Whether you're trying to conceive, or are wondering which prenatal vitamins you should start taking now that you're pregnant, we've gathered all the information on pregnancy nutrition. While a balanced healthy diet should provide everything your body needs to do its thing, a little boost here and there with the aid of specific antioxidants and vitamins can help make sure you have a healthy pregnancy.
These are the main vitamins to look out for, which we'll explain in depth later in the article:
Antioxidants (including vitamins C and E)
Protect against free radical damage and in women help reduce the risk of damage to the eggs before ovulation.
For men, antioxidants help protect the sperm from potential cellular damage and chromosomal defects whilst also promoting good motility, increasing the sperm’s chances of successfully reaching the egg in a woman’s fallopian tubes.
Vitamin C is also important for the efficient absorption of iron - drinking fresh fruit juice with an iron-rich meal will help maximize your iron intake.
Found in fresh fruits and vegetables especially papayas, strawberries, oranges, avocadoes, broccoli, kale and spinach. Other important sources include nuts and seeds such as almonds, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds.
B Vitamins (includes B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12)
Along with folic acid, (vitamin B9) this whole group of vitamins is very important when preparing the body for conception and producing healthy eggs and sperm.
The B group of vitamins play an essential role in the release of energy from food, regulating hormones and, in the case of B12, helping the production of red blood cells and in the processing of folic acid.
Found in wholemeal bread and fortified breakfast cereals, milk, eggs, cheese and oily fish.
A must for good reproductive health. Calcium is needed to help build strong bones and teeth and research has also shown that this mineral has an important role to play in creating the right environment for the sperm to reach the egg.
Found in dairy produce such as milk, yogurt and cheese.
Also known as folate. This B vitamin (B9) has been shown to help reduce the risk of certain neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida when taken by women trying to conceive and whilst pregnant.
Folic acid is also important for the production of healthy sperm.
Found in fortified breakfast cereals and bread, leafy greens such as kale, spinach and broccoli, legumes and orange juice.
Found in polyunsaturated fats and oils which contain essential fatty acids (EFAs) such as omega-3, vital for healthy reproductive organs.
These ‘good’ fats also help regulate hormone levels, improve sperm quality and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins D and E.
Found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines or fresh tuna (aim for two portions a week); flaxseeds; pumpkin seeds and nuts.
A very important mineral for general good health, energy levels and for the formation of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Becoming deficient in iron can have an impact on fertility.
Found in lean red meat, tinned fish such as sardines and tuna, eggs, apricots, raisins, sesame seeds, fortified cereals. To ensure you are getting the right levels of iron, see your doctor who can test your iron levels through a simple blood test and determine how much iron you need and whether you need to take up your intake.
Essential for fertility as it supplies the body with the amino acids it needs to build and repair cells and produce sex hormones.
Found in lean meat, chicken, fish such as salmon, beans, soybeans or tofu.
Important for immunity and the absorption of calcium. Low levels during pregnancy can affect the growth and development of the baby.
Manufactured by the skin when exposed to sunshine but also found in some foods which include oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, eggs and meat.
Vitamin D can also be found added in some breakfast cereals, soya products and some dairy products.
It can be difficult to get enough Vitamin D from your diet (the recommended daily allowance in the UK is 5mcg per day, increasing to 25mcg during the winter months). If you have limited exposure to sunshine or are overweight (have a BMI over 30), you should take a daily 10mcg supplement.
This important mineral is vital for tissue growth and repair. It helps boost immunity and produce healthy sperm and can help improve a man’s sperm count, ensuring the sperm are strong, fast and healthy.
Found in dark chicken meat, lean red meat, shellfish, milk and dairy foods.
Pregnancy vitamins Q&A
Below Hilary Boddie, nutritionist, health writer and author answers some FAQs on TTC nutrition, pregnancy supplements and prenatal vitamins.
What are the key nutrients for a woman trying to conceive?
Both men and women can optimise their chances of conceiving by following a healthy eating regime that stocks up a range of important nutrients in the body – aka those listed above.
It’s also important for both men and women to stop smoking and drinking before trying to conceive to give their bodies the best possible chance of producing healthy eggs and sperm and, of course, a healthy baby.
Do I need to take supplements during pregnancy?
While it is possible to get all the nutrients you need from a healthy, balanced diet, taking a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement that is specifically created for couples trying to conceive or for pregnant women might be worth considering. When and if you start taking prenatal vitamins is up to you, but these supplements can be particularly beneficial in the early part of pregnancy when diet can be disrupted due to morning sickness, fatigue or cravings. Talk over with your doctor or midwife to find out if this would be beneficial.
When should I start taking supplements /upping intake of nutrients before I get pregnant?
It takes a minimum of three months to build up adequate stores of important nutrients to help your body prepare for pregnancy. So, ideally, you should be looking at improving your diet at least 3-6 months before you start trying for a baby.
How long should I continue taking the nutrients following conception?
It is important to continue following a balanced diet, that contains all the key nutrients, throughout your pregnancy to ensure your baby’s healthy development.
What supplements should you take when trying for a baby?
In addition to including foods which contain folate in your diet, doctors recommend all women take a daily supplement of 400mcg of folic acid three months before pregnancy and during the first trimester of pregnancy (the first 12 weeks).
Even if you fall pregnant unexpectedly, you should start taking the supplement straight away and continue to take it up until the end of the 12th week.
Your body doesn’t absorb natural folic acid as it well as it does when it is in its synthetic form which is why doctors recommend taking a supplement.
If you have a family history of neural tube defects, talk to your GP who may advise you to take larger doses of folic acid.
The other supplement recommended is Vitamin D which is important for healthy bones and immunity. Take 10mcg of vitamin D throughout your pregnancy and if you breastfeed once the baby is born to ensure that your baby has enough of this important vitamin during the first few months.
Are there any nutrients I should avoid either while trying to conceive or once pregnant?
Vitamin A can be toxic if taken in excess and can cause problems for your baby’s growth and development. It is recommended that you avoid taking supplements containing vitamin A (or retinol, the animal form of vitamin A) when trying to conceive and when pregnant unless prescribed by your doctor.
If you are taking a multi-vitamin supplement - check to make sure it doesn’t contain vitamin A. Also, steer clear of foods that are rich in vitamin A such as liver and liver products such a pate and liver sausage.
What key nutrients are important for a man while trying to conceive?
A future dad also needs to ensure their diet is balanced and nutritious. Important nutrients to produce healthy sperm include zinc, folate and antioxidants such as vitamin C.
If you are vegetarian or do not eat much meat, you could take a daily supplement of 15mg of zinc.
The best way to ensure you are getting enough vitamin C is to make sure you eat the recommended five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day.
Also give up smoking as this reduces the body’s ability to absorb vitamin C.