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Eating and nutrition

  • It’s important to eat healthy foods during pregnancy.
  • Most pregnant women need around 300 extra calories per day.
  • Take a prenatal vitamin every day.
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Vitamins and minerals during pregnancy

Your body uses vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in food to help it stay strong and healthy. During pregnancy, your growing baby gets all the nutrients she needs from you. So you may need more during pregnancy than you did before. And if you’re pregnant with multiples (twins, triplets or more), you may need more than if you’re having one baby.

Eating healthy foods should give you all the nutrients you need during pregnancy. But it’s hard to get some, like folic acid and iron, just through food.  Taking prenatal vitamins along with eating healthy foods can help you get the nutrients you and your baby need before, during and after pregnancy.

Here are the top things you need to know about vitamins and nutrients during pregnancy:

  • Take a prenatal vitamin each day during pregnancy. 
  • Make sure your prenatal vitamin has folic acid, iron and calcium in it. Most prenatal vitamins have the right amount of each of these.
  • Talk to your provider to make sure you get enough vitamin D, DHA and iodine each day. 
  • Tell your provider about any vitamins and supplements you take. Don’t take any without your provider’s OK. 

What are prenatal vitamins and supplements?

Prenatal vitamins are multivitamins made just for pregnant women. Compared to a regular multivitamin, they have more of some nutrients that you need during pregnancy. Your health care provider can prescribe a prenatal vitamin for you at your first prenatal care checkup. You also can buy them without a prescription. 

A supplement is a product you take to make up for certain nutrients that you don’t get enough of in foods you eat. For example, you may take a vitamin supplement to help you get more vitamin D. Or you may take an iron or calcium supplement. Your provider may want you to take certain supplements if you’re a vegetarian, you have certain food allergies or can’t eat certain foods. 

Which nutrients are most important during pregnancy?

All nutrients are important, but these six play a key role in your baby’s growth and development during pregnancy:

  1. Folic acid
  2. Iron
  3. Calcium
  4. Vitamin D
  5. DHA
  6. Iodine

What is folic acid?

Folic acid is a B vitamin that every cell in your body needs for healthy growth and development. If you take it before and during early pregnancy, it can help prevent birth defects of the brain and spine called neural tube defects (also called NTDs). Some studies show that taking folic acid also may help prevent heart defects and birth defects in your baby’s mouth called cleft lip and palate. 

During pregnancy, take a prenatal vitamin each day that has 600 micrograms of folic acid in it. If you’re not pregnant yet, take a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid in it every day. Most women don’t need more than 1,000 micrograms of folic acid each day, so talk to your provider to make sure you get the right amount.  

You can get folic acid from food. Some flour, bread, cereal and pastas have folic acid added to them. Look for “fortified” or “enriched” on the package label. You also can get folic acid from some fruits and vegetables. When folic acid is naturally in a food, it’s called folate. Good sources of folate include:

  • Leafy green vegetables, like spinach and broccoli
  • Lentils and beans
  • Orange juice

What is iron?

Iron is a mineral. Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein that helps carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. You need twice as much iron during pregnancy than you did before pregnancy. When you’re pregnant, your body needs this iron to make more blood so it can carry oxygen to your baby. Your baby needs iron to make his own blood. 

During pregnancy you need 27 milligrams of iron each day. Most prenatal vitamins have this amount. You also can get iron from food. Good sources of iron include:

  • Lean meat, poultry and seafood
  • Cereal, bread and pasta that has iron added to it (check the package label)
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Beans, nuts, raisins and dried fruit

There are two kinds of iron. You get heme iron from meat, poultry and fish. You get non-heme iron from plant-based foods, like beans, fruits, vegetables and nuts, or foods made from plants, like cereal. Your body absorbs more non-heme iron when you eat fruits and veggies together with meat, poultry and fish or with food that is high in vitamin C. Foods with a lot of vitamin C include grapefruit, mango, papaya, cantaloupe, tomatoes, cabbage, spinach and broccoli. 

If you don’t get enough iron during pregnancy, you may be more likely to: 

  • Get infections
  • Have anemia. This means you have too little iron in your blood. 
  • Be fatigued. This means you feel really tired or exhausted.
  • Have a premature baby. This means your baby is born too soon, before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Have a low-birthweight baby. This means your baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. 

What is calcium?

