This article is contributed by Dietitian Miss Poon Shi Po, Sally
5 key nutrients for healthy pregnancy – summary
Pregnant women can obtain the five key nutrients by eating a healthy balanced diet, to support the optimal development of your baby during pregnancy.
- It helps prevent major birth defects of the fetal brain and spine (neural tube defects)
- Intake 600 mcg daily during pregnancy
- Major food sources of folate include spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, avocado, oranges, papaya, and breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid
- An element needed to produce thyroid hormones – important for proper fetal growth and brain development
- Intake 250 mcg iodine daily during pregnancy
- Major food sources of iodine include seaweed, seafood, egg yolk, dairy products and iodised salt
Omega-3 fatty acids
- Includes docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- It is important for the fetal visual and cognitive development
- Intake 200 to 300 mg of omega-3 fatty acidsdaily during pregnancy
- Major food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, sardine, Japanese jack mackerel, golden thread, Pacific saury, pomfret, horse head, and big eyes
- For people who do not eat seafood, can have foods rich in alpha linolenic acid (ALA), such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, and canola oil
- Required for fetus to build bones and teeth
- Intake 1,000 mg of calcium a day during pregnancy
- Major food sources of calcium include milk, cheese, and yogurt, dark green vegetables (e.g., choy sum, bok choi, kale, broccoli), sardines, dried shrimps, sesame seeds, tofu, and high-calcium bread
- Vitamin D improves calcium absorption
- Intake 600 IU (15 mcg) of vitamin D a day during pregnancy
- Promotes optimal growth and brain development of fetus and prevents iron deficiency anaemia
- Iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth and low birthweight
- Intake 27 mg of iron daily during pregnancy
- Major food sources of iron include red meat, poultry, fish, egg yolk, lentils, kidney beans, nuts, raisins, and iron-fortified breakfast cereals
- Iron can be absorbed better if foods are eaten with vitamin C-rich foods, such as guava, oranges, kiwi fruits, bell peppers, and tomatoes
5 key nurtients for healthy pregnancy – full article
Eating a healthy balanced diet is crucial to support the optimal development of your baby during pregnancy. Your body has a greater demand for nutrients which can be met by making wise food choices. Dietitian Sally Shi-po Poon explains the five key nutrients for a healthy pregnancy.
Folic acid, also known as folate, is a B vitamin that is important for pregnant women. Taking folic acid regularly before pregnancy and during pregnancy helps prevent major birth defects of the fetal brain and spine called neural tube defects. The requirement for folic acid increases from 400 micrograms (mcg) daily for non-pregnant women to 600 mcg daily during pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends a prenatal vitamin supplement for most pregnant women to ensure that they get adequate amounts of folic acid and other nutrients.
Major food sources of folate include:
- brussels sprouts
- black-eyed peas
- kidney beans
- breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid
The body needs iodine to make thyroid hormones which are required for proper growth and brain development of your baby. The World Health Organisation recommends 250 mcg iodine daily during pregnancy. The Iodine Survey in Hong Kong conducted in 2019 showed that iodine intake of the local pregnant women who did not take an iodine supplement was insufficient. Therefore, pregnant women are recommended to take a dietary supplement that contains at least 150 mcg iodine every day, as it is difficult to get enough iodine from food alone.
Main sources of iodine include:
- egg yolk
- dairy products
- iodised salt
Kelp contains a very high level of iodine and eating too much can affect the thyroid function adversely. You should consume kelp in moderation and no more than once a week.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found mainly in seafood. Omega-3 fatty acids include docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). DHA is important for the visual and cognitive development of your baby. Pregnant women are recommended to attain a minimum DHA intake of 200 to 300 mg daily, which can be achieved by eating two to three weekly servings of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury. Examples include salmon, sardine, Japanese jack mackerel, golden thread, Pacific saury, pomfret, horse head, and big eyes. In general, fish of smaller size (less than 600g), farmed fish and freshwater fish have lower level of mercury. From the food safety point of view, pregnant women should avoid all raw and undercooked seafood during pregnancy.
- Japanese jack mackerel
- golden thread
- Pacific saury
- horse head
- big eyes
In general, fish of smaller size (less than 600g), farmed fish and freshwater fish have lower level of mercury. From the food safety point of view, pregnant women should avoid all raw and undercooked seafood during pregnancy.
People who do not eat seafood can eat foods rich in alpha linolenic acid (ALA), such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts and canola oil. Our body can produce DHA out of ALA, but the conversion rate seems to be relatively low. You can consider taking a DHA supplement if you do not eat seafood.
Calcium is required to build your baby’s bones and teeth. Pregnant women require 1,000 mg of calcium a day. Inadequate calcium intake during pregnancy may increase the risk of preterm labour and gestational hypertension.
Milk, cheese, and yogurt, are the best sources of calcium. Pregnant women are advised to consume two glasses of milk or high-calcium plant-based milk daily and choose calcium-rich foods such as:
- dark green vegetables (e.g., choy sum, bok choi, kale, broccoli)
- dried shrimps
- sesame seeds
- high-calcium bread
Vitamin D improves calcium absorption and is essential for bone health and development. Pregnant women need 600 IU (15 mcg) of vitamin D a day. Expose to sunlight regularly and consume vitamin D-rich foods such as salmon and fortified food products can help you get enough vitamin D.
During pregnancy, the amount of blood in your body increases, so you need more iron for yourself and your baby. Iron ensures optimal growth and brain development and prevents iron deficiency anaemia. Iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth and low birthweight. Your body needs more iron during pregnancy and the daily recommended intake of iron is 27 mg.
Iron is found in most prenatal vitamin supplements. You should also eat a variety of iron-rich foods including
- red meat
- egg yolk
- kidney beans
- iron-fortified breakfast cereals
Iron can be absorbed better if foods are eaten with vitamin C-rich foods, such as guava, oranges, kiwi fruits, bell peppers and tomatoes. Calcium might interfere with iron absorption. Taking calcium and iron supplements at different times of the day might prevent this problem.