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The ultimate guide to prenatal vitamins

Pregnancy is a time of extraordinary change for the body. Among the many things to expect while expecting, there is a radical shift in nutritional needs for both the mother-to-be and her baby.

“During pregnancy, nutrition is so important because it is what fuels you and your baby,” explains Dallas-based ob-gyn Jessica Shepherd. “When we give our bodies the fuel it needs, it’s able to support us so much better. It allows you to be much more functional and aids in reducing health risks during your pregnancy. Good nutrition and appropriate supplementation also promotes healthy development for the baby.”

Along with eating a nourishing diet, staying hydrated and avoiding smoking and alcohol, prenatal vitamins can supply extra nutrients tailored to support the needs of pregnancy. While they’ve been around since the early ’70s, a new wave of research-backed, sleekly packaged formulas—from preexisting cult brands and buzzy new startups alike—have permeated the market. Where to begin? Here, a breakdown of everything you need to know about prenatal vitamins, as well as the latest crop of offerings to consider.

What are prenatal vitamins, and why are they so beneficial?

In an ideal world, a pregnant mother would get all of her nutrients from food. But as Sakara cofounder Danielle DuBoise, who developed the wellness brand’s The Foundation: Prenatal while pregnant, underlines, that’s not realistic. “No one eats perfectly 100% of the time,” says DuBoise, citing research that the average American is lacking essential nutrients in their daily diet. “So for most people, supplementation is critical.”

According to Manhattan-based nutritionist Maria Marlowe, prenatal supplements can fill in any nutrient gaps caused by our modern, hectic lifestyles, or particular tastes, which result in consuming less than an adequate amount of the nutrients we need on a daily basis. “Think of it as an insurance policy that you’re getting enough of the nutrients you need to support a healthy pregnancy, for baby and mom alike,” she says. Similarly, Shepherd encourages her expectant patients to consider taking a prenatal vitamin as building up a reserve. “Because the baby gets all the nutrients it needs directly from mama, it’s easy to become deficient in vitamins” she explains. “A well-rounded balance of vitamins and nutrients during pregnancy will help mom provide the nutrients needed, as well as help the baby do things, such as form vital organs and body systems.”

What should you look for in a prenatal vitamin?

While expecting, one should be looking to get the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals they normally need, as well as additional key pregnancy super-nutrients, such as folic acids, iron, and calcium, says Marlowe.

Folic Acid: Folic acid, or folate, is a B vitamin that is critical to a healthy pregnancy. “It helps prevent brain and spinal cord defects in the baby, known as neural tube defects,” explains Marlowe, adding that when it's found in food, it is called folate, but in supplements, it will be listed as folic acid, the man-made form. She highlights that because of its importance, and the fact that not everyone gets enough from their diet, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all women to take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily, but the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) advise increasing this amount to 600 micrograms, the amount found in most prenatals.

Iron: “Iron supports the development of the placenta and fetus, and also prevents anemia in mom,” says Marlowe. According to ACOG, pregnant women need 27 milligrams of iron a day, which is double the amount normally needed. She stresses that it is best get iron from food sources, such as eat, poultry, fish, beans and peas, tofu, dark leafy green veggies. “When consuming plant-based iron-rich foods, consume them with a vitamin C–rich food (such as bell peppers or citrus), to increase iron-absorption,” she adds. Because high intake of iron supplements is harmful, she recommends consulting a doctor before supplementing.

Calcium: “Calcium is used to build a baby's bones and teeth,” says Marlowe. “If mom is not consuming enough during pregnancy, the mineral will be drawn from her own stores in her bones to provide for her baby. It’s important to get adequate calcium, as well as complementary bone-building nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin K, and magnesium.” The recommended daily amount is 1,000 mg daily, and the best way to incorporate it into your diet is with dark leafy greens, which are excellent bone-building foods as they are generally a source of calcium, Vitamin K, and magnesium, says Marlowe.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy has been shown to reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia, low birthweight, and preterm birth. “All women, pregnant or not, should aim to get 600 IU of Vitamin D daily,” says Marlowe, adding that it's called the “sunshine vitamin” as our bodies makes it when exposed to the sun.

Choline: “Choline aids in your baby’s brain development and may help prevent certain birth defects,” says Marlowe. The ACOG recommends that pregnant women get 450 mg of choline each day, up from 425 mg for women who are not pregnant. “It’s important to get choline through food, as most prenatals don’t contain choline, or only contain a small amount of it,” she says, name-checking shiitake mushrooms, beans, eggs, chicken, meat, fish, soy, cauliflower, broccoli, and peanuts as robust sources.

Omega-3: “Omega-3 is important for reducing inflammation in mom and aiding a baby’s brain development,” explains Marlowe. Whether pregnant or not, omega-3 is a critical nutrient, yet common deficiency as it's found in a limited number of foods—mostly certain types of seafood and nuts and seeds, such as wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.

When should you start taking a prenatal vitamin?

If you choose to take a prenatal vitamin to help supplement deficiencies in your diet, a good rule of thumb for when to begin is the earlier, the better. “Prenatal vitamins are an important part of pregnancy and are best when done preconception as it will already be on board for critical changes early in pregnancy like organ development, which starts as early as 6 weeks,” explains Shepherd. “So typically, it's best to do so as soon as you find out you’re pregnant.” To ensure you’re taking the right dosage, closely follow directions and the recommended daily requirement listed.

What should you be wary of when taking a prenatal vitamin?

“Vitamins are essential nutrients that keep the body healthy, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing,” cautions Shepherd, who recommends that her patients consult with their doctor and purchase supplements from a reputable source—not all supplements are created equal, after all. DuBoise’s motivation to make a clean prenatal vitamin was driven by the fact that the supplement industry is largely unregulated, and it’s possible that common vitamins on the market can contain cheap, toxic fillers and are manufactured with chemical solvents. “It’s terrifying for the average person, but even scarier while pregnant!” says DuBoise. The bottom line is: Before you take any prenatal supplements, discuss them with your doctor, and do your research.

What other practices should you consider alongside a prenatal vitamin?

First, it must be repeated that diet should be the primary source of nutrients and prioritized as such. “Healthy whole foods like vegetables and fruit contain much more than just the common vitamins and minerals we all know about,” explains Marlowe. “They also contain powerful antioxidants and beneficial phytochemicals that work synergistically to support our health, as well as fiber which aids digestion.” Additionally, keeping blood sugar stable is especially important during pregnancy. “Nausea can be caused by low blood sugar, so protein, whether organic animal protein or plant-based, is important,” says Marlowe. “Make sure you have enough, especially at night, to help balance blood sugar.”

Along with nutrition, it is important to develop a regular exercise routine throughout your pregnancy. “Exercise encourages good cardiovascular health and can aid in the labor and delivery process,” says Shepherd. “A few types of exercise I love for my pregnant mamas are walking, prenatal yoga, and low impact strength training.” But remember: no fuel equals no energy. “One of the best ways to make exercising during pregnancy possible is making sure to fuel your body with the appropriate nutrients!” says Shepherd. The bottom line is that no prenatal vitamin will compensate for a poor diet, inadequate sleep, not getting enough exercise, and high levels of stress. During pregnancy, prenatal vitamins should be part of a 360-degree approach to well-being for mother and child, and are best taken under the supervision of a doctor with science-backed ingredients.

This article was originally published on Vogue US.

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