So, your OB told you to take a prenatal vitamin, even though you’re not pregnant. Wait, what? Yeah, so it turns out that these days a lot of OBs are suggesting that even women who are just thinking about becoming pregnant go ahead and take a prenatal vitamin. This is good advice! After all, it takes some time for the nutrient levels in your body to change. And some nutrients, like folate, are super important in the earliest weeks of pregnancy. You want those nutrients to be there ready to go from day one. If you are already pregnant, by all means, keep reading!
So why not a regular multivitamin? If you look at the label, a prenatal vitamin is really not all that different from a regular multivitamin. However, there are some key differences depending on the nutrients you look at.
Let’s break it down:
Which nutrients and how much?
One of the most important things about prenatal vitamins is that their nutrients and amounts are designed for pregnancy. Authoritative bodies like the US Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have set specific recommendations for pregnant women. Even the supplement label has specific daily values that are fine-tuned for pregnant or lactating women. Below we have detailed out several of the most key essential nutrients, and the recommended amounts.
Folate – 400 mcg
Folate is a very important nutrient to help prevent neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida. As these birth defects occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy it’s important to boost up your levels early on. Folate is found in green vegetables and wheat-based foods, but most women don’t get nearly enough from their typical diet. If you are light on veggies and tend to skip processed foods, or if you follow a gluten-free diet, you need a supplement. The CDC recommends that you get at least 400 mcg folic acid, or 667 mcg DFE of folate each day.
Most prenatal products, like the ones below, have at least this amount:
What about MTHFR?
If you have had a genetic test that indicated that you have an MTHFR gene variant, be sure to check out our recent post on the best prenatal vitamins for MTHFR. Long story short, you should be looking for prenatal vitamins with methylfolate, like the SmartyPants product above, but it’s worth reading that post!
DHA – 200-500 mg
DHA is a fatty acid found in fish that’s vitally important for your developing baby’s brain. It’s a long chain fat that improves the fluidity of cellular membranes, supporting the rapid brain development that occurs in your growing baby. Recent studies suggest that taking a DHA supplement during pregnancy can also decrease the risk of preterm birth. Most experts recommend taking a daily dose of 200 mg of DHA during pregnancy, but the decrease in preterm birth is observed with levels of 500-800 mg each day. The FDA has some good advice about which fish are best and which to avoid. A fish or plant-based supplement is another option.
Nordic Natural’s Prenatal DHA serves up a nice 480 mg of DHA, which is a great addition to a DHA-containing prenatal:
Choline – 450 mg
Choline is related to the B vitamins, but it has only recently been added to the supplement label as an essential nutrient. Like DHA, choline is a part of the molecules that make up the cell membranes, but it is also the backbone of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine that transmits brain signals between nerves. Choline is found at high levels in meats and eggs. Experts recommend getting at least 450 mg of choline during pregnancy.
However, despite recommendations from the American Medical Association, most prenatal vitamins don’t actually contain any significant amount of choline. These products could be a good supplement on top of the base prenatal you choose:
Iodine – 220 mcg
Ever hear of “iodized” salt? Iodized means that it’s been fortified with iodine. Back in the day this was done to prevent goiter. However, iodine is a critically important trace element for your developing baby’s brain. Recent research suggests that many women of childbearing age don’t get enough, so it’s an important one to look for in a prenatal supplement. If you use sea salt or generally don’t use much salt, it’s even more important. Experts recommend getting at least 220 mcg of iodine during pregnancy.
Consider a prenatal that contains 100% if your iodine requirement, like these:
Vitamin D – 20 mcg (1000 IU) and Calcium – 500-1000 mg
Vitamin D and calcium are the vitamin and mineral dynamic duo. They work together to make sure your developing baby’s skeleton is growing strong. Vitamin D plays a role in calcium metabolism for you and your baby alike. Calcium is a key building block for bones. Vitamin D has also been found to have other health benefits during pregnancy. If you don’t see a lot of sun, and if you tend to skip out on dairy products, you are probably in serious need of these nutrients. Most prenatal multivitamins have a decent amount of vitamin D, but you should look for 1000 IU (25 mcg) or more of vitamin D. You should also be looking for at least 500-100 mg of calcium in a supplement. However, prenatal multis are typically very low in calcium, so a separate calcium supplement is usually a great idea. An additional calcium + vitamin D supplement, like the one below, is not a bad idea during your 3rd trimester.
Lutein – 10 mg
Lutein is relatively new on the scene for pregnancy. It’s well known for its eye health benefits, as it is a component of the macular pigment at the back of the eye. The purpose of the macular pigment is to protect the eye from oxidative stress. Recent research suggests that lutein is not only important for eye development, but for brain development too. Because the research is so new, it’s not entirely clear how much you should take. However, at least 10 mg/day would be a good place to start. Unfortunately, most prenatals don’t contain lutein. Here is a product that would be a great choice to boost both your DHA and your lutein levels at the same time:
In addition to the above, there are many other nutrients that are also important for your developing baby, so it’s important to eat a varied diet and choose a prenatal supplement that covers a full range of nutrients. For example, gummy products often leave out some of the important nutrients like iodine because of taste or shelf-life concerns.
To the prenatal brands that best suit your personal needs and preferences from reputable brands, be sure to check out our other articles on this topic. This should give you a great start and help you better understand how to pick the prenatal vitamin that’s the best for you. Best wishes on your pregnancy journey!