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Advice The Truth About Prenatal Vitamins, Do You Really Need Them?

If you’re researching prenatal vitamins, I’m guessing you’re either pregnant or planning to be pregnant – and that’s exciting!

Quite likely you’ve already been advised to get yourself to a pharmacy for some prenatal vitamins. But, what is the truth about pregnancy supplements?

You may be wondering, “is it all just a marketing ploy?” or “are these companies using science and fear to encourage me to buy their product?!” Read on to learn a bit more.

Vitamins During Pregnancy

Ensuring proper nutrition, both before and during pregnancy, is incredibly important – both for the health of mum and her unborn baby. Nutrient deficiency can cause a range of conditions. These include restricted foetal growth and the development of neural tube defects, as well as things like physical deformity and low birth weight. Which all sound pretty terrifying!

There have been some studies on vitamin supplementation during pregnancy. However much of the evidence gathered comes from developing countries where women are more likely to be under or malnourished than those in the UK.

For us, the challenge is knowing which supplements are actually beneficial, as opposed to just heavily marketed. Yes, they may contain vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients. That’s all great – but they may not be necessary.

Which Prenatal Vitamins and Nutrients Do I Really Need?

There are are a few nutrients commonly known to play an incredibly important role in your baby’s growth and development. These are:

Folic Acid

Every cell in your body needs this for healthy growth and development. It can help prevent birth defects in the brain and spine (those neural tube defects mentioned above). It may also help prevent heart defects, and birth defects like cleft lip and palate. The NHS recommends taking 400mg daily from before pregnancy to 12 weeks pregnant.

Vitamin D

Sunlight is our main source of this important vitamin. It helps us absorb calcium and keeps all our body’s systems (nervous, muscular and immune) working. You should take 10mcg per day, especially during the winter months.

Iron

This is a mineral used by the body to make haemoglobin, a protein that helps carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body. You need more iron during pregnancy because your body uses iron to make more blood to carry oxygen to the baby. Plus the baby uses iron to make its own blood. Being iron deficient can cause anaemia and make you feel exhausted.

Calcium

Calcium helps with the development of strong bones, teeth, muscles and nerves. You need 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. If you don’t get enough, your body redirects calcium from your own bones and teeth and gives it to the baby. This can cause osteoporosis later in life.

Iodine

Iodine helps your baby’s brain and nervous system to develop properly. There is no recommendation in the UK to take iodine supplements; the NHS believes you should be able to get all you need from a varied diet (however there has been research done into supplements).

If you do decide to take it, take no more than 0.5mg per day.

So Are Pregnancy Vitamins Just a Marketing Ploy?

The very short answer is, yes. BBC researchers looked at all the evidence and found that generally prenatal vitamins did not boost the health of mothers or their babies.

They even reported that “pregnant women might feel coerced into buying expensive multivitamins to give their baby the best start in life. But they would do well to resist the marketing claims.”

How Can I Get the Nutrients I Need?

The NHS currently recommends taking folic acid and vitamin D supplements (in fact most adults would probably benefit from this, not just pregnant ones!). You only need an iron supplement if you are iron-deficient (which your doctor would diagnose). The rest you can easily get from food.

  • Choose foods that contain folate (the natural form of folic acid), especially leafy green veg.
  • Iron can be found in meat, poultry and seafood, as well as leafy green vegetables, beans, nuts, raisins and dried fruit.
  • Calcium is found in dairy products, but also in oranges, bell peppers, broccoli, kale and brussels sprouts.
  • Top up your Vitamin D by eating oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines), eggs and red meat.
  • Iodine is found in fish, milk, cheese, and yoghurt. It’s also in iodized salt.

Not All Bad

The benefit of a prenatal multivitamin is that a lot of women don’t actually get all the nutrients they need from food. It can often be difficult to track, especially if you’re suffering from morning sickness, nausea or loss of appetite.

If you are going to buy a multivitamin, be sure to take one specifically designed for pregnant women. (This is so you can avoid things that can be dangerous for babies in-utero, like vitamin A). Pay close attention to the label so you know exactly what you’re getting. If in doubt, consult your doctor, and never take more than the recommended dose.

What’s the Takeaway?

Prenatal vitamins contain all the nutrients you need, plus a few nice-to-haves. So long as you’re taking folic acid and ideally Vitamin D, you should be able to get everything else you need from a well-balanced diet. However, if it’s convenient for you and you don’t mind the cost, taking an over-the-counter prenatal vitamins is totally fine too.

And don’t forget to keep looking after your nutrition once your baby arrives. Try these healthy snacks for breastfeeding mums to keep you fuelled and ready to go once that bundle of joy finally arrives!

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