The first trimester is a time of rapid growth and development for your little one. Because of this, there is an increased demand for certain key nutrients in order to meet this need and ensure you don’t become depleted yourself. During pregnancy, your body preferentially will provide nutrients to your baby if they are lacking in your diet.
Here I outline 5 of the most critical nutrients during the first trimester and where to find them in your diet. Please know there are many other important nutrients as well and this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. It is important to get your levels checked by your healthcare provider so you can assure you’re getting enough for the proper development of your baby and nourishing yourself at the same time. You’ll see a trend in some of the foods recommended that are high in many of the important nutrients, so that you can see an overall pattern in the dietary habits to follow.
Iron needs are 1.5x higher during pregnancy to support increased blood flow and transfer of oxygen to you and baby, as well as to meet the demands of your growing baby and placenta. Iron also helps you to maintain the energy you need throughout your pregnancy as well as after baby is born. So important for an expecting mama!
There are two types of iron – heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in animal sources. The #1 source of heme iron is liver. You’ll see liver mentioned several times throughout this article. Other good sources are beef, chicken, and seafood. If you’re not a liver fan, there are lots of ways to sneak it into your foods. Non-heme iron is found in plant sources – such as beans, lentils, and green leafy vegetables.
Non-heme iron (plant) sources are not absorbed very efficiently in our bodies, so if you are a vegetarian it is crucial to obtain additional iron from a supplement to meet your needs.
Your iron stores prior to conception are particularly important, so if you are thinking of having a baby soon it’s best to be proactive now. Your body has the ability to store iron, so maintaining adequate iron stores early on is going to assure you are entering pregnancy with a good reserve for you and baby. It’s always ideal to get more of your iron from your food rather than supplements as the form of iron in supplements can cause constipation.
Iron Requirements during pregnancy – 27 mg/day
Folate or Folic Acid
Folate or folic acid is crucial to baby’s development to prevent against neural tube defects, cleft lip and palate, heart abnormalities, and anemia. Adequate folate intake during pregnancy may also play a role in preventing obesity in baby later in life.
Most of us refer to folate as “folic acid,” the man-made form of folate that most often is seen in supplements and fortified grains like bread and ready-to-eat cereals. However, up to 60% of the population actually has a genetic mutation of an enzyme (called MTHFR) and cannot properly absorb folic acid. It is important to check with your doctor to see if you have this, because if so then you would want to select a prenatal containing the most absorbable form – called “methylfolate” or “l-methylfolate” and consume natural sources of folate in your diet such as liver (there it is again!), leafy greens, lentils, beans, and broccoli.
Folate Requirements during pregnancy – 600 mcg
DHA is the most absorbed form of the Omega-3 fats. DHA has a major role in proper brain and vision development in baby. It also protects the brain from inflammation and damage and can reduce the risk of postpartum depression.
The most abundant sources of DHA are animal foods such as fatty fish, pasture-raised chickens, and fortified eggs. It is essential during pregnancy. There is another type of Omega-3 fat, called EPA which can convert to DHA in your body. It is found in plant sources such as chia, flaxseeds, and walnuts. The problem is EPA is absorbed very poorly in our bodies and therefore would take a very large quantity of these foods to meet your DHA requirements. Therefore you want to get your DHA directly from the animal sources listed above.
It is possible to get enough from your diet if you are consuming fatty fish and DHA-fortified eggs regularly. However since most of us aren’t, a supplement is usually necessary.
Some studies have shown a dose up to 2,200 mg is safe and resulted in significantly higher hand-eye coordination test scores in children up to age 4.
DHA Requirements during pregnancy – Minimum 300mg
Choline is a critical nutrient during pregnancy that has only recently become more well known. It is a type of fat that is vital for fetal brain development, placental health, and the prevention of neural tube defects. In this way it acts similar to folate. Like with folate, women who have the MTHFR gene mutation may not be able to properly absorb choline and may need it in higher doses than the 450 mg minimum. In fact, some studies have shown improvements in maternal and child health outcomes in daily doses of 930mg.
Egg yolks and liver are the highest food sources of choline, so don’t be afraid to eat the whole egg – there is lots of good stuff in there! If you are a vegetarian or do not eat these foods regularly, it is likely you are not getting enough. In a supplement, look for choline bitartrate or sunflower lecithin.
Choline Requirements during pregnancy – 450mg
Vitamin D is essential for proper bone development and calcium absorption, reducing pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia, low birthweight, and gestational diabetes. There is also research on the role of Vitamin D in reducing the risk of postpartum depression, an increasingly common issue that is likely more widespread than we realize. Vitamin D requirements are constantly increasing as more research develops.
Vitamin D deficiency is very common even in the general population, and it is very difficult to get enough from our diet alone especially without adequate sun exposure. Majority of our Vitamin D is made from sun exposure (up to 90%), and for many of us depending on where we live and our ability to get outside, it may not be realistic to get enough. Although I am a huge proponent for getting outside whenever possible – for many reasons!
The best natural food sources of vitamin D are sockeye salmon and canned light tuna (limit albacore tuna as it is high in mercury), and is fortified in milk, yogurt, orange juice, and eggs. Look for “Vitamin D fortified” on the package labeling.
It is very difficult to meet your vitamin D needs during pregnancy from food alone and most women require a supplement. When selecting a supplement, choose one that contains at least 4000 IU. Most prenatal vitamins do not contain this amount, so you may need a separate vitamin D supplement.
Look for Vitamin D3 which is the active, absorbable form and always take with a meal containing fat. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin meaning it needs fat to be properly absorbed in your body. Your Vitamin D levels may not be routinely checked unless you have signs of a deficiency, so be sure to ask your doctor.
Vitamin D Requirements during pregnancy – minimum 600 IU, most likely need higher up to 4000-7000 IU/day
Beginning with a nutritional plan containing these foods is a great start to provide essential nutrients you and baby need during the first trimester. Always seek guidance from a Registered Dietitian and Healthcare Provider in order to ensure you are meeting your own individual needs during this critical time.