Eating a healthy and balanced diet is always an important part of making sure you are getting the proper amount of vitamins and minerals your body needs. This becomes even more important when a woman becomes pregnant.
Although some women view pregnancy as a free pass to eat whatever they want, it’s actually more important to carefully consider the foods you’re consuming and make sure you’re taking in foods that are nutrient-dense.
One vitamin that pregnant women need to make sure they’re getting enough of is folic acid. Folic acid, which is also called folate, is a B vitamin complex.
“Folic acid is needed for neural tube development,” said Tameka Sisco, D.O., an obstetrician and gynecologist with Crozer-Keystone Health System locations in Drexel Hill and Springfield, Pa. Not only does consuming folic acid help prevent birth defects of your baby’s brain and spinal cord, it also plays a role in the production of red blood cells.
Without enough folic acid, a baby’s neural tube may not close correctly, leading to the development of health problems called neural tube defects, which include spina bifida and anencephaly. The good news is that getting enough folic acid during pregnancy can lower a baby’s risk of these birth defects by 50 percent.
“For neural tube defects prevention, [a daily intake of] 0.4 to 0.8 milligrams of folic acid is required one month prior to conception and for the first two to three months after conception. Then 0.6 milligrams is recommended to meet the growth needs of the fetus,” Dr. Sisco said.
However, if you’ve had a previous child with neural tube defects or if you’re taking anticonvulsant medications, you’ll need a higher dose. Dr. Sisco recommends you get 4 to 5 milligrams of folic acid.
You can find naturally occurring folic acid in a variety of foods, including spinach and leafy greens, citrus fruits, beans and whole grains. A number of foods are enriched with folic acid, such as breakfast cereals, as well.
“A lot of foods are now fortified with folic acid, but most [mothers] supplement through a prenatal vitamin,” Dr. Sisco said. Taking a prenatal vitamin also ensures you and your baby are receiving many other recommended vitamins and minerals.
“The most important vitamins to take in pregnancy are the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. As far as minerals, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, iron and selenium are the most important. Calcium and iron are important for bone and red blood cells,” she said, noting that too much vitamin A can be harmful to a fetus.
Although it might seem confusing and overwhelming thinking about all of the vitamins and minerals you need during pregnancy, Dr. Sisco said it’s not all that complicated.
“Women who typically eat three meals daily consisting of several servings of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and a few sources of protein are likely to have adequate nutrition,” she said.
And if you happen to fall into the group of women looking forward to eating more during pregnancy, go for it – you need about 200 to 300 extra calories per day. But, according to Dr. Sisco, you should up the ante as your pregnancy progresses.
“The recommended caloric intake is increased in the second trimester by 340 and 452 in the last trimester,” she said.