Are you a pregnant mama or on your journey of trying to conceive? Then listen up because this information is crucial for you and your baby!
Not All Prenatal Vitamins Are Created Equal
How many of you have walked into the supplement aisle and felt overwhelmed by all the options out there (me!).
Well, the reason there are so many different options is because every supplement is slightly different, even prenatal vitamins!
And while you might think that any ol’ prenatal will have exactly what you need, that’s not true.
First, supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration which means manufacturers can put whatever they want in them (1). And second, there’s no set standard on what manufacturers should (or actually do) put in their prenatal vitamins!
Some might be missing really important nutrients needed for your baby to grow and develop properly!
Supplements Should Be A Safety Net
While taking a prenatal vitamin is really important, we should not be relying only on our prenatal vitamin to give us the nutrition we need for ourselves and our baby.
Think of your prenatal as a safety net. You will get most of the nutrition you need from a healthy diet, but just in case there are days (or weeks) where your diet may not be the best (Hello nausea and food aversions!), your prenatal is there to help.
So what are the most essential nutrients you should look for when choosing a prenatal?
This one may seem obvious because of all the public education out there on this, but folic acid should absolutely be in your prenatal vitamin. Any prenatal vitamin worth its salt will have at least 400 mcg of folic acid in it (2).
Folic acid is the synthetic (man made) form of folate which is naturally found in foods. This vitamin is essential in preventing neural tube defects like spina bifida.
Because the United States was seeing such high rates of neural tube defects in babies, in 1996 the government required folic acid fortification (which means adding folic acid), to commonly consumed foods, like wheat, to help prevent neural tube defects in babies (3).
This is also why almost every single prenatal vitamin will have at least 400 mcg of folic acid in it.
Choline is another nutrient that helps your baby’s brain grow nice and big as well as helps prevent neural tube defects.
However, unlike folic acid, choline is not common in prenatal vitamins. And even if it is included, it’s only a tiny amount. Pregnant women need at least 450 mg of choline per day (4). So aim for about half of that (about 200 mg) or more of choline in your prenatal vitamin.
In fact, iodine is so important, that just like folic acid, the US government started fortifying salt with iodine in the 1920s (7). Unfortunately, many Americans are no longer cooking with or using iodized salt (fancy designer salts, like pink himalayan are not iodized and processed foods don’t commonly use iodized salt) and we are starting to see many women with inadequate iodine levels.
And similar to choline, iodine is rarely seen in prenatal vitamins. And if it is, it’s just a tiny amount.
Current recommendations are to take about 200 mcg of iodine per day while pregnant (5).
Just like the previous 3 nutrients, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) also helps your baby’s brain develop appropriately! DHA is not found in every prenatal vitamin, although it should be, so be sure to check the supplement facts label to see if your prenatal includes it (8).
You need to take at least 200 mg each day. However, new research is suggesting that even higher doses of DHA (closer to 1000 mg each day) is more beneficial, especially in preventing premature births (9).
42% of U.S. women of reproductive age are vitamin D deficient. That’s 4 in 10 women! This doesn’t even count the number of women who are considered “insuficint” (which is between normal levels and deficient levels).
Vitamin D is important in helping your baby build strong bones and teeth and helps YOU build a strong immune system. The current recommendation is that pregnant women should supplement with at least 600 IU per day (IU stands for International Units) (10).
What’s Your Number 1 Prenatal Recommendation?
By far, my number 1 recommendation is “Optimal Prenatal” by Seeking Health.
It has 2,000 IU of vitamin D, 800 mcg of folic acid, 250 mcg of iodine, and 250 mg of choline.
Now like I said, there is no perfect prenatal vitamin. And this one is lacking DHA. So if you do choose to use this prenatal, you’ll need an additional DHA supplement.
The other downside of this supplement is that you have to take 8 capsules per day. This might seem like a lot, but it’s really hard to put all of these nutrients into just 1 or 2 capsules. So I recommend that moms take 4 with breakfast and 4 with lunch.
You can purchase it through Amazon here! (please note that this is my Amazon affiliate link)
A proper prenatal vitamin will have way more than just these 5 nutrients. However, most generic prenatal vitamins don’t have all of these 5 nutrients. That’s why I highlight these 5 specifically.
Remember, not all prenatal vitamins are the same, so it’s very important to look at the supplement facts label to make sure these 5 nutrients are included.
And finally, treat your prenatal vitamin as a nutritional safety net. The majority of your nutrition should come from a healthy a well balanced diet.
What about Iron?
The National Institute of Health (NIH) does not recommend supplementing with iron unless your hemoglobin and serum ferritin fall below a certain level (marker). This is why many prenatals don’t actually contain iron and many providers prescribe iron separately from a prenatal.
Personally, if your prenatal vitamin has a few milligrams of iron in it as a safety net, I’m ok with that. But if your prenatal contains more than about 15 mg, you should consult with your doctor about checking your blood work first.
When is the best time to start taking a prenatal?
The best time to start taking a prenatal vitamin is about 3-6 months before you start actively trying to conceive. The second best time to start is the moment you find out you're pregnant.
Want To Download The Handout?
Save this handy dandy “5 Nutrients To Look For In a Prenatal Vitamin” handout so you can easily refer back to it when you need to!
Medical Disclaimer: Talk with your health care provider before starting any supplement.