Why Prenatal Vitamins are Necessary Support for Women
More than any other time of a woman’s life, nutrition is critically important during pregnancy and the time period surrounding it.
After a woman becomes pregnant, she is eating for two. Not only does she need essential nutrients to maintain her own body, but the baby also has his own set of nutritional needs for optimal growth and development.
Calories, of course, are important. Most women need at least 300 more calories a day beyond their own needs during at least the last six months of pregnancy than they did before they were pregnant. But where those calories come from should be considered. Sure, you could eat 300 extra calories from ice cream or cookies, but would this provide all of the optimal nutrition a baby needs to grow new brain cells and to form bones and muscle tissue?
Keep in mind also that while the body has extra needs for energy in the form of calories, a new mom-to-be shouldn’t overdo it to the point of excessive weight gain.
For women of normal body weight, the recommended weight gain to support a healthy pregnancy is about 25-35 pounds – or about 1 to 1 ½ pounds each week starting in the second trimester. Excessive weight gain is associated with potential complications, such as gestational diabetes and hypertension.
Protein is another essential nutrient. We know that protein is the building block for lean body mass in our own adult bodies. A baby also needs protein to form organs and to build up blood supply. A woman also needs the additional protein to build up a milk supply for breastfeeding.
Pregnancy experts recommend about 75-100 grams of protein per day. Women who consume meat and dairy likely have no trouble meeting this recommendation. Vegetarian and vegan women who are pregnant can also easily meet protein needs, but will have to focus more on their food choices to ensure the greater protein needs are met with beans, tofu, whole high-protein grains such as quinoa and nuts/seeds.
In addition to macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fats), women need to be focused on the quality of their food choices. Micronutrients, such as iron, calcium, and folic acid are also critically important during pregnancy. Whole foods sources of nutrients are obviously desirable, as they provide the additional calorie/protein/fat needs a pregnant woman needs. But to ensure a reliable nutrition source, doctors often recommend prenatal vitamins.
But not all vitamins are created equal, and women should ensure they receive the best possible product for their health and the health of their baby.
The key components of any quality prenatal vitamin are iron and folate. Both of these are needed to prevent maternal anemia. In addition, folate is essential for the development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord.
Over the counter generic brands of prenatal vitamins often contain 800 mcg of folate. Brand name prescriptions provide a bit more – usually 1000 mcg. Experts generally recommend 600 to 800 micrograms (.6 to .8 milligrams) daily, but that isn’t the end of the story.
The type of folate is also important, says Dr. Bradley Price, OBGYN from Austin, TX. Methylfolate is more easily absorbed by the body, especially in Hispanic woman who may lack a particular enzyme that converts standard folate to its active form.
Iron is also available in different forms in vitamin supplements. Most over the counter vitamins contain ferrous sulfate. Unfortunately, this form of iron is known to cause constipation. It can also aggravate acid reflux, a common problem during pregnancy. A better tolerated option for iron is ferrous asparto glycinate (Sumalate) – which is typically only offered in prescription brand name products.
Other important nutrients to look for in a quality prenatal vitamin include Calcium and Vitamin D. Both of these are critically important for bone formation.
Prenatal vitamins should be something discussed with a woman’s OBGYN as early as possible in pregnancy. Actually, it would be optimal that woman begin to focus on good nutrition prior to even becoming pregnant – a time period some doctors call “trimester zero.”
With folate, for example, in order to effectively raise levels optimal enough to protect from birth defects, folic acid should be taken at least 4 weeks prior to conception. Part of the reason for this – the neural tube closes 28 days after conception and some women do not even know that they are pregnant until after this time! Ensuring optimal folic acid intake prior to pregnancy could potentially prevent about 70% of neural tube defects.
In addition, women should ask their doctors about continuing prenatal vitamins even after delivery. The body needs extra nutrition to support breastfeeding as well. In addition, per the Mayo Clinic, B-vitamins may help decrease the risk of postpartum depression.
Remember, though, just because you take a good quality prenatal vitamin does not mean you can ignore a healthy diet. Some nutrients cannot be found in a simple vitamin pill. Ensure that your diet is complete with whole grains for fiber and contains sources of omega-3 fatty acids for fetal brain and eye development.
Avion Pharmaceuticals, a specialty pharmacy focusing on Women’s Health in Alpharetta, Georgia, wants to protect a woman’s access to optimal prenatal nutrition. With healthcare laws and new decisions made daily regarding insurance plans, women should work closely with their doctors on the best care available to them. To learn more about this initiative, visit http://www.rxprenatalvitaminaction.com/
Dr. Bradley Price
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics