Pregnant or Breastfeeding? Nutrients You Need
During pregnancy or while breastfeeding your baby, it is important to eat a variety of healthy foods. The essential nutrients listed below are needed to help you and your baby thrive. They’re found in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, dairy products, and lean meats.
Calcium helps build strong bones and teeth, and plays an important role in the healthy functioning of the circulatory, muscular, and nervous systems. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should get 1,000 mg of calcium a day. Healthy sources of calcium include low-fat dairy products, calcium-fortified orange juice and cereals, and spinach.
Eating carbohydrates helps provide energy to support the growth and development of a baby and, after delivery, breastfeeding. The best sources of carbohydrates are whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, which also are good sources of fiber.
Fiber is a nutrient that can help ease the constipation commonly associated with pregnancy. Whole grains (like whole-wheat bread, whole-grain cereals, and brown rice) and fruits, vegetables, and legumes (beans, split peas, and lentils) are good sources of fiber.
Folic acid helps the healthy development of a baby’s brain and spinal cord. It’s also needed to make red blood cells and white blood cells. Women who get 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) of folic acid daily prior to conception and during early pregnancy can reduce the risk that their baby will be born with a neural tube defect (a birth defect involving incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord). Good sources of folic acid include fortified cereals, leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and nuts.
Healthy fats (unsaturated fats) are used to fuel a baby’s growth and development. They are especially important for the development of the brain and nervous system. Healthy fats are found in olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, and salmon. While fat is necessary in any healthy diet, it’s important to limit fat intake to 30% or less of your daily calorie intake.
Iodine helps the body’s thyroid gland make hormones that help with growth and brain development. Not getting enough iodine during pregnancy can put a baby at risk for thyroid problems, cognitive delays, and (in severe cases) mental retardation. It is recommended that pregnant or lactating women use iodized salt in their cooking and eat foods high in iodine, like seafood and dairy products. They also should take a daily prenatal vitamin that includes 150 micrograms of iodide (a source of iodine that’s easily absorbed by the body). If your prenatal vitamin doesn’t have enough, talk to your doctor about taking an additional supplement.
Eating a diet rich in iron and taking a daily iron supplement while pregnant or breastfeeding helps prevent iron-deficiency anemia. Women who don’t get enough iron may feel tired and are more susceptible to infections. Good dietary sources of iron include lean meats, fortified cereals, legumes (beans, split peas, and lentils), and leafy green vegetables.
Protein helps build a baby’s muscles, bones, and other tissues, especially in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. The recommended protein intake during the second half of pregnancy and while breastfeeding is 71 grams daily. Healthy sources of protein include lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, peanut butter, eggs, and tofu.
Vitamin A helps develop a baby’s heart, eyes, and immune system. Prenatal vitamins should not contain more than 1,500 micrograms (5,000 IU) of vitamin A and pregnant women should not take vitamin A supplements. Both too little and too much vitamin A can harm a developing fetus. Good sources of vitamin A include milk, orange fruits and vegetables (such as cantaloupe, carrots, and sweet potatoes), and dark leafy greens.
Vitamin B6 helps form a baby’s red blood cells; breaks down protein, fat, and carbohydrates; and is needed for normal brain development and function. Good sources of vitamin B6 include poultry, fish, whole grains, fortified cereals, and bananas.
Vitamin B12 plays an important role in the formation of a baby’s red blood cells, as well as brain development and function. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products like meat and eggs, so it’s important to speak with your doctor about taking a B12 supplement during your pregnancy and while breastfeeding if you’re vegetarian or vegan and don’t plan to eat animal products. Good sources of vitamin B12 include lean meats, poultry, and fish, and fat-free and low-fat milk.
Vitamin C plays an important role in tissue growth and repair, and in bone and tooth development. Vitamin C also helps the body absorb iron. Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, broccoli, tomatoes, and fortified fruit juices.
Vitamin D aids in the body’s absorption of calcium for healthy bones and teeth. Good sources of vitamin D include fortified low-fat or fat-free milk, fortified orange juice, egg yolks, and salmon.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: June 2014