ABOUT PRENATAL VITAMINS
Whether you’re pregnant, thinking about getting pregnant, or have just completed a pregnancy, there are certain nutrients and minerals your body needs to compensate for having to produce doubly for you and your baby. This is where prenatal vitamins come in. They work not only for your baby’s development, but to ensure you get all the required nutrients necessary to carry out a pregnancy, and to replenish your depleted stocks postpartum.
WHAT YOU REALLY NEED WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING
Prenatal vitamins were created so that women could have the proper intake of minerals and vitamins necessary during pre-, peri- (during), and post-conception. Many vitamins today include these nutrients, while also adding on other minerals that help throughout the many phases of childbearing.
Folate or Folic Acid
Folic acid is perhaps the one absolutely indispensable nutrient a prenatal vitamin must have.
While often used interchangeably, it’s important to note that folate and folic acid are not the same thing. Folic acid is the synthetic form of Folate (or Folacin), a B vitamin essential to the development of healthy red blood cells, as well as for the division of cells and the development of genetic material in your body.
Although naturally occurring folate is commonly found in leafy green foods, such as spinach or kale, women need elevated amounts of folate during pregnancy or they can run the risk of becoming anemic through what’s known as folate-deficiency anemia. Folate is a necessary component for the formation of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to the essential parts of the body, such as the heart and brain. Without the proper amounts of it, women run the risk of becoming anemic.
Moreover, research has demonstrated that at least 85% of folic acid is estimated to be bioavailable when taken with food, whereas only about 50% of folate naturally present in food is bioavailable. While you should always prioritize getting folate from your diet, prenatal vitamins are a vital aid in supplying the proper quantity of folate needed for a healthy pregnancy.
- Beef liver
- Cooked broccoli
- Leafy greens (such as spinach and kale)
- Cooked lentils
Iron is another essential nutrient that becomes even more relevant during pregnancy. Without sufficient iron your body can’t make enough red blood cells or hemoglobin to carry oxygen to the rest of your body’s tissues, which can result in anemia.
Pregnant women are at a higher risk of becoming anemic because their bodies are producing 30-50% more blood, but there isn’t enough iron stocked up to produce hemoglobin. Vegetarian and vegan women are oftentimes at an even higher risk because plant-sourced iron is usually not as properly absorbed by the body as the kind that comes from meat.
Because mild anemia is fairly common during pregnancy, it’s important to make sure you get the recommended amounts of iron either through your diet, or through prenatal vitamins that include the necessary and adequate doses. It’s also important to regularly consult with your doctor if you feel any of the symptoms associated with anemia.
- Red meat
- Organ meats (such as beef liver)
- Dark chocolate
Calcium is another essential nutrient for both you and your baby. Calcium aids in the development of your baby’s musculoskeletal system, as well in the development of her heart and nerves.
A proper intake of calcium during pregnancy can also reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia, which affects approximately 4 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. and can cause serious health complications for both the baby and the mother.
Because calcium is not produced by the body, it’s essential to get the necessary amounts in your diet or supplements so that you don’t run out of your own supply. If you don’t consume enough calcium to sustain both you and your baby, your body could start depleting its own stocks, putting you at risk of osteoporosis.
- Parmesan cheese
- Canned sardines/salmon
- Cooked winged beans
- Calcium-fortified tofu
- Cooked collard greens
t’s estimated that almost 42 percent of Americans are vitamin D-deficient. This number is important when talking about pregnant women, since vitamin D is vital for a healthy pregnancy.
First, vitamin D is crucial for the absorption of calcium, which is necessary for the development of bones in fetuses and for the overall health of the mother’s musculoskeletal system. As so, vitamin D deficiency can not only affect bone growth, but could even result in preterm birth.
Vitamin D3 vs D2
Vitamin D—which is not strictly speaking a vitamin but a fat-soluble steroid—is available for ingestion in two different forms: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3.
D3 is derived from animal products and is the most bioavailable form of the vitamin, while D2 is derived from plants and is not considered as effective at being metabolized by the body.
