The Keys to Unlocking a Healthy Pregnancy – Part I

By: Lucy Jones, MRES BSC Hons RD MBDA

October 7, 2016

The first 1000 days of a child’s development starts from the moment of conception and continues until their second birthday. This critical period is now accepted as being the most significant time in determining a person’s intellectual development in addition to their lifelong health.[1]

The nutrition we receive and food we eat during this time act as the critical building blocks for the growth of our bodies, the development of our brains and the health of our immune systems.[1] The impact of poor nutrition early in life can be irreversible and can impact that person’s ability to grow, learn and ultimately reach their potential.

Quite simply, there is no period in someone’s life when nutrition matters more.

Now that’s a lot of pressure for parents! Thankfully, we live in a time where the solutions are not only available, but affordable. Steps include ensuring moms and babies get the recommended vitamins and minerals as well as promoting healthy, varied and balanced diets in pregnancy, breastfeeding and weaning.[1]

While all aspects of diet are important in pregnancy, there are some particular nutrients worthy of extra special attention. These go beyond simply calories consumed, although this matters too. A recent study reported that ‘maternal deficiency in key nutrients has been linked to preeclampsia, restricted fetal growth, neural tube defects, skeletal deformity and low birth weight.’[2]

So what are these ‘key’ nutrients and how can we make sure we are having enough?

In this article – part one of two – I’ve chosen three of them to showcase their important role at this crucial time.

DHA Omega-3

One of the long chain omega-3 fatty acids – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – is the major structural fat in the brain. It not only maintains normal brain function, but contributes to babies’ brain and eye development.[3,4] Early years are the greatest period of brain growth; babies are born with 25 percent of their brain developed, by age three 80 percent of their brain has developed.[5] This means during the first two years of life; the brain needs to accumulate large amounts of DHA.[3] This nutrient is essential for babies’ brain development; researchers have found that infants born to mothers with higher blood levels of DHA at delivery had advanced levels of attention spans well into their second year of life. During the first six months of life, these infants were two months ahead of those babies whose mothers had lower DHA levels.[6]

Omega-3 fatty acids are therefore essential nutrients for health. Humans can’t make omega-3 fatty acids at meaningful levels, so we have to get them from our diet. Unfortunately, as well as being very important, the food sources of DHA are also pretty restricted. DHA is found in oily fish and other marine sources like algae and as such, intakes tend to be wholly dependent on people’s consumption of oily fish, which includes salmon, fresh tuna, mackerel, sardines, trout, herring and sprats.

Supplements can be a very useful bridge for moms who choose to avoid oily fish to ensure adequate intakes in pregnancy. A study sported by the Early Nutrition Academy recommends 200-300 mg of DHA omega-3 per day during pregnancy and while nursing. Otherwise women should aim for 1-2 portions of fish per week.


Choline is usually grouped within the B-complex vitamins and has been shown to play an important role in fetal and infant brain development, affecting the areas of the brain responsible for memory and life-long learning ability.[7] Moreover, research shows that choline may help prevent neural tube defects. Compared with women who get sufficient choline in their diets, women with diets low in choline have four times greater risk of having babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida.[8] Human breast milk is rich in choline to ensure an adequate supply to newborns. Eggs are the richest dietary source, followed by meats and fish so vegetarians