Calcium is a mineral that helps your baby’s bones, teeth, heart, muscles and nerves develop. During pregnancy, you need 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. You can get this amount by taking your prenatal vitamin and eating food that has a lot of calcium in it. Good sources of calcium include:

  • Milk, cheese and yogurt
  • Broccoli and kale
  • Orange juice that has calcium added to it (check the package label)

If you don’t get enough calcium during pregnancy, your body takes it from your bones and gives it to your baby. This can cause health conditions, like osteoporosis, later in life. In this condition, your bones become thin and break easily. 

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. It also helps your body’s nerves, muscles and immune system work. Your immune system protects your body from infection. Your baby needs vitamin D to help his bones and teeth grow. 

During pregnancy, you need 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D each day. You can get this amount from food or your prenatal vitamin. Good sources of vitamin D include: 

  • Fatty fish, like salmon
  • Milk and cereal that has vitamin D added to it (check the package label)

Your body also makes vitamin D when your skin comes in contact with sunlight. But too much sun can lead to skin aging and cancer, so it’s a good idea to get your vitamin D from food or your prenatal vitamin. 

What is DHA?

DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid. It’s a nutrient, but not a vitamin or a mineral. It’s a kind of fat (called omega-3 fatty acid) that helps with growth and development. During pregnancy, you need 200 milligrams of DHA each day to help your baby’s brain and eyes develop. Not all prenatal vitamins contain DHA, so ask your provider if you need to take a DHA supplement. You also can eat foods that have DHA in them. Good sources of DHA include:

  • Fish that are low in mercury, like herring, salmon, trout, anchovies and halibut. During pregnancy, eat 8 to 12 ounces of these kinds of fish each week.
  • Orange juice, milk and eggs that have DHA added to them (check the package label)  

What is iodine? 

Iodine is a mineral your body needs to make thyroid hormones. The thyroid is a gland in your neck that makes hormones that help your body use and store energy from food. You need iodine during pregnancy to help your baby’s brain and nervous system develop. The nervous system (brain, spinal cord and nerves) helps your baby move, think and feel.

During pregnancy, you need 220 micrograms of iodine every day. Not all prenatal vitamins contain iodine, so make sure you eat foods that have iodine in them. Ask your provider if you need to take an iodine supplement.

Good sources of iodine include: 

  • Fish
  • Milk, cheese and yogurt
  • Enriched or fortified cereal and bread (check the package label)
  • Iodized salt (salt with iodine added to it; check the package label)

Last reviewed March 2015

See also: Eating healthy during pregnancy, Take folic acid before you're pregnant, Omega-3 fatty acids

Foods to avoid

  • Unpasteurized milk or juice
  • Soft cheeses like feta and Brie
  • Unheated deli meats and hot dogs
  • Refrigerated, smoked seafood
  • Undercooked poultry, meat or seafood

Frequently Asked Questions

How much weight should I gain during my pregnancy?

The exact amount of weight you need to gain depends on how much you weigh before pregnancy and your Body Mass Index (BMI). Below are some guidelines, but talk to your health provider about your specific pregnancy weight gain goals.

If you began pregnancy at a healthy weight, you should gain 25 to 35 pounds over the 9 months. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, you should put on about 1 pound every week in the second and third trimesters.

If you began pregnancy underweight, you should probably gain about 28 to 40 pounds. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, try to gain slightly over a pound a week in the second and third trimesters.
If you began pregnancy overweight, you should gain only 15 to 25 pounds over the 9 months. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, you should put on slightly over ½ pound every week in the second and third trimesters. While you don't want to gain too much weight, never try to lose weight during pregnancy because that could harm your baby.

If you were obese (with a BMI over 30) at the start of your pregnancy, you should gain only 11 to 20 pounds over the 9 months. If you gain between 1 and about 4 ½ pounds in the first trimester, aim for gaining slightly under ½ pound every week in the second and third trimesters.

Is it safe to eat cold cuts when I'm pregnant?

It's not safe for pregnant women to eat deli meats (such as ham, turkey, salami and bologna) or hot dogs unless the food has been thoroughly heated and is steaming hot. These foods can cause a form of food poisoning called listeriosis and is caused by bacteria. Heating deli meats until steaming hot will kill the bacteria if it's present.

Listeriosis is especially dangerous during pregnancy. Most people don't get sick when they eat food contaminated with listeria. But healthy pregnant women are more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis and are more likely to become dangerously ill from it.

The flu-like symptoms of listeriosis can sometimes advance to potentially life-threatening meningitis (infection of the membranes covering the brain, with symptoms such as severe headache and stiff neck) and blood infection. Contact your health care provider if you're pregnant and you develop any of these symptoms.

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