This difference is important to women who are vegan or vegetarian since not all prenatal vitamins include the D2 form (ergocalciferol) of the nutrient. However, there are ways to obtain D3 or cholecalciferol through lichen, a cross between fungi and algae which is considered vegan. Regardless of the source, prenatal vitamins will always specify whether it’s cholecalciferol (animal-based), ergocalciferol (plant-based), or lichen derived (algae-based)—next to vitamin D in the product label.
Foods Rich in Vitamin D:
- Wild salmon
- Canned tuna
- Soy and cow milk
- Orange juice
- Fortified cereals
A WORD FOR VEGANS
Vegan and vegetarian mothers have dietary restrictions that call for special considerations when purchasing prenatal supplements. Specifically, vegan and vegetarian women who are expecting should watch out for three nutrients that may not be readily available in their regular diets: DHA, B12, and iron.
1. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). An important omega-3 fatty acid found in some seafood, DHA has been shown to help in the baby’s visual and neurological development, amongst other things. The ACOG recommends pregnant and lactating women take at least 200 mg of DHA daily. However, because vegan and vegetarian women lack seafood in their diets, it might be difficult for them to get the proper amount recommended for a healthy pregnancy. Fortunately, many DHA supplements are now made from algae and so are safe for vegan and vegetarian women.
2. B12. To date, B12 that can be properly used by our bodies is only available from animal sources such as beef, eggs, and shellfish. Vegans need supplements or special foods that have been fortified with yeast grown in B12 cultures. This is a critical vitamin for vegan and vegetarian women whose diets are often high in folate. Folate, which is part of the B complex (B9), is known to hide symptoms of anemia, one of the first signs of B12 deficiency. So, while mothers could be consuming abundant folate through their diet and supplements, they might unknowingly be B12-deficient. Moreover, B12 deficiency can have severe health consequences during pregnancy, such as significantly increasing the risk of NTD’s.
In addition to certain fortified foods like some cereals, there are two forms of B12 vegans and vegetarians could opt for: methylcobalamin and cyanocobalamin. Most prenatal vitamins purporting to be vegan or vegetarian include methylcobalamin as their choice for B12. However, some research indicates that cyanocobalamin (which has trace amounts of cyanide considered to be safe) may be better absorbed by the body than the natural form of methylcobalamin. Whichever form you choose, the most important thing is to always consume B12 in the recommended amounts.
3. Iron. Although many plant-based foods are rich in iron, pregnant vegan and vegetarian women often need to get much more than what’s available in their diets. Moreover, prenatal vitamins often lack the required amount of iron in their ingredients, which is why some doctors might recommend vegan and vegetarian pregnant women supplement their diets with iron supplements, depending on their iron levels.
ORGANIC VS SYNTHETIC PRENATAL VITAMINS
One of the first things you’ll notice when choosing a prenatal supplement is the vast variety of types on the market. The vitamin industry is generally split into organic, or whole-food vitamins, and so called “synthetic” vitamins. What each company may interpret as organic can vary, but generally vitamins that are advertised this way are purported to be made with whole foods or natural components, instead of the chemical equivalents manufactured in a lab. Many of these products are also Non-GMO certified, but this isn’t always the case. Incidentally, many companies will boast about their pure organic ingredients, trying to differentiate themselves from other “synthetic” products.
In reality, the difference between the two is not as black and white as many companies try to make it. No vitamin supplement is 100% natural, or organic, and none is 100% synthetic. Rather, many times companies will combine processes.
Research regarding whether organic vitamins are more beneficial than synthetic ones is highly split. Food-based vitamins are often touted as best because their phytonutrients—the natural chemicals found in some fruit and vegetables—are thought to make overall absorption of minerals and nutrients more effective. Similarly, some writing on the subject indicates that synthetic nutrients may not be processed in a way that can be effectively be absorbed by your body.
However, a potential downside to food or yeast-based supplements is that sometimes consumers could get allergic reactions—such as hives— they weren’t even aware they had because of all the different foods being used as ingredients. The one thing everyone can agree on regardless of whether you choose organically or synthetically processed supplements, is that it should be free of excessive fillers and additives that could cause potential harm to you or your developing baby.