the vitamins and minerals you need. There are some vitamins and minerals that are especially important.
It is best to get vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, but when you are pregnant you will need to take some supplements as well.
Do not take vitamin A supplements, or any supplements containing vitamin A, as too much could harm your baby.
You can get supplements from pharmacies and supermarkets, or your doctor may be able to prescribe them for you. If you want to get your folic acid or vitamin D from a multivitamin tablet, make sure that the tablet does not contain vitamin A (or retinol).
Pregnancy can deplete a mother’s iron stores. Therefore, it is important to have an appropriate intake of iron to help build and maintain these stores. Low iron levels in early pregnancy have been linked to premature birth and low birth weight.
The average requirement for iron in pregnancy is 22mg/day but some women will need 27mg/day or more. A mixed diet of animal and plant foods can help you achieve your iron intake. Absorption of iron is better from animal foods compared to plant sources, and the recommended dietary intakes are based on a mixed western diet.
Red meat is the best source of iron as well as also being a good source of protein and zinc. Other meats like chicken and fish also contain iron but not as much as red meat. Iron can also be found in leafy green vegetables, legumes and iron-enriched breakfast cereals.
Adding a glass of fruit juice or other foods rich in vitamin C (such as tomato, broccoli or capsicum) to a meal will increase the amount of iron the body absorbs. In contrast, tea, coffee and unprocessed bran can inhibit iron absorption.
Some women may benefit from taking an iron supplement if they are iron deficient, but it is best to take them according to your doctor’s advice as supplementation may cause symptoms like constipation and be harmful in excessive amounts.
Folate is a B vitamin that is needed for healthy growth and development. Its requirements are increased during pregnancy for normal growth of the unborn baby. Adequate folate intake helps to prevent birth defects in the baby, such as spina bifida.
For more information see folate and pregnancy.
Iodine is an essential mineral that we get from the food we eat. The developing baby in the womb, babies and young children are at greatest risk from a diet deficient in iodine. Iodine is needed in very small but essential amounts by the human body. Iodine is essential to the production of thyroid hormone, which regulates body temperature, metabolic rate, reproduction, growth, blood cell production and nerve and muscle function. Thyroid hormone is produced in the thyroid gland, which is in the neck.
Mild to moderate iodine deficiency can result in learning difficulties and affect development of motor skills and hearing.
While seafood is a good source of iodine, the amount of iodine in other food like milk and vegetables, depends on how much iodine is in the soil.
The recommended intake of iodine throughout pregnancy is 220µg/ day. From September 2009 all bread, except organic, will be fortified with iodine which may improve iodine intake for most Australians; however pregnant and breastfeedingwomen are recommended to take a supplement of between 100 and 200µg per day. You may wish to discuss any supplementation needs with your doctor.
Zinc is a component of various enzymes that help maintain structural integrity of proteins and help regulate gene expression, so getting enough is particularly important for the rapid cell growth that occurs during pregnancy. The average requirement for zinc during pregnancy is 9mg/day but some women will need as much as 11mg/day or more. Zinc can be found in lean meat, wholegrain cereals, milk, seafood, legumes and nuts.
You need vitamin D to keep your bones healthy and to provide your baby with enough vitamin D for the first few months of its life. You should take a supplement of 10 micrograms of vitamin D each day. Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, and these are needed to help keep bones and teeth healthy. Not enough vitamin D can cause children’s bones to soften and can lead to rickets (a disease that affects bone development in children).
Only a few foods contain vitamin D, such as oily fish, fortified margarines, some breakfast cereals and taramasalata. The best source of vitamin D is summer sunlight on your skin. The amount of time you need in the sun to make enough vitamin D is different for every person, and depends on things like skin type, the time of day and time of year. But you don’t need to sunbathe: the amount of sun you need to make enough vitamin D is less than the amount that causes tanning or burning. If you have dark skin or always cover your skin, you may be at particular risk of vitamin D deficiency. Talk to your midwife or doctor if you’re worried about this.
The need for vitamin C is increased in pregnancy due to larger blood volume in the mother and the growth of the unborn baby. Vitamin C is important for the formation of collagen which is especially important in blood vessels.
The average requirement for vitamin C during pregnancy is 40mg/day but because of individual variation, some women may need 60mg/day or more. Excellent dietary sources of vitamin C include fruit and vegetables.
Calcium is vital for making your baby’s bones and teeth. Dairy products and fish with edible bones – such as sardines – are rich in calcium. Breakfast cereals, dried fruit – such as figs and apricots – bread, almonds, tofu (a vegetable protein made from soya beans) and green leafy vegetables – such as watercress, broccoli and curly kale – are other good sources of calcium.
Fibre and Fluids
Some women experience constipation especially during the later parts of pregnancy. A high fibre intake combined with plenty of fluid is encouraged to help prevent this.
High fibre foods include wholegrain breads and cereal products, legumes, nuts, vegetables and fruit.
Apart from the recommended folate supplement, it is best to obtain nutrients from a healthy diet. Multivitamins not designed for pregnancy should be taken with care as there are dangers associated with excessive doses of nutrients such as Vitamins A, D and B6.
Vegetarian, vegan and special diets
A varied and balanced vegetarian diet should give enough nutrients for you and your baby during pregnancy. However, you might find it hard to get enough iron and vitamin B12. Talk to your midwife or doctor about how to make sure you are getting enough of these important nutrients.
If you are vegan (for instance, you cut out all animal products from your diet), or you follow another type of restricted diet, such as gluten-free, because of food intolerance (for example, coeliac disease) or for religious reasons, talk to your maternity team. Ask to be referred to a dietitian for advice on how to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need for you and your baby.
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