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Prenatal Nutrition for a Healthier Pregnancy

By Lily Nichols, RDN, CDE

Prenatal Nutrition for a Healthier Pregnancy

Can seafood, eggs and dark leafy greens transform your prenatal nutrition?  

Most women know their body needs more nutrients during pregnancy. Perhaps you assume you can get all of these nutrients in a prenatal vitamin, but there’s good reason to get these nutrients from our food. Whole foods contain nutrients that often work together; for example, the choline in egg yolks enhances your body’s use of DHA, an important omega-3 fat.

Many traditional cultures have specific “fertility foods” foods rich in nutrients required to support baby’s development, and mom’s health during pregnancy, birth and healing while producing nutrient-rich breast milk.

Salmon, Fatty Fish, or Other Seafood

Maybe you’ve been advised to avoid fish when it comes to prenatal nutrition because of potential mercury exposure, yet research shows:

  • mercury in fish is not well-absorbed (thanks to the mineral selenium in most seafood)
  • the latest science shows the nutritional benefits of fish far outweigh mercury exposure
  • smaller fish have the lowest levels of mercury (think sardines and salmon instead of tuna or swordfish)
  • mothers who consume more seafood have infants with overall better brain development
  • seek wild-caught fish since farmed fish is often contaminated with PCBs, dioxins, and other unwanted chemicals

Cold water fish are especially rich in the brain-boosting omega-3 fat, DHA. Fatty fish including salmon, herring, and sardines (plus fish eggs or “roe”) have the most concentrated sources of DHA; these fish are also low in mercury.

Fatty fish and seafood are also rich in vitamin D, a nutrient most pregnant women need, as well as trace minerals including iodine, zinc, and selenium.

In pregnancy, you need 50% more iodine for normal thyroid function; yet deficiency is common.

Iodine is also necessary and essential for healthy brain development. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Iodine deficiency remains the leading cause of preventable intellectual disability worldwide.” Consuming seafood—in particular, seaweed, scallops, cod, shrimp, sardines, and salmon—is a great way to get needed iodine.

The Incredible, Edible Egg

Eggs are an incredible superfood, a super source of protein, and rich in vitamins and minerals commonly lacking in prenatal nutrition. Egg yolks are rich in choline, which promotes normal brain development and prevents neural tube defects. Getting enough choline during pregnancy boosts baby’s brain and memory function.

A recent well-designed prenatal nutrition study tested the effect consuming choline at 480 mg per day compared to 930 mg per day on infant brain development. Infants were tested at 4, 7, 10, and 13 months of age and reaction time was significantly faster at all time periods for infants born to mothers in the 930 mg/day choline group. Current choline recommendations are 450 mg/day, but as research expands in this area, it’s likely we’ll see these recommendations increase.

Egg yolks have, the most choline compared to any other foods (roughly 115 mg per egg yolk). Unless you’re allergic to eggs, eat them regularly—including the yolk.

Choline works with the omega-3 fat, DHA, enhancing how much DHA enters the cells. Egg yolks also boast high amounts of folate, B-vitamins, antioxidants (including lutein and zeaxanthin, which are crucial to eye and vision development), and trace minerals (notably, iodine and selenium).

When it comes to eggs, quality counts. Eggs from pasture-raised chickens (outdoors, in grass, pecking at insects, enjoying sunlight) are particularly healthy and more nutrient-dense with higher levels of DHA and vitamins A, E, and D than conventionally-produced eggs.

Dark Leafy Greens 

Green, leafy vegetables are nutritional powerhouses. Researchers have identified 45 different flavonoids (an antioxidant) in kale alone. Greens are one of the most abundant sources of folate. They also contain vitamin C, beta-carotene, fiber, many B-vitamins, and trace minerals.

Vitamin C works with amino acids and other nutrients to maintain normal collagen production, supports your baby’s growth as well as your tissues (like your growing uterus and the ever-expanding skin on your belly).

Greens are rich in vitamin K1, which plays a crucial role in normal blood clotting—something that can lower your risk of postpartum hemorrhage. Leafy greens also help prevent or ease the severity of morning sickness in some women through high levels of vitamin B6 and magnesium. They’re also rich in potassium, a key electrolyte that helps you maintain normal blood pressure and prevent swelling.

Add Fats to Your Veggies

The nutrients in all vegetables, especially the antioxidants and fat-soluble vitamins, are best absorbed when you eat them with some fat, so don’t be shy about eating grass-fed butter, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, nuts, or other healthy fats with your vegetables.

Some nutrients are better absorbed in raw veggies (like vitamin C); others are enhanced when vegetables are cooked (like beta-carotene). So, I recommend eating a combination of cooked and raw vegetables.

 

Further reading: Add Cancer-Fighting Antioxidant Foods to Your Diet to Keep You Healthy

Lily Nichols, RDN, CDE, is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, certified diabetes educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her second pregnancy nutrition book, Real Food for Pregnancy, is an evidence-based look at the gap between conventional prenatal nutrition guidelines and what’s optimal for mother and baby. Learn more at realfoodforpregnancy.com


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