Important Nutrients for Pregnancy

Following a healthy balanced diet in the months leading up to conception and during pregnancy is particularly important as growing a baby requires specific nutrients and generally these can be met through a well-planned and nutritionally balanced diet and careful supplementation.

Growing a baby places extra stress on a woman’s body and the physical and hormonal changes you undergo increase your nutrient requirements. Because the foods you eat during pregnancy are your baby’s only source of nutrition, what you eat during pregnancy is critical. During pregnancy you have increased nutritional needs, in particular for iron, protein, folate (folic acid), iodine and choline.

Eating well in the months leading up to your pregnancy and throughout is imperative if you are wanting to give your baby the best possible start to life. More and more research is showing that a mother’s diet during pregnancy can continue to impact on a child’s physical and mental health long after bub exits the womb. The first 1000 days from the month before the start of your pregnancy until your child’s second birthday are when your child’s genetics are determined that will influence their brain development, immune system and health for the rest of their life. For examples, the mother’s diet and child’s nutrition in the first 1000 days are crucial factors in a child’s brain development and lifelong mental health, and child and adult health risks such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.


Here are our top five nutrients you should be aware of during pregnancy.


1. Folate:

Folate, also known as folic acid in its supplemental form, is a B-group vitamin that is essential for healthy cell growth and DNA creation and repair – all of which happens at a rapid rate in a growing baby! Folate is essential for at least three months before falling pregnant in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy as this is when your baby develops the structure of the spinal cord and brain. Collectively these growing body parts are frequently referred to as the ‘neural tube’. Because of its DNA and cell growth support, folate is widely known for its role in preventing neural tube defects, such as Spina Bifida, which is one of the most common birth defects.

Folate is naturally found in a wide variety of foods, such as:

  • >> Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and broccoli
  • >> Avocado
  • >> Some fruits, such as bananas, oranges and strawberries
  • >> Legumes such as chickpeas and lentils
  • >> Nuts and
  • >> Eggs

In Australia, most commercial breads are also fortified with folic acid except for organic breads and gluten-free bread. During pregnancy it is recommended that all women take a folic acid supplement to ensure that nutrient needs are being met, however some women may require a higher dose, such as those with diabetes, malabsorptive disorders such as Coeliac disease and women who are overweight.

Dose? Women of childbearing age should have 400 micrograms of folate per day. These requirements increase during pregnancy to 600 micrograms per day. Some women will require much higher doses.


2. Choline:

Choline, similarly to folate, is vital in the development of that neural tube – the brain and spinal cord. It is one of the building blocks for a growing baby’s cells as they develop in the womb, but is also vital for a healthy placenta. The placenta is the key organ that transfers nutrients to your growing bub and also removes the waste products, so a healthy and well-functioning placenta is extremely important.

Aside from cell growth and development, choline has been linked with a reduction in the risk factors for preeclampsia, and more recent research suggests that a low choline intake may negatively impact cognitive development in childhood. However, more research is required in this area. Less than 1% of pregnant women in Australia currently meed the requirements for choline

Choline is found in a wide variety of foods and is naturally found in:

  • >> Eggs
  • >> Red meat
  • >> Fish such as salmon
  • >> Whole-grains
  • >> Dairy
  • >> Green vegetables
  • >> Legumes, and
  • >> Mushrooms

In fact 2 eggs provides over 50% of your choline requirements!

Dose? The current Australian Nutrient Reference Values recommend pregnant women consume 440mg of choline per day.


3. Iron

Iron is necessary for the formation of new red blood cells for both mum and bub and your iron requirements increase significantly during pregnancy, this is why it is important to have your levels checked throughout your pregnancy, especially if you are feeling lethargic. An adequate iron intake is especially important during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, as this is when a growing foetus begins to build its own iron stores. These stores will make up the baby’s iron stores for the first 6 months of its life, and as such requirements increase dramatically for mum during this period and the entire pregnancy.

There are two types of iron in the diet:

  • >> Haem iron which is found in animal foods such as red meat, seafood and poultry
  • >> Non-haem iron which is found in plant foods such as legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, and nuts

The iron found in animal foods such as lean red meat, chicken and fish is best absorbed. Vegetarian sources of iron such as dried fruit, legumes, whole-grain breads and cereals, nuts and leafy vegetables contain smaller amounts but are not as well absorbed in the body. While it may be easier to meet intake targets consuming animal products, this does not mean a well-planned plant-based diet can’t provide a suitable level as well.

Vitamin C is known to increase the absorption of iron from plant-based sources so include vitamin C rich foods such as:

  • >> Citrus fruits
  • >> Berries
  • >> Tomatoes
  • >> Broccoli and
  • >> Capsicum

For example have a small glass of orange juice with your muesli at breakfast or add broccoli and capsicum to a tofu stir-fry to help increase your iron absorption.

It is important to know that iron supplementation during pregnancy is NOT recommended for everyone. A blood test completed by a GP should be used to determine if a deficiency is present, which then can be corrected through appropriate supplementation and iron containing foods.

Dose? 27 mg/day for pregnant women.


4. Calcium:

Calcium is well known for its vital role in helping form strong bones and teeth (for both mum and bub!), but it has several other functions as well. Calcium also plays a role in nerve signalling, muscle function, blood clotting and developing and maintaining a normal heart rhythm. Studies have also shown that a low intake of calcium during pregnancy may increase the risk of pre-eclampsia

The recommended daily calcium intake is not actually increased during pregnancy, but many women do not meet this general calcium requirement of 1000mg/day.

This target can be met by including three serves of high calcium foods each day, such as:

  • >> 1 cup cow’s milk
  • >> 1 cup of a calcium fortified plant based milk
  • >> 200g dairy yoghurt
  • >>  200g fortified soy yoghurt
  • >> 40g cheese
  • >> 150g firm tofu
  • >> 2-3 sardines

Many other foods contain smaller amounts of calcium such chia seeds, dried fruit, tahini, rocket, kale, amaranth, almonds and soy and linseed bread

Dose? Pregnant women should aim for three serves of calcium-rich foods per day or a total of 1000mg of calcium per day. One serve is equivalent ~300mg of calcium.


5. Protein:

Protein is the building block of every cell in your body and is needed to make new tissues. When you are growing a baby your protein needs are increased, particularly throughout your second and third trimester. It is recommended that you aim for 1 gram of protein per kilo of your body weight per day during pregnancy. This is a slight increase from 0.75 grams of protein per kilo for most non-pregnant women.

For example, if you weigh 65kg, you should aim for 65g of protein per day as a total.

Protein can be found in both animal and plant foods such as:

  • >> Meat
  • >> Chicken
  • >> Fish and seafood
  • >> Eggs
  • >> Dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt
  • >> Legumes e.g. chickpeas, beans, lentils
  • >> Soy products e.g. tofu, soy milk
  • >> Nuts and seeds

Dose? 1 gram of protein per kilo of your body weight per day during pregnancy.

If you are currently trying to fall pregnant, pregnant or breastfeeding and would benefit from the input of a specialised dietitian book in with one of our dietitians at Eatsense today.


Nicole Saliba