During the first trimester of pregnancy, proper nutrition is crucial for the developing baby and the health of the mother. While specific recommendations can vary, here are the top 5 essential nutrients that are often highlighted for their immense benefits for growing a baby.
It’s also worth noting that preconception nutrition is just as important as pregnancy nutrition, as it allows the mother to build up nutrient stores to prevent falling deficient while pregnant.
It is worth noting that folate is the naturally occurring form of vitamin B9 found in foods. It is a complex molecule that is metabolised in the body to its active forms, including 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF), which is the form that plays a crucial role in cellular processes. 5-MTHF is the form of folate that can cross cell membranes and enter cells to participate in important metabolic reactions.
This is in comparison to ‘folic acid’ which is the synthetic and man-made version of folate and is used mostly in fortified foods and supplements. Folic acid is not the active form of the vitamin and needs to be converted into its active forms, primarily 5-MTHF, through a multi-step process in the liver. In some individuals, due to genetic variations, they have difficulties in efficiently converting folic acid into its active form. This can potentially result in lower levels of active folate available for cellular processes.
- Benefits for Baby: Folate is crucial for neural tube development, which occurs very early in pregnancy and gives rise to the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Adequate folate intake helps prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly.
- Benefits for Mother: Folate supports the rapid cell division and growth happening in the placenta and maternal tissues. It contributes to the formation of red blood cells, helping prevent anaemia. and also aids in the synthesis of DNA and RNA, crucial for cellular function.
Sources of folate in food include leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, collard greens), legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits) and avocado.
Iron is necessary to support increased blood volume and prevent anaemia in both the mother and the growing baby. Ensuring that adequate ferritin levels prior to getting pregnant can help prevent iron deficiency during pregnancy (above 60-100 ng/mL or higher). Ferritin is a protein that stores iron in the body, and measuring ferritin levels can provide insight into iron stores. However, optimal ferritin levels can vary based on factors such as age, gender, and individual health conditions.
- Benefits for Baby: Iron is essential for the baby’s growth and development, aiding in the formation of red blood cells and oxygen transport. It contributes to the development of the placenta, which provides oxygen and nutrients to the baby.
- Benefits for Mother: Iron helps prevent maternal anaemia, which can lead to fatigue and other health complications. It supports the increased blood volume during pregnancy and helps prevent complications during childbirth.
Great iron sources are primarily animal-based products such as beef, lamb, venison, chicken, turkey, fish, salmon, eggs and offal (liver, kidney etc). However, plant-based sources will still provide some levels of iron, yet they are not as readily absorbed and converted to the active form required. These sources include legumes (beans, lentils), tofu, spinach and other leafy greens. When consuming plant-based iron sources, pairing these with a source of vitamin C can assist with the absorption of iron.
Calcium is essential for the development of the baby’s bones and teeth, and to ensure the mother’s bone health. It’s worth noting that often calcium depletion is one of the telltale signs that a mothers body has deficient calcium levels prior to pregnancy when seen in translucent or demineralisation of tooth enamel, as well as being prone to bone fractures. It’s essential to get mineral stores to an optimal level while conceiving, or consuming calcium-rich foods.
- Benefits for Baby: Calcium is critical for the development of the baby’s bones and teeth. It supports the proper growth of the heart, nerves, and muscles.
- Benefits for Mother: Calcium helps maintain the mother’s bone health during pregnancy, as the growing baby draws calcium from the mother’s bones. It also aids in proper muscle and nerve function.
Sources of calcium are abundant in dairy (milk, cheese, yoghurt), however there are many individuals that are intolerant or sensitive to dairy. It’s essential that other sources of dairy are added to the diet when eliminating an entire food group, especially in the preconception phase, to ensure that nutrient levels are optimal. Other sources of dairy include: fortified plant-based milk alternatives (almond milk, soy milk), leafy green vegetables (collard greens, kale, broccoli), canned fish with bones (sardines, salmon), sesame seeds, tahini, almonds, Brazil nuts, legumes (chickpeas, black beans, lentils), tofu and tempeh.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are important for the baby’s brain and eye development. They also have potential benefits for the mother’s mental well-being. Omega 3 fatty acids are essential as the body cannot produce these, therefore you must consume them in your diet.
- Benefits for Baby: Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, are essential for the development of the baby’s brain, eyes, and nervous system. They play a role in cell membrane structure and function.
- Benefits for Mother: Omega-3s have been linked to a reduced risk of preterm birth and preeclampsia. They can also contribute to the mother’s cognitive and mental well-being during pregnancy and postpartum.
Sources of omega 3 fatty acids include fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts. It is wise to supplement with omega 3 fatty acids while pregnant, to ensure that you’re obtaining enough, but also to combat the omega 3:6 ratio which is commonly imbalanced (more on the omega 6 side which can be pro-inflammatory).
Vitamin D helps with the absorption of calcium and supports bone health for both the mother and the developing baby.
- Benefits for Baby: Vitamin D is necessary for the proper development of the baby’s bones and teeth. It supports the growth of healthy tissues and organs.
- Benefits for Mother: Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, supporting both the mother’s bone health and the baby’s skeletal development. It also plays a role in immune system regulation and overall well-being.
The best source of vitamin D is daily sunshine for at least 20 minutes, however this isn’t always possible, depending on the location you live and the season. So the following foods can provide some vitamin D, such as fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna), fortified dairy products and plant-based milk alternatives, fortified cereals and egg yolks.
It’s important to note that these nutrients don’t operate in isolation; they often interact with each other and with other nutrients to support the complex processes of pregnancy. A balanced and varied diet, along with prenatal supplements can help ensure that both the mother and baby receive the necessary nutrients for healthy development during the first trimester and throughout pregnancy.
Reach out if you would like access to practitioner-grade prenatal supplements to assist your nutrient levels.