Pregnancy: 5 key nutrients & other factors

Sarah O'Brien Nutrition / Uncategorized  / Pregnancy: 5 key nutrients & other factors

Pregnancy: 5 key nutrients & other factors

Pregnancy is such a special time, what an amazing journey it is for both mother and child – the beginnings of a whole new life for them both in many ways – a time to nourish, pause, tune in, and connect…

15 months on and some-days I can hardly believe that was us in the picture above, that my body stretched and nurtured and changed so wonderfully, and that time has passed in what often seems like a blink of an eye!

I wanted to chat today about 5 nutrients that are key for pregnancy and also touch on some other key factors to keep in mind; energy intake, water, fibre and protein.

5 key nutrients for pregnancy

Along with a varied diet, supplementation of certain nutrients is a good place to start to cover off your bases prior to conceiving (where possible), during pregnancy and potentially through breastfeeding – this is often via a quality pregnancy multivitamin; however, I encourage you to speak to your practitioner about suitable supplementation for your individual needs.

Below are 5 nutrients that are key during pregnancy but these are by no means the only ones to consider…


Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 and comes from food, while folic acid is a synthetic form found in supplements and fortified foods.

Functionally, folate supports cell growth, division and replication along with the synthesis of DNA and other genetic material.

Requirements increase in pregnancy due to rapid cell division occurring related to foetal growth and it is also associated with the prevention of neural tube defects.

Folate is recommended to be taken prior to conception (where possible) as well as during pregnancy, particularly early on.

Where there is a history of neural tube defects, a higher dose could be recommended – speak to your practitioner about your individual requirements.

  • Some folate food sources: Leafy greens (ie; spinach, kale, bok choy, broccoli, wheatgerm, lentils, asparagus, beans, wholegrains & fortified breads
  • RDI: pregnancy – 600mcg/day, lactation – 500mcg/day
  • Supplementation notes: generally, 400mcg/day is recommended in pregnancy


Iron makes up part of many enzymes and proteins in the body and is required for oxygen transportation around the body via red blood cells.

Iron needs increase during pregnancy as blood volume increases by around 50% by the end of pregnancy.

If there is a deficiency prior to pregnancy, it can be hard to build up adequate stores during pregnancy.

Vitamin C improves iron absorption, so combining vitamin C foods with an iron containing food can be beneficial, keeping in mind that vitamin C is heat sensitive so use minimal heat ie; a quick stir fry or a salad.

  • Some iron food sources; lean red meat, chicken, fish, wholegrains, legumes, leafy greens, dried apricots, nuts & eggs
  • Vitamin C food sources; citrus fruits, kiwifruits, berries, capsicum, pineapple, tomatoes, broccoli, brussels sprouts
    • Some iron & vitamin C combination examples:
      • Lemon juice squeezed over salad greens
      • Capsicum and tomato in salad with leafy greens or in a stir fry with broccoli
      • Adding orange slices, strawberries to a salad
      • Steak with salad containing capsicum or broccoli & brussels sprouts
  • RDI: pregnancy – 27mg/day, lactation – 9mg/day
  • Supplementation notes: Iron levels should always be assessed via a blood test before beginning iron supplementation


Iodine, an essential trace element, is required for thyroid hormones which regulate metabolism and many other vital functions including growth and development.

Requirements increase during pregnancy and it is especially important for the normal growth and development of the central nervous system and brain and contributes to maturation of eyesight and hearing.

Untreated, a deficiency can lead to neurological defects and underactive thyroid in both the mother and the baby.

  • Some iodine food sources; seafood, seaweed, dairy, eggs, iodised salt, fortified breads
  • RDI: pregnancy – 220mcg/day, lactation – 270 mcg/day
  • Supplementation notes: generally, 140mcg/day is recommended in pregnancy


Calcium, the most abundant mineral in our bodies, is also important to remember in pregnancy. A component of our bones and teeth, calcium assists with skeleton formation for the baby and is also required for vascular function, muscle contraction and nerve transmission.

The RDI of 1000mg/day for both pregnancy & lactation is the same as non-pregnant levels – a higher intake is not required as baby will generally attain what it needs from the mother, whose absorption is improved via hormonal influence.

