When you’re pregnant, your diet is suddenly full of “can’t haves”—from seafood and alcohol to processed meats. Your supplement regimen, on the other hand, is full of “must haves.” Doctors advise women to take a variety of key vitamins and minerals to support their health, and the health of their baby, during pregnancy.
About 97% of women took prenatal vitamins during their last pregnancy. But as with any other dietary supplement, not all vitamins are created equal. Whether they choose a prenatal vitamin, a food source or a variety of standalone supplements, women should prioritize these essential nutrients during their pregnancy.
Why take it: Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, the B Vitamin found naturally in food. During pregnancy, women need it to ward off birth defects, which could be one reason why vitamin companies began adding folic acid to multivitamins back in the 1970s and marketing them to pregnant women.
How to take it: Doctors typically recommend that women take 400 mcg of folate per day; during pregnancy, that increases to 600. But folic acid is just as important when you’re trying to conceive as during pregnancy itself, so women are typically advised to supplement with 400 mcg of folate starting four weeks before conception. There’s a bit of research that says Vitamin C helps enhance your body’s ability to absorb folate, so you could consider taking both of these supplements together.
Why take it: This mineral has long been touted for building strong bones. Not surprisingly, pregnant women need daily calcium to support the development of their baby’s teeth, blood vessels and heart. Not getting enough calcium during pregnancy can, in rare cases, put you at a higher risk of pre-eclampsia, which can imperil the life of both mother and baby. But not to worry: there are plenty of food and supplement sources to keep your calcium levels healthy throughout your pregnancy (and beyond).
How to take it: Milk, yogurt and kefir (the latter two have probiotics, too) are good sources of calcium. Broccoli and kale are also good sources of this mineral. If you’re in need of a supplement to boost your calcium, remember that calcium carbonate is absorbed better when taken with a meal, while calcium citrate can be taken with or without food.
One dietician recommends that if you’re taking more than 500 mg at a time—the daily recommended limit is 10,000 mg—you should split it between the two types of calcium to enhance absorption. And remember, Vitamin D is required to reap the full benefits of calcium, whether taken in a food or supplement form.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Why take it: The omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) plays a starring role in the healthy development of a baby’s brain, nervous system and eyes. A recommended daily dose is typically around 200mg.
How to take it: Fish are a key source of DHA. There are also many supplements on the market that contain this omega-3 fatty acid. However, when it comes to DHA, at least, food trumps supplements. In numerous studies, babies whose mothers took DHA supplements during pregnancy did not reap any measurable cognitive benefits. Not all prenatal supplements include DHA, so if you’re planning to skip fish and go the vitamin route, make sure you pick a prenatal formula that contains DHA.
Why take it: Iron is used to produce hemoglobin, which carries protein from your oxygen and into your bloodstream. When you’re pregnant, your recommended dose of iron doubles so that you can carry enough oxygen to your baby. Put another way, you need enough iron to support a blood volume that’s 30-50% higher than when you’re not pregnant.
Your baby also needs iron to make its own blood. An iron deficiency is never good, but during pregnancy it can more quickly lead to anemia, fatigue and a baby that’s either born prematurely or born with a low birthweight—or possibly both. Prematurely born babies are often given iron supplements to boost their health.
How to take it: Iron comes in both a form found in meat (heme) and a form found in plants (non-heme). Heme is more readily absorbed by the body. Although iron is crucial when you’re pregnant, it’s also a nutrient that can be harmful in amounts that are too high. So be sure to consult with your doctor if you choose to take an iron supplement during pregnancy.
Why take it: Vitamin D is a common ingredient in prenatal vitamins, and for good reason. For the mother, Vitamin D can enhance mood, balance blood pressure and boost immunity. Vitamin D taken during pregnancy has been shown to reduce the risk of birth defects and underweight babies and help with the strength of their bones.
How to take it: We all know that dairy can be a good source of Vitamin D. But with more people than ever not getting their daily recommended value of this vitamin, it’s important to consider supplements. Ergocalciferol, the vegetarian form of vitamin D, and cholecalciferol, the form coming from fish liver oil or lanolin, are two common supplement forms. The animal form is best absorbed by the body.
A quick note for soon-to-be moms who take fitness supplements: the more you know about what you’re putting into your body, the better. Choose a protein powder with the fewest artificial ingredients, and avoid formulas that contain caffeine.