It's common knowledge that women should start a prenatal vitamin when they find out they are pregnant... right? Should only pregnant women be taking these supplements? And do we even need extra vitamins during pregnancy in the first place?
... the answer is yes! Your body requires extra vitamins and minerals to support a healthy pregnancy. In fact, it is recommended for women who are planning a pregnancy or who may become pregnant to take a prenatal vitamin. This helps to ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs even before you discover you are pregnant. No questioning whether you were meeting your needs when you start taking a prenatal vitamin preemptively!
There are a few key nutrients that are especially important and are required in higher doses during pregnancy. The most important are iron and folate. Iron is necessary for many processes in the body, but one of the most important jobs is to help make up hemoglobin, which helps deliver oxygen all over the body and to your baby. Iron needs increase to 27 milligrams per day during pregnancy (up from 18 mg/d outside of pregnancy) (1). About 50% of women do not meet their iron needs during pregnancy, which is understandable - it can be very difficult to eat enough iron. Consuming 4 ounces of beef only provides about 4 milligrams! The easiest way to make sure you and your baby are getting the right amount is to take an iron-containing prenatal vitamin. In fact, taking an iron supplement during pregnancy has also been shown to reduce the risk of your baby being born with a low birthweight (2) - even more reason to start a prenatal vitamin with iron! Some women have troubles with constipation while taking supplemental iron, so be sure to eat plenty of high fiber foods and drink lots of water for GI regularity!
Folate is essential for DNA synthesis (basically creating the blueprint for your baby!), and plays a pivotal role in closing the neural tube early in pregnancy. Pregnant women have a much greater requirement for folate, since it is necessary for the growth and development of your little one. It is recommended to consume 600 micrograms of total folate daily during pregnancy (3). Consuming inadequate folate can put your baby at risk for neural tube defects - simply meeting your needs for folate drastically reduces this risk, which shows how important it is. Like with iron, this can be a daunting recommendation to meet without the use of a supplement. The best way to guarantee you are getting enough to decrease risks of neural tube defects is to take a prenatal vitamin with enough folate.
I like to describe multivitamins like an insurance policy - you might not need to be supplemented with every vitamin or mineral in the ingredient list, but it doesn't hurt to "top off" your nutrient stores if there is a nutrient you are not consuming adequately. As long as you eat a varied and healthful diet, and take a multivitamin according to the label instructions, it is unlikely to get too much of any vitamin or mineral. Especially during pregnancy, it is so important to make sure all nutrient needs are met so you can support your body with all the right ingredients for a healthy pregnancy.
Do you have questions about prenatal vitamins? Wondering if the vitamin you are taking is the right one for you? Want help planning a menu that works with your prenatal vitamin to meet your optimal nutrient needs? See the services page and sign up for a personalized counseling session - I can't wait to help you build a healthy diet before, during, and after your pregnancy.
(1) Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on Micronutrients. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001.
(2) Peña-Rosas, Juan Pablo et al. “Daily Oral Iron Supplementation during Pregnancy.” The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 12 (2012): CD004736. PMC. Web. 6 Nov. 2017.
(3) Institute of Medicine (US) Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes and its Panel on Folate, Other B Vitamins, and Choline. Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1998. The National Academies.