  • Some calcium food sources; dairy, green leafy vegetables, tahini, dried figs, tofu if set in calcium, tinned fish with bones ie; sardines, salmon, fortified milk alternatives ie; almond or soy
  • RDI: 1,000mg/day
  • Supplementation notes: can be required if dietary intake is not adequate

Omega 3 fatty acids

Beneficial in areas such as inflammation and heart health, omega 3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are also important for prenatal and postnatal periods and need to be obtained via the diet or supplementation.

DHA in particular has been shown to support mental development and is required for normal brain, eye and central nervous system formation and growth.

Whilst flaxseeds, chia seeds and dark green vegetables contain some omega 3 fatty acids, the main food source of omega 3 and preformed DHA is deep-sea cold-water fish and current recommendations are to consume fish 2-3 times per week, or to consider fish oil.

It is important to source lower mercury fish or a fish oil which has been tested and is suitable for pregnancy and breastfeeding as mercury can be harmful to the developing foetus if consumed in high amounts regularly – some fish with large amounts of mercury are; shark, swordfish, tilefish and marlin.

If breastfeeding; breastmilk carries DHA if the mother consumes sufficient quantities either via diet or supplementation.

  • Examples of lower mercury fish to consider including in your diet: sardines, salmon, freshwater trout, anchovies, herring, some tuna (skip jack, chunk light)
  • If you are allergic to, or choose not to eat fish, chat to your practitioner about utilising plant-based sources of omega 3 fatty acids and/or the availability of DHA supplements sourced from algae

Some other factors to consider…

Energy intake

You will find your appetite increasing as your pregnancy goes on, especially once the first trimester is over, and this is for a very good reason – our energy, or kilojoule (kJ) needs increase during pregnancy to cover the needs of the mother, the growing baby and the placenta and are also increased during lactation to assist with the production of breastmilk.

Generally, nothing additional to usual daily kJ’s is required in the first trimester, however current recommendations are for an additional 1,400kJ/day extra in the second trimester, with an additional 500kJ increase to 1,900kJ/day extra in the third trimester, and 2,000-2,100 kJ/day during lactation.

  • For example; this could be 2 slices of wholegrain toast with avocado and a piece of fruit or a smoothie with banana and natural yoghurt in the second trimester, and an additional piece of fruit or a small handful of nuts in the third

Water, fibre, protein

A few other things which we have an increased need for during pregnancy are water, fibre and protein;

Water intake requirements are increased during pregnancy to support foetal circulation, a higher blood volume and amniotic fluid.

Current recommendations are for an increase from around 8 cups a day to around 9 cups a day in pregnancy and are similar for lactation.

Remember that these figures are for fluid intake only, not total water from food and fluids and that teas, coffee, milk and juices etc will contribute towards your daily fluid intake.

If you have trouble with plain water, consider adding some fresh fruit ie; berries or sliced oranges.

  • It can be helpful during lactation to drink a glass of water whenever you breastfeed and at meals to help you remember to keep up your intake

Dietary fibre needs increase from 25g/day to 28g/day and 30g/day in pregnancy and lactation respectively to support digestive function and assist with managing constipation, which often accompanies pregnancy.

Protein needs in pregnancy increase to around 1g/kg a day (from .75g/kg a day) in the second and third trimesters to assist with the growth of the baby.

Protein is required to build and maintain the structural components of our bodies ie; muscle, skin and hair, and along with foetal growth it is also needed for milk production during lactation.

Aim to include protein in some form at each meal to help you reach your requirements.

A last little (but in my book, important!) something to keep in mind whilst pregnant – if you feel like a piece of cake or have a craving for ice-cream, go for it! I can definitely vouch for having such cravings in my pregnancy and beyond! 😊

Also; if you haven’t managed to get your full quota of calcium or veggies in today because you are experiencing morning sickness and can’t stomach anything other than plain crackers and ginger tea – don’t worry! Pick up again tomorrow and start fresh – listen to your body and breathe xx


Please keep in mind that when recommended dietary intakes (RDI’s) are mentioned above, this can refer to a combined intake from food and supplements.

Please note that the age range used for intake recommendations is generally 31-50 years.

I recommend you seek nutrition advice from a qualified practitioner who can tailor a treatment plan to assist you with recommended daily intake and energy requirements relevant to your individual needs and to help you cover off on all necessary nutrients and other important factors.

Also be sure to keep your other healthcare providers ie; your GP/midwife/obstetrician in the loop; chat to them about current pregnancy guidelines and recommendations, and speak with them before introducing a new supplements or ways of eating while you are pregnant.


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