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Top Nutrients for Healthy Mom and Baby

Good nutrition is essential during pregnancy for a healthy baby. Key nutrients play a critical role in the mental and physical development of the fetus, reducing the risk of birth defects and disease in newborns. Sadly, 75 percent of women do not get enough calcium, and 90 percent of women do not garner enough folate and vitamin E from their diet, according to Nutrition and Women’s Health, a research report compiled last year by the American Dietetic Association (ADA). And while pre-natal vitamins help, they can’t do the job alone—making your food choices a priority. Some of the top nutritionists in the country have named these nutrients as must-haves for a healthy pregnancy:

* Calcium, 1,200 mg: Enough calcium ensures that a pregnant woman will not lose her own bone density as the fetus uses the mineral for bone growth. Sources: milk, yogurt, cheese and broccoli.

* Folate, 400 mcg: This B vitamin and its synthetic form, folic acid, protect against brain and spinal cord, or “neural tube” defects, such as spina bifida. Since the fetus’s spinal cord closes after the first eight weeks of pregnancy—before many women discover they are pregnant—it is important that women eat cereals fortified with folic acid or take a supplement daily before getting pregnant. Sources: fortified cereals and breads, leafy greens, nuts, beans, and citrus fruits. (Vegans and other strict vegetarians should also take a supplement of vitamin B12, because low folate and vitamin B12 are independent risk factors for neural tube defects, according to the ADA’s latest report, Nutrition and Lifestyle for a Healthy Pregnancy Outcome.)

* Iron, 30 mg: Iron helps both the mother’s and baby’s blood carry oxygen, and is also needed for proper muscle and organ function. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend a low-dose iron supplement (30 mg/day) for all pregnant women, beginning at the first prenatal visit. More than 30 mg/day, however, can interfere with the absorption of other minerals. Sources: liver and other meat, eggs, fish, and leafy green vegetables.

* Protein, 60 g: The amino acids that make up protein fuel the multiplying cells within the fetus. The ADA recommends varying the sources of protein between two small servings of meat a day, with three servings of dairy. Omega 3 and 6 is good for you, but avoid large fish like tuna, shark, mackerel and swordfish, which have a high methyl mercury count. Sources: fish, various meats, eggs, dairy products and beans. (Vegetarians need to consult doctors for the best combination of foods.)

* Vitamin C, 70 mg: Vitamin C is necessary for collagen formation, strengthening membranes so they won’t rupture, according to a University of North Carolina study. The stronger your membranes, the less likely your baby will be born prematurely. Sources: fresh fruit and vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and kale. (Avoid too much juice due to excessive sugar levels; eat fruit instead.)

A Chemical that Aids in Memory Development

Looking for an excuse to have eggs every day for breakfast? Animal studies conclude that choline, a chemical found readily in eggs and liver, when taken during pregnancy, can aid in an infant’s memory development and may improve memory capability later in life. Steven H. Zeisel, M.D., Ph.D., head of the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health in Chapel Hill has led a series of studies that also support choline’s role in basic cell-to-cell communication. While his previous studies have all been on rats, he is currently studying humans and expects the same results.

“Choline is also known for preventing fat from accumulating in the liver, metabolizing fat and cholesterol, providing structure to cell membranes, facilitating cell-to-cell communication, and manufacturing the neurotransmitter responsible for memory centers and muscle contractions,” says Zeisel. He advises pregnant women to eat a balanced diet, but added that just one egg a day would help with choline needs. The best sources of choline are beef liver and eggs, and it is also found in smaller amounts in steak, cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, and peanuts.

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