If you’re pregnant you probably wonder whether your diet is good enough to provide all the nutrients needed to keep you strong throughout the pregnancy and support the baby growing inside you. Getting the right nutrition is not easy, especially if your idea of a healthy lunch involves a can of energy drink and a chocolate bar.
The truth is that most pregnant women would benefit from a prenatal vitamin supplement. It contains a carefully chosen ratios of nutrients recommended for pregnant women, such as folic acid and vitamin D, while keeping down the level of any unnecessary or potentially harmful substances. This is also why you should not be taking a standard multivitamin while pregnant as its formula might not be appropriate for your and your growing baby’s needs.
Learn more about the nutrients you’re likely to find in prenatal vitamins.
As in pre-conception, pregnant women are advised to increase their intake of one of B vitamins called folate, found in foods such as broccoli, beans, tomato and orange juices, lentils, asparagus and fortified breakfast cereals. Folate deficiency can lead to serious pregnancy complications, including a condition called neural tube defect (NTD), which occurs when a baby’s brain and spinal cord fail to fully develop. To minimise the risk of NTDs, the Department of Health recommends a folic acid supplement (400mcg) in the first 3 months of pregnancy, in addition to a folate-rich diet.
If you’re pregnant, it is recommended that you supplement your diet with 10mcg of vitamin D, which plays an important role in regulating bone-building minerals, mainly calcium and phosphate. On top of preventing maternal deficiency, additional vitamin D during pregnancy is needed to support healthy development of your baby’s teeth and bones.
The main source of vitamin D is sunlight, which triggers the vitamin production in our bodies following sun exposure. It can also be found in some foods, including oily fish (maximum 2 portions per week), fortified cornflakes and margarine. Most people rely on sunlight to get their recommended intake of vitamin D, which can be a problem in the UK, especially during winter months. Dark-skinned people are particularly at risk of vitamin D deficiency. As a result, pregnant women need to ensure they get enough vitamin D through regular sun exposure, vitamin D-rich foods and the recommended vitamin D supplement. Make sure you check your prenatal vitamin supplement for its vitamin D content.
If you’re on a low income, you might be eligible for free vitamin supplements that include vitamin D and folic acid. Talk to your doctor or visit the NHS Healthy Start website for more information.
Omega-3 fatty acids
There are 3 main types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, DHA and EPA. They cannot be produced by the human body and therefore must be provided in the diet. The main sources include oily fish, flax seeds and omega-3 eggs.
DHA is the most important type of omega-3 in pregnancy due to its contribution to the development of your baby’s brain and eyes. It also plays a role in tissue formation in both the mother and the baby. DHA can be found mainly in oily fish, but while pregnant you should limit your intake to a maximum of two portions a week, to avoid accumulating any contaminants these fish might contain.
The omega-3 fatty acids found in prenatal vitamins are usually given in the form of fish oil capsules derived from oily fish. The production of these supplements involves oil purification, which removes contaminants such as mercury. If you’re still concerned, you can look at the report on the safety of fish oil supplements produced by Food Standard Agency in 2005.
Most vegetarian sources of omega-3 contain the ALA type, which can, to some extent, be converted in your body to EPA and DHA. To improve the conversion rate, make sure you include walnuts, dark leafy vegetables and DHA-rich microalgae, such as spirulina, in your diet.
Getting enough calcium in your diet is very important during pregnancy, not only to ensure healthy development of your baby’s bones and teeth, but also to maintain your own calcium stores. It can be found in many foods, including dairy products, sardines, bread and dark green vegetables.
Keep in mind that certain types of cheese, such as Camembert or Brie and blue cheeses should be avoided due to the risk of infection. The same advice goes for unpasteurised milk and milk products, whether from cows, goats or sheep.
If your diet is low in calcium the baby will take it from your bones to meet their own needs, leaving you calcium-deficient and more prone to osteoporosis later in life. If you feel you could benefit from an additional supplement, make sure you check the label as not all pregnancy vitamins contain it.
The best way of making sure you get enough iron is to eat plenty of foods high in iron, such as red meat, poultry, sardines, dark green leafy vegetables, pulses, dried fruits and fortified products, including breakfast cereals and bread. Make sure you include foods high in vitamin C at mealtimes to improve absorption of iron.
Despite many protective mechanisms used to preserve iron, such as lack of menstrual periods and increased iron absorption in the gut, iron deficiency is quite common during pregnancy. This is because your body needs more iron to cope with the production of new tissue and blood cells, and blood loss during delivery. Low iron levels require additional iron supplements to prevent anaemia.
The Food Standards Agency recommends that unless you’re iron-deficient, you should get your iron from food sources. Pregnancy supplements routinely include iron in their formulas, usually at or below the recommended Safe Upper Level of 17g, to ensure sufficient intake. If in doubt, talk to your GP.
This essential micronutrient plays an important role in the development of your baby’s brain and nervous system. It can be found in many foods, such as seafood, milk and milk products, cereal foods and iodised table salt. Iodine deficiency can lead to some serious pregnancy complications, such as stillbirth, miscarriage and birth defects, so make sure you’re getting plenty of iodine-rich foods and use supplements if necessary. The mineral can be found in some prenatal vitamins, so check the label before you decide which formula to purchase.
Additional nutrients commonly found in pregnancy vitamins include zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamin C and E. You might be aware that vitamin A of animal origin, also known as retinol, can be harmful to your unborn child and should be avoided during pregnancy. Some prenatal supplements might contain a different form of this vitamin, such as beta-carotene, usually found in fruit and vegetables. Carotenes do not have the same effect as retinol and are safe to consume during pregnancy.
Which prenatal vitamins
If you already consume a healthy, well-balanced diet, all you need is the basic formula that contains the recommended 400mcg of folic acid and 10mcg of vitamin D. You can get it from Boots or Holland & Barrett. Also, it’s a great option if you’re on a budget!
For those of you who feel like you could use some additional help in the nutrition department, go for a more complete supplement such as UK’s bestselling prenatal formula Pregnacare Plus Omega-3. It contains a combination of 19 vitamins and minerals, including 400mcg of folic acid and 10mcg of vitamin D, plus fish oil capsules.
Another option is New Chapter Perfect Prenatal. It’s an organic, whole food supplement rich in high quality nutrients, including multivitamin complex and probiotic blend. Although quite expensive, the supplement is very highly rated on the other side of the Atlantic and you can buy it in the UK from Amazon or small online vitamin retailers.
A final note
Keep in mind that no supplement will replace a healthy, balanced diet. Make sure you continue to eat a variety of foods and only use your vitamin formula to fill the nutritional gaps where needed.
Department of Health (2012) Manual of Nutrition. 12th ed. London: TSO.
Food Standards Agency (2002) Eating while you're pregnant: choosing food to keep you and your baby healthy (Accessed August 2013).