5 Key Nutrients for Healthy Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

To keep the baby growing strong and the mom healthy, most pregnant women are advised to add about 300 calories/day to their diet. Lactating women are recommended to add yet another 200 calories, for a full 500 calorie increase. For maximum absorption, the best way to add calories might be to add snacks and small meals rather than three large meals each day. But, which snacks and what kinds of meals are best?

Healthcare professionals recommend a wholesome, balanced diet, focusing on foods rich in essential nutrients, and avoiding “empty calories.” Listed here are the five important nutrients for expecting mothers, and the top food choices for each. Many foods overlap, containing several or all of the nutriments listed. During pregnancy, taking a daily prenatal multivitamin may also be beneficial. Consult with your healthcare professional to choose the one that is best for you and your baby.

Terms to know

  • (RDA) Recommended Dietary Allowances

This number represents the daily recommended dose considered sufficient for health, as established by the Food and Nutrition Board.

  • (UL) Tolerable upper intake levels

The UL lists the highest possible non-toxic daily dose of a nutrient. It’s meant to caution against overconsumption. Exceeding this amount may be dangerous. It should be avoided or must only be done under direct supervision of a healthcare professional.

  1. Folate/Folic Acid

Top Food Source

  • Lentils 350mcg folate/1 cup, cooked. Folate is a B vitamin that occurs naturally in many foods including beans, brussel sprouts, beets, lentils and broccoli. Folic acid is the synthetic form found in vitamin supplements and fortified enriched cereals and flours. The CDC strongly recommends that all women able-to-become-pregnant between the ages of 15 and 45 supplement this B vitamin in case they get pregnant, since 50 percent of all conceptions in the United States are unplanned and most defects are preventable with adequate folic acid in the body.
  • Most experts agree that supplementing with folic acid:
  • Reduces risk of birth defects, including Autism
  • Reduces risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida
  • Improves chances of full term birth
  • Improves likelihood of healthy weight
  1. Calcium

Top Food Source

  • 1 cup/8oz organic plain nonfat yogurt, 450mg calcium

Calcium is a mineral mainly stored in the teeth and bones, giving them their necessary hardness and strength. However, the mineral is also necessary for healthy nerve transmission, proper release of vital hormones and enzymes, and muscle function. Don’t forget that in order for your body to absorb calcium you need magnesium.

During pregnancy, supplement with calcium to:

  • Develop strong teeth and bones for baby
  • Maintain mom’s healthy bone density. If adequate calcium is not obtained from the mother’s diet, the body will take from her bones to support the baby’s development.
  • Lower risk of preeclampsia, a condition that causes potentially lethal seizures during pregnancy
  • Decrease chances of preterm birth

Calcium is found in both animal and non-animal foods. Dairy provides good options for dietary calcium, but not the only nor always the best. You can also enjoy collard greens, spinach, goat’s milk and cheeses, sardines, some herbs and spices, and even a sweet ingredient in grandma’s favorite oatmeal cookies.

  1. Vitamin D

Top Food Source

  • 1 T cod liver oil, 1360 IU Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin necessary for the body to absorb calcium and phosphate. Despite its name, “vitamin D” is not a true vitamin because, if exposed to enough natural sunshine, the body can synthesize the nutrient from cholesterol. Not shockingly, it’s also obtainable from food sources that contain fair levels of cholesterol such as fatty fish and eggs. Newer research has found that pregnant women who consume the UL dose may dramatically reduce their risk of complications. Ask your healthcare professional to help you decide whether you should increase your intake. Benefits of consuming ample amounts of vitamin D include:
  • Calcium absorption
  • Reduced risk of complications such as preterm birth, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Prevent bone deformities/strengthen healthy teeth and bones for baby

If you’re not sunshine deficient, you’re unlikely to be vitamin D deficient. Excellent dietary sources of vitamin D include swordfish, mackerel and salmon as well as eggs and fresh organic fruits.

More Important Nutrients and Foods

In general, a pregnant or breastfeeding mom needs all the same nutrients as any female adult, except she now needs more of them.

  1. Iron

In addition to folate, calcium and vitamin D, pay attention to your iron intake. The most obvious initial symptom of iron deficiency is fatigue. Research shows that moms need about 50 percent more iron, especially during the second and third trimesters, to avoid iron-deficiency anemia. RDA for pregnant women is 27g; lactating is 9g. Best animal food sources of iron include lean beaf, roast turkey (dark meat), chicken (breast and dark meat), and halibut. Great vegetarian sources include iron-enriched oatmeal, edamame, lentils, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds, blackstrap molasses, raw or cooked spinach, and raisins.

  1. Essential Fatty Acids

Recent discoveries have shown that EFAs are necessary for nervous system and brain development both during gestation and in the first two years of a baby’s life. Ingesting plenty of Omega-3s during pregnancy will help to reduce the potential for malfunction in the nervous system, such as mild (or severe) neurosis, which can surface as frustration, emotional challenges or difficulty learning. Happily, there’s no reason to be alarmed. Omega-3s are fairly easy to catch.

A Sweet Conclusion

While you’re expecting, eat an overall healthy diet, enjoying a wide variety of fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Do your best to avoid artificial food. Go easy on refined sugars. If you get most of your sweet fix from whole foods, and by cleverly using sweet spices, as well as naturally sweet oils such as coconut oil, you’ll be able to afford the occasional treat and still be providing optimally for you and your baby.