When it comes to growing a baby, there are certain nutrients that your body needs in larger quantities. You may have heard that a prenatal vitamin will cover your bases, however this isn’t exactly the best advice. A diet of real food provides you with nutrients in their most bioavailable forms and alongside a host of complimentary nutrients (for example, the choline in egg yolks helps you utilize the DHA that accompanies it—both of which are crucial to your baby’s brain development).
Without bogging you down with too much nutrition science, it makes sense to seek nourishment from whole foods whenever possible. This is not to say you shouldn’t take a prenatal vitamin, but just to use it in addition to—rather than a replacement for—a healthy diet. Most prenatal vitamins contain nowhere near the levels of nutrients required for pregnancy and many lack key nutrients entirely (such as iodine and choline). Think of it as an insurance policy of sorts.
Let’s look at some foods that are naturally rich sources of the most important nutrients for fetal development. A well-balanced real food diet for pregnancy includes vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and seafood, nuts, seeds, legumes and plenty of healthy fats.
Best Foods For Pregnancy
Eggs (with the yolks!)
These little nutritional powerhouses are tasty, easy-to-prepare, and packed with many nutrients that are crucial to your health during pregnancy. With the exception of folks with an egg allergy, I think eggs should be a part of every prenatal diet. They are packed with protein, B-vitamins, choline, minerals, vitamins A, D, E, and K, and DHA.
One of the most important nutrients found in egg yolks is choline, something that’s too often left out of the conversation on prenatal nutrition. Choline is a relative to the B-vitamins that is absolutely crucial to brain development and the prevention of neural tube defects. Sadly most pregnant women don’t consume enough of it (a whopping 94%). Eggs are the #1 source of choline in our diets (unless you’re one of the few people who likes liver). Egg eaters consume TWICE the amount of choline when compared to non egg eaters. Keep in mind that you only find choline in the yolk, so eat the whole egg (egg whites are so 1980!).
For more on the research-backed benefits of eating eggs in pregnancy, read this.
This may be the most obvious of the foods to emphasize when you’re expecting. Vegetables are nutritional powerhouses that are concentrated in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Aim to include vegetables with each meal with the goal of filling half of your plate with them. I suggest eating an abundance of non-starchy vegetables like: artichokes, asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, brussels sprouts, eggplant, spinach, arugula, mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, lettuce, celery, and cauliflower.
A variety of vegetables is not only a wise choice to maximize your nutrient intake, but because your growing baby’s preferences for healthy foods are partly formed in utero. Yes, your baby can “taste” what you’re eating via your amniotic fluid. This early exposure to healthy foods helps set the stage for a non-picky eater once your child transitions to solid food.
Bone broth, meaning broth made from the bones of animals (such as chicken soup or beef stew) is rich in an amino acid called glycine. It’s generally not talked about much in conventional nutrition because glycine is rarely something we’re deficient in, but in pregnancy, researchers have found that glycine needs far exceed normal requirements. This means pregnant women must consume enough glycine from their diet to help not only the baby develop, but to support the growth of the uterus.
The glycine levels in bone broth is reason enough to get a batch of broth cooking, but bone broth is also a fantastic source of electrolytes, which is helpful in keeping you hydrated, avoiding leg cramps, and fending off headaches.
Meat (including organ meats)
Whether you’re talking beef, pork, poultry, or wild game, meat is an incredibly important source of nutrition when pregnant. It contains complete protein, minerals, B-vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, and several other nutrients that can be difficult to match in other foods.
Animal foods provide the most readily absorbed forms of iron and zinc. Meat is also rich in vitamin B6, a nutrient that 40% of women of childbearing age in the United States are deficient in, and yet deficiency is tied to miscarriage, preterm birth, and low birth weight. In addition, animal foods are the only food sources of vitamin B12. There are many other micronutrients that are found in abundance in meat, but either lacking or poorly absorbed from other foods, which makes meat necessary for optimal prenatal nutrition.
The most nutrient-dense part of an animal is the organs. For example, the concentration of vitamin B12 in liver is 200x higher than muscle meats (like steak or ground beef). Liver, in particular has been described liver as nature’s multivitamin, a well-deserved nickname, if you ask me. Aside from eggs, liver is the only other major dietary source of choline. It also happens to be rich in almost every other vitamin and mineral that modern nutrition science has identified so far.
Liver is the single richest source of iron, a mineral that protects against maternal anemia and numerous other health problems. The iron found in liver (and animal foods, in general), called heme iron, is very well absorbed and does not carry the annoying side effect of constipation common to iron supplements. Low iron status during pregnancy is a risk factor for preeclampsia, hypothyroidism, and preterm birth. It also directly affects the iron status of your baby—low levels are associated with impaired brain development and stunted growth. In one study, infants of moms who were iron-deficient during pregnancy showed delayed cognitive development when examined at 10 weeks and 9 months of age.
Liver is also one of the richest food sources of folate and vitamin B12, both key to maintaining healthy red blood cells and fostering healthy brain development in your baby. Folate is best known for its role in preventing birth defects. Most women seek this vitamin from supplements (in the synthetic form known as folic acid), but few know that the folate obtained from food is far superior.
If the idea of eating liver is new, foreign, or downright repulsive, you’re not alone. Organ meats were once a staple in our diets, but most of us haven’t grown up eating them. If you’re not used to eating liver or dislike the taste, it can easily be “hidden” in recipes that use ground meat. In my book Real Food for Pregnancy, I have a few different liver recipes you should try – I use liver in my Beanless Beef Chili, Grass-fed Beef Meatloaf, Low-Carb Shepherd’s Pie, Twice Baked Spaghetti Squash with Meatballs, and Grass-fed Beef Liver Pate. In addition, you might try chicken liver, as it has a more mild taste compared to beef liver.
Packed with brain-boosting omega-3 fats (DHA), protein, zinc, selenium, vitamin D, and iodine, salmon is a very wise addition to your prenatal diet. There’s been quite a bit of misinformation handed out about fish over the last few decades, so let’s clear the air.
Although you may have been told not to consume fish during pregnancy as a means to limit mercury exposure, research shows that a) mercury in fish is not well-absorbed (thanks to the presence of a mineral called selenium in most seafood), b) mothers who consume more seafood have infants with better brain development (believed to be due to the DHA and iodine content of fish) and c) the best types of fish to consume are smaller fish, as they have the lowest levels of mercury (sardines and salmon). Rest assured, the latest science shows that the nutritional benefits of fish far outweigh mercury exposure.
As you can see, real food provides many benefits beyond what you might find in supplements. This list highlights just a few of the most nutrient-dense superfoods for pregnancy, but I want to be clear that a well-balanced prenatal diet includes many more foods beyond those listed above. Aim for variety and eat mindfully, whatever you choose to eat. Wishing you a smooth pregnancy and healthy baby.
About the Author
Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Drawing from the current scientific literature and the wisdom of traditional cultures, her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and sensible. Her bestselling book, Real Food for Gestational Diabetes (and online course of the same name), presents a revolutionary nutrient-dense, lower carb diet for managing gestational diabetes. Her unique approach has not only helped tens of thousands of women manage their gestational diabetes (most without the need for blood sugar-lowering medication), but has also influenced nutrition policies internationally.
Lily’s second book, Real Food for Pregnancy, is an evidence-based look at the gap between conventional prenatal nutrition guidelines and what’s optimal for mother and baby. With over 930 citations, this is the most comprehensive text on prenatal nutrition to date. This post includes excerpts from Real Food for Pregnancy.
To learn more, go to http://realfoodforpregnancy.com/