Pregnancy Nutrients for a Healthy Future
Set for life
Find out how to feed their future
During pregnancy, the food you eat helps your body to provide nutrients so that your baby can grow and develop normally. But recent discoveries are showing that the nutrients they receive while in the womb have a much greater impact on their future health than was previously thought. Learn how pregnancy nutrition plays a crucial role in your baby’s health beyond birth, and how to maximize your intake from the food you eat.
Nourishing your baby’s future
Common sense tells us that eating well during pregnancy is good for mother and baby. But only recently has science revealed just how much impact your pregnancy diet can have.
It’s now recognized that the nutrition babies receive during pregnancy does more than support their growth and development in the womb. It also influences their health throughout infancy, childhood and for the rest of their life1.
This means that by making healthy choices and eating a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet now, you are supporting your baby’s wellbeing for decades to come.
A balance of life-sustaining
nutrients in pregnancy
During pregnancy, your baby grows from a single cell to a fully formed, unique and beautiful baby. Certain nutrients are essential to this growth, and including them in your pregnancy diet at the recommended levels will help to give your baby the best start for a healthy future.
As well as protein, fats and carbohydrates (the macronutrients that provide the bulk of your baby’s energy), many micronutrients are essential to their normal growth and development2.
A well-balanced pregnancy diet is one that includes a healthy intake of macronutrients and micronutrients.
Although there are many nutrients involved in your baby’s development, the vitamins, minerals and fats explained below are particularly important during pregnancy. Some, such as vitamins C, D, A, folate, thiamin and riboflavin are needed to such a degree that your recommended levels are higher than they would normally be. But with many available from various everyday food sources, the good news is you may already be getting the levels you need1,2.
To learn more about the key nutrients and how to get them, take a look at the articles about the pregnancy trimesters.
A key nutrient for your baby’s normal visual development, vitamin A also supports their immune system3. A safe intake of this nutrient during pregnancy will help to ensure that your baby is born with the stores their body needs to fight infection and keep them healthy4. Vitamin A is found in colorful vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, squash, kale, cantaloupe, apricots, red bell peppers, broccoli and mangos
Vitamin C is needed to make collagen5, one of the building blocks of your baby’s body. It also helps your body absorb iron from other foods, namely plant sources, which is important for your baby’s cognitive development and immune system1.
Vitamin D plays a vital supporting role in the supply of calcium and phosphate to your baby6. These nutrients are needed to build your baby’s bones during pregnancy and a healthy supply can have a positive effect on how they continue to develop throughout childhood6. Adequate levels of vitamin D have also been linked to a lower risk of various conditions, including asthma and diabetes.7
The most efficient source of vitamin D is sunlight on the skin. But because the strength of UVB rays varies during the year, this is one of the two nutrients recommended as a supplement throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding6.
Folate (folic acid)
Folate is involved in your baby’s very earliest development – the formation of the neural tube, which eventually becomes their brain, nerves and spinal cord. Normal development at this critical stage provides the best start for all development yet to come and has been linked to a reduced risk of disease in later life8.
Because of this, and because it is difficult to obtain the recommended levels from food, taking a supplement is recommended both before pregnancy and until the 12th week of pregnancy.
Although only needed in small amounts, iodine is essential for the production of thyroid hormones that contribute to your baby’s brain development9.
An adequate intake of this trace element supports the cognitive development that will help your baby learn to talk, remember, solve problems, make decisions and perform many of the other skills needed to support them through life9.
During pregnancy, your blood volume increases dramatically. As a key component of blood, iron is an essential mineral to include in your pregnancy diet11.
A healthy supply of iron reduces your likelihood of iron-deficiency anaemia and supports your baby’s brain development11 and immune system12. It also helps to build up your baby’s iron stores, which they will rely on for the first months of life11.
Vitamin K, a fat-soluble vitamin, helps blood clot normally. An adequate supply during pregnancy helps to build up your baby’s stores, reducing their risk of any clotting issues after birth.
Omega 3 is a particularly beneficial type of fatty acid that has been shown to support cognitive development and reduce the risk of heart disease13.
A good source of Omega 3 is oily fish, because it provides the preformed long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid that our bodies need, known as DHA (docosahexaedonic acid). This particular fatty acid is a key component of our brain and eye tissue6,14. An adequate and appropriately balanced supply of Omega 3 is required for the normal brain function that enables thinking, learning and understanding, both during your baby’s critical stages of development in the womb.
Follow these guidelines to maximize your nutritional intake from the food you eat:
Steam and grill vegetables to retain more of their vitamin C and folate content.
Eat vitamin C-rich foods alongside plant sources of iron (such as leafy vegetables and beans) to increase your iron absorption.
Avoid eating or drinking dairy foods with meals – the calcium can inhibit iron absorption.
The nutrient quality of fruit and vegetables starts to decrease once they’re picked. To get the most benefit from them, buy local produce that hasn’t spent additional time being transported, and eat soon after buying.
Cook tomatoes to make their nutrients more bioavailable.
- British Nutrition Foundation. Nutrition and development, short and long-term consequences for health. London: Wiley Blackwell, 2013.
- Vanhees K et al. You are what you eat, and so are your children: the impact of micronutrients on the epigenetic programming of offspring. Cell Mol Life Sci 2014;71(2):271- 285.
- NHS UK. Vitamin A [Online]. 2012. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/vitamins-minerals/Pages/Vitamin-A.aspx[Accessed April 2019]
- Azaïs-Braesco V, Pascal G. Vitamin A in pregnancy: requirements and safety limits. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;71(Suppl 5):S1325-1333.
- Boyera N. and al. Effect of vitamin C and its derivatives on collagen synthesis and cross‐linking by normal human fibroblasts. Int J Cosmet Sci. 1998 Jun;20(3):151-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1467-2494.
- NHS UK. Vitamins and nutrition in pregnancy [Online]. 2013. Available at: www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/vitamins-minerals-supplements-pregnant.aspx[Accessed April 2019]
- Walker VP1, Modlin RL. The vitamin D connection to pediatric infections and immune function. Pediatr Res. 2009 May;65(5 Pt 2):106R-113R.
- Van Uitert EM et al. Influence of maternal folate status on human fetal growth parameters. Mol Nutr Food Res 2013;57(4):582-595.
- Bath SC, Rayman MP. Is iodine deficiency during pregnancy a public health concern in the UK? Nutr Bulletin 2013;38(4):400-404.
- Morales E et al. Maternal vitamin D status in pregnancy and risk of lower respiratory tract infections, wheezing, and asthma in offspring. Epidemiol 2012;23(1):64-71.
- Scholl TO. Maternal iron status: relation to fetal growth, length of gestation, and iron endowment of the neonate. Nutrition Reviews 2011;69(Suppl): S 24 – 29.
- Abbaspour, Hurrell, and Kelishadi, Review on iron and its importance for human health, 2014 Feb; 19(2): 164–174. 24778671
- Kris-Etherton PM, Harris WS, Appel LJ; AHA Nutrition Committee. Omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: new recommendations from the American Heart Association. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2003 Feb 1;23(2):151-2.
- Richardson AJ. Long-Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Childhood Developmental and Psychiatric Disorders. Lipids 2004;39:1215–1222.