Prenatal vitamins: What you really need

Now that you’re pregnant, it’s more important than ever to take the right supplements for you and your baby to thrive. Here’s what you need to know. By Tammy Jacks

With the myriad supplements available on pharmacy shelves these days, choosing the right ones to take during pregnancy can feel overwhelming. The trick is to keep it simple and stick to what you really need, advises gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Tom Mokaya, while ignoring all the rest.

Over-the-counter supplements aren’t standardised in terms of their quantities of ingredients. This means you could be indirectly ingesting more than what you need if you take too many different supplements at one time. There’s also the risk of adverse reactions, especially during pregnancy, when you need to be extra careful to ensure that nothing harms your unborn baby.

ALSO SEE: Dos and don’ts of supplementing during pregnancy

When to start taking prenatal vitamins

For many couples, the fertility journey begins months before conception. But in some instances, finding out that you’re going to be a mom comes as a surprise. Dr Mokaya says there is no need to panic if this is the case, as most women aren’t deficient in vitamins or minerals – which means your growing baby will already be getting everything she needs to thrive.
However, pregnancy can cause changes to your body, and it’s not always possible to get all key nutrients through food alone, so it’s important to start supplementing, especially with folic acid, which is essential for the healthy development of the neural tube and internal organs during the first eight weeks of gestation, explains Dr Mokaya.

ALSO SEE: Important vitamins to take during pregnancy

Preggie-friendly essentials

Here’s a breakdown of the only supplements you need to be taking throughout your pregnancy. If there’s something specific you feel you need to, or should be, taking in addition to the suggestions below, discuss it with your healthcare provider.

A good multivitamin

It’s important to supplement your diet with a multivitamin and mineral formula, plus extra nutrients as needed, says nutrition expert Patrick Holford. When taking supplements, make sure that natural sources of vitamins are used, which provide the full complement of other nutrients, too. If you’re unsure what to take, speak to your healthcare provider who will make suggestions. If you live in an area with lots of air pollution, or are concerned about toxins, take an antioxidant supplement that’s safe for pregnancy, plus extra vitamin C and zinc.

Folic acid

This is a supplement you should be thinking about well before you’re pregnant, suggests Meg Werner Moreta, registered dietician and contributing nutrition expert for actress Alison Sweeney’s latest book, The Mommy Diet. “Once you’re pregnant, you should keep getting at least 400mcg per day for at least the first 12 weeks of pregnancy,” she says. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate and is found in vitamins, green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, citrus fruits, and many fortified foods. However, Dr Mokaya maintains that a folic acid supplement is essential regardless of your diet.

Calcium

Your growing baby needs plenty of calcium to thrive in the womb. It’s essential for you to maintain good bone density levels, as your body mobilises calcium stored in your bones to support your little one.

Iron

Iron supplements are vital to ensure that your body maintains a healthy haemoglobin content, says Dr Mokaya. Haemoglobin is the substance responsible for transporting oxygen in the body, and adequate levels are vital for energy and to ensure your baby grows and develops well throughout pregnancy.

Iodine

This is a key mineral that’s used by the thyroid gland. Having a healthy, functioning thyroid gland is important during pregnancy, says Dr Mokaya. An iodine deficiency can cause developmental problems, including stunted physical growth, mental disabilities or deafness.

What should you avoid?

As the saying goes, anything in excess can be harmful, especially for pregnant women, says Dr Mokaya. It’s important that you watch your dosage of these vitamins and chat to your healthcare provider about them first.

Vitamin A

This is required for the proper growth and development of your baby. However, your body doesn’t need more than 10 000IU per day and excess retinol (also known as preformed vitamin A) can cause birth defects. Most prenatal multivitamins contain a modest amount of vitamin A, and this combined with a healthy balanced diet is more than adequate, says Dr Mokaya. Avoid taking any other supplements with vitamin A or retinol, and avoid using topical skincare creams with it as an ingredient.

Vitamin E

Some studies have suggested a possible link between vitamin E supplementation and birth defects. However, the good news is that it’s rare to have a vitamin E deficiency, so you don’t need to take this as a supplement.

Vitamin B6

Although vitamin B6 is essential for your little one’s brain and nervous system, it’s not a good idea to take more than 100mg per day, as it can cause nerve damage and numbness in moms-to-be. If you’re taking vitamin B6 to relieve nausea and vomiting, make sure you stay within the safe limit, says Dr Mokaya.

The verdict on chronic medications

If you’re on prescription medication for any reason, such as anxiety or depression, it’s important to see your gynaecologist before falling pregnant or as soon as you find out you’re expecting. The risks and benefits of continuing your medication versus stopping (or changing) it will need to be carefully evaluated.

ALSO SEE: Anxiety and panic during pregnancy

Key foods to maximise your wellbeing

Nutritionist, wellness expert and speaker Desi Horsman, says the combination of these foods, plus the right supplements, will result in a healthy, happy pregnancy:

Foods rich in folic acid:

  • Asparagus
  • Beetroot
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Avocados
  • Eggs
  • Citrus fruits
  • Papaya and mangoes
  • Berries
  • Carrots and squash.

Gut-friendly foods to aid digestion:

  • A variety of fruits and vegetables, such as apples, pears, berries, prunes, figs, butternut, squash, carrots and peas
  • Soaked lentils and legumes such as chickpeas
  • Almonds and flaxseeds
  • Wholegrains including oats and rye.

Foods to alleviate fatigue and boost energy:

  • Nuts and sunflower seeds
  • Chicken and lean meats
  • Fish
  • Brown rice
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Corn
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes with skin on.

ALSO SEE: 10 pregnancy power foods

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