Navigating the world of pregnancy vitamins can be tough, especially since most women don’t have extensive training on the subject of supplementation. Luckily this is where your friendly neighbourhood dietitian comes in handy!
Today we’ll look at the reasons why a mum-to-be needs to take these vitamins and the differences between some of the most popular ones on the market.
First and foremost, I always recommend you eat a healthy, balanced diet but there is no shame in needing a little help from a multivitamin during this time. The Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for most vitamins and minerals increases quite a lot during pregnancy and although most of baby’s physical growth is during the third trimester, growth and development never stops and even the healthiest mums may require a boost before conception and throughout pregnancy to help keep both mum and baby in top form.
As a multivitamin, there can be a wide variety of vitamins and minerals added, but let’s have a look at the essential ones your pregnancy multivitamin should contain.
Iron needs increase dramatically during pregnancy and can be difficult to attain purely through diet, especially if mum doesn’t eat meat. Iron’s main job is to transport oxygen around the body and the volume of blood needs to increase by an additional 50% during pregnancy to handle the extra load of pregnancy. This ensures mum has enough oxygen for all her normal processes as well as enough for bub and has enough for bub to lay down their own iron stores for preparation of life outside.
In the non-pregnancy state many women find it challenging to meet iron requirements and struggle with feelings of fatigue, decreased concentration, etc. due to low iron levels. Given that the RDI for iron increases from 18mg/day to a whopping 27mg/day during pregnancy, it’s not surprising that there is an increased risk of pregnant women becoming iron deficient. Luckily the absence of the monthly period results in slightly higher iron stores than normal, but all mums-to-be will need to be aware of their heightened requirements.
A vegetarian’s iron intake may need to be even higher than 27mg/day, since plant-based sources of iron aren’t absorbed as well as animal-based. Elevit does have higher levels of iron and folate so may be more suitable for vegetarians or those with a tendency for lower iron levels, however you may find supplements with higher iron levels may cause constipation. If this is a concern, your dietitian will be able to help you work out the right amount.
Vitamin B12 is generally only found in meat and dairy and is needed to help support healthy red blood cells and energy levels. While the recommended intake is only 2.6mg/day during pregnancy, and generally easy to meet if you eat animal products, women who don’t eat a lot of meat or eat a vegan diet will most likely need to supplement with B12 before, during and after their pregnancy for optimum health in addition to taking their pregnancy multivitamin.
Babies born from mothers with low levels of vitamin B12 have a higher risk of Spina Bifida or other Neural Tube Defects. Adding a little extra into your diet won’t cause harm and may help to guard against these potentially serious defects.
Zinc is another mineral found mostly in animal-based foods. During pregnancy, increased levels of zinc in the diet help with DNA function and cell growth- which is really important when growing a little human! Pregnant women should be looking to include around 10mg/day in their diet which is generally achievable if women are eating lean meats regularly. Otherwise, beans, nuts and fortified cereals should be staples in your diet along with your pregnancy multivitamins.
Folate is one of the most important nutrients to supplement when trying for a baby. Neural tube defects can occur in babies when their mother does not have enough folate in her diet. The scary thing is that the neural tube is one of the first things to develop and can be completely formed by the time you even find out that you’re pregnant! In addition to a diet rich in folate (found in green leafy vegetables, legumes and wholegrain bread), it’s important that a supplement of at least 0.4mg should be taken during the first trimester and ideally in the three months leading up to conception to ensure adequate stores for appropriate development of the neural tube.
Iodine is used in the regulation of your baby’s metabolism and production of mum’s thyroid hormones. Since these hormones increase by 50% during pregnancy, much more iodine is needed in mum’s diet. Even though diets high in dairy, seafood and beans can help give you sufficient iodine, it is helpful to supplement around 0.15mg when you start trying for a baby and continue throughout pregnancy to cover any possible deficiencies.
What should I look out for in a pregnancy multivitamin?
There are so many pregnancy multivitamins on the market and while all need to provide adequate amounts of nutrients mentioned above, there are also a few other points to keep in mind.
Vitamin A can be dangerous in high amounts so ensure it isn’t an ingredient in your pregnancy multivitamin.
Potassium and calcium needs don’t increase either, so they shouldn’t be a selling point. If you tend to not meet your dairy requirements pre-pregnancy (2.5 serves of dairy per day), having a pregnancy multivitamin can help you to meet your calcium and potassium needs.
Other vitamins and minerals may be added to different brands of multivitamins according to the manufacturer. For example, some may contain magnesium while others may contain vitamin C. These aren’t essential but can offer additional benefits.
Now that we’ve narrowed down why they’re important, when do you start to take them?
The best advice is to start taking your pregnancy multivitamins as early as possible before you start trying for a baby as you need to have adequate folate levels at conception to decrease the risk of neural tube defects. Even if it takes you a little while to get pregnant, you can rest assured you’re starting with the best possible vitamin and mineral levels for a developing embryo. If the pregnancy is unplanned, make sure to start taking them as soon as you find out you’re pregnant.
So, which should I buy?
A pregnancy multivitamin will not cover all of your requirements and so don’t be fooled thinking it excuses a diet of nutritionally-poor foods.
Typically the supplement brands listed above should all be suitable for most women and at the end of the day women need to consider 1) what their normal diet is like and 2) their budget. Bigger price tags don’t always mean the most-suitable and women should consider price, size of the tablet (especially if you’re not good at taking even small tablets), the need to take them with/without food, medications/medical conditions and any other personal needs.
If you have any new or pre-existing health issues or concerns, make sure you have a chat with your dietitian to find out if/what/how many supplements you will need and what options are best for you.
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