Optimal nutrition is essential for our bodies to function down to the cellular level, however during pregnancy, a time of rapid growth and development [quite literally growing a new human life within your very being] makes it a standout stage of life and increases the body’s requirements for specific nutrients. Getting enough food and the right nutrients is vital to give your little miracle the best start to life, as well as supporting you, both mentally and physically, throughout your pregnancy and post-partum.
A wholefoods diet approach is best, however with the increased demands placed on the body, supplementation may also be warranted and is where seeing a health care practitioner, like a nutritionist, can be helpful so you can get tailored nutritional prescriptions from quality practitioner only supplements rather than over the counter vitamins that might not be best suited for you.
The goal of nutritional supplementation is to ensure that there are adequate levels to meet the increased nutritional demands in conjunction with the growth of maternal tissues such as the uterus, breast and blood cells as well as the development of the placenta, an entirely new organ (incredible) and the baby itself. In addition, supplementation is also beneficial in the treatment and prevention of specific health complaints. Also, worthy to highlight the importance of the nutritional environment in utero is also thought to play a part in determining the health status and risk of disease of the child throughout its life, even into adulthood.
Looking at key nutrients in isolation
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
These are essential fatty acids, meaning the body must obtain them through the diet. During pregnancy, maternal omega 3 fatty acid stores are depleted due to increased foetal demands. The depletion is more evident throughout the third trimester, and supplementation with fish oils containing EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) up to 3g per day, appear to be safe during pregnancy. DHA is of particular importance for the growth and development of baby’s brain and central nervous system.
Food sources include fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), grass fed beef, walnuts, chia seeds and linseeds
As a nation, we have widespread deficiency in this fat-soluble vitamin (levels <50nmol/L). Through diet alone, sufficient levels are unlikely to be achieved, making supplementation key as well as adequate sunlight exposure for pregnant women. Toxicity may occur with supplementation, in excessive amounts, however this is a rare occurrence. Maternal deficiency has been associated with poor foetal and infant skeletal development, as well as bone and tooth mineralisation. Vitamin D is also known to modulate the immune system and several epidemiological studies have linked inadequate vitamin D levels to a higher susceptibility of immune-mediated disorders, including chronic infections and autoimmune diseases.
Food sources include grass fed butter, egg yolks, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) and full fat dairy.
Vitamin A is another crucial fat-soluble vitamin needed to gene expression and cell differentiation, as well as organogenesis (the growth of organ and organ systems in baby) and embryonic development. There is a caution with supplementation, more so in the first trimester, particularly with high doses. As always, it’s important to work with your health practitioner before self-prescribing.
Food sources include grass fed butter, organic organ meats, or supplementing with food sources like cod liver oil, which provides both A, D as well as essential fatty acids EPA and DHA
Also known as vitamin B9 is required for nucleic acid metabolism, basically meaning that its needed for genetic expression – the synthesis of DNA and RNA, as well as preventing neural tube defects. In pregnancy, folate requirements increase by at least 200mcg. This increase is due to the proliferation of cells both in mum and bub’s growing and developing tissues.
Food sources include green leafy vegetables, like spinach, as well as asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, avocado, citrus fruits, beans, peas and lentils.
Vitamin V12 is needed for healthy methylation, a complex biochemical process that is required for almost all cellular functions including DNA, RNA, neurotransmitters, hormones, immune cell and nerve cells to be synthesised and function normally. It works with folate and additional B vitamins to ensure this. Vitamin B12 is also needed for the formation of red blood cells. Low levels during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight. Supplementation is a must in vegans and some vegetarians as food sources are of animal origin.
Foods to include are all animal based – meats, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy.
Low iron levels can lead to iron deficiency anaemia, on the contrary, high levels of iron are toxic to our organs so supplementation must be tailored depending on the maternal stores and levels, which can be obtained through blood tests. Anaemia during pregnancy can increase the risk of maternal mortality, infection, low birth weight, premature delivery and reduced infant iron stores which can then effect the infants brain development and cognition.
Food sources include red meat, chicken, and plant forms (which are not as well absorbed) spinach, lentils, nuts and seeds.
A mineral of particular importance during the second half of pregnancy, as the demands for calcium are increased. Vitamin D is also needed for the body to absorb and retain sufficient calcium status.
Food sources include fatty fish with the bones, leafy greens like kale, chard, as well as sesame seeds and tahini, almonds and whole milk dairy.
Yet another widespread deficiency observed here in Australia, with maternal deficiencies leading to brain developmental defects. Getting adequate stores of this mineral is of particular importance before mid-pregnancy, even a mild deficiency can have significant adverse effects for bub, and effect thyroid function in mum.
Food sources include sea vegetables, such as kelp and seaweed, organic potatoes, navy beans and organic strawberries.
It’s estimated that up to 80% of pregnant women worldwide do not get enough zinc on a day to day basis. The average amount being only 9.5mg, far below the recommended daily intake for adults. Low zinc levels in pregnancy can lead to deficiencies for the foetus and may impact on the infant development. Not only this but inadequate levels of zinc can impact on the hormones required for the onset of labour. Zinc is also essential for immunity, meaning that reduced levels can affect both mum and bub with the onset of intra-uterine infections – a huge contributor to pre-term births.
Food sources include lamb, beef, eggs as well as plant sources from pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and tahini
The use of probiotics goes far beyond supporting digestion, gut health and immunity but have also shown to reduce mastitis, pre-eclampsia and even post-natal depression & anxiety disorders through altering the neurotransmitters produced in the gut. Probiotics are also important for the development of bubs immune system and reduces their risk of atopic conditions and allergies (eczema, asthma etc) and even leukemia. It’s important to not only supplement with probiotics, but also eat a diet that is supportive of their survival.
Foods to include are fermented foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut and cultured vegetables, as well as high fibre vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds as these provide prebiotic fibres which feed the beneficial bacteria.
Please note that before taking any nutritional supplements, please get advice from a trained health care professional as even nutrient supplementation can cause adverse effects, and during pregnancy, you’re now not just eating or supplementing for you, but for the little life growing inside of you.
Written by: Brittani Kolasinski (BHSc Nut, AdvDip NutMed, ANTA acc.)