Eating well is essential during pregnancy, when the nutrients you take in are building a new person from the ground up. Certain nutrients take precedence at different times during pregnancy, but you don't have to be a nutritionist to figure out what to eat when you're eating for two. Good nutrition is mostly common sense, with emphasis on a few essentials. Eating a variety of natural foods is just what the doctor ordered to keep you and your growing baby healthy.
When it comes to essential nutrients in pregnancy, folic acid might be the first thing that comes to mind. Because folic acid plays an essential role in preventing neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida, all women of childbearing age should take folic acid supplements, whether or not they're pregnant. Folic acid isn't a nutrient you can play catch-up with once you find out you're pregnant; the spinal cord begins to differentiate in the first few weeks of pregnancy, even before you've missed your first period. You need adequate folic acid on board from the very beginning of pregnancy to decrease the risk. The Mayo Clinic recommends taking 800 micrograms per day, since it's difficult to get that much folic acid from foods. Fortified cereals, dried beans, citrus fruits and leafy green vegetables all contain folic acid.
Calcium and vitamin D go together like ham and eggs, because you can't keep your calcium levels up unless you have enough vitamin D to help your body absorb it from the intestines. You probably already know calcium builds strong bones and teeth, or, in your baby's case, potential teeth. While your baby's bones might still seem a little wobbly at birth, they've come a long way in 9 months. Most prenatal vitamins include calcium, but probably not as much as you need, which is 1,000 milligrams per day. If you're not fond of dairy, one of the main sources of calcium, you might need to take an additional calcium supplement. While you can synthesize vitamin D from spending time in the sun, the American Academy of Dermatologists recommends getting the 600 International Units of vitamin D you need daily from food or supplements, while limiting your time in the sun to decrease the risk of skin cancer.
Iron, like calcium and vitamin D, takes on extra importance in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, when your blood volume increases by 40 to 50 percent to supply both you and your baby with oxygen and nutrients. Iron stored in red blood cells not only transports oxygen but also helps make new red blood cells. If you lack iron, you might feel tired and lack energy, but low iron levels during early pregnancy can also increase your risk of preterm delivery, according to a University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey article published in the May 2005 "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition." Taking a daily prenatal iron supplement containing 27 milligrams of iron ensures that you get the iron you need, even on the days when meat doesn't appeal to you. If you get your iron from whole grains, legumes and vegetables, eating a food high in vitamin C at the same time increases iron absorption.
Protein contains amino acids, the essential building blocks of all tissues in your body. Amino acids help build your baby's developing tissues as well as yours, so getting a minimum of 71 grams of protein each day is essential, especially in the second and third trimesters, when your baby grows by leaps and bounds. Meat, fish, poultry and dairy all provide dietary protein, but whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can also help you meet your daily protein needs.
The importance of fatty acids, such as omega-3s, in pregnancy has come into stronger focus in recent years. Omega-3 fatty acids play a role not only in brain and neurological development, but also in eye development in your growing baby. Fish serves as an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, but the Food and Drug Administration recommends limiting fish to two servings per week, because of the potentially harmful mercury levels. It's not possible for pregnant women to get optimal doses of 650 mg omega-3 fatty acids, which includes 300 mg from docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, daily without taking supplements, according to a fall 2008 article published in "Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology."
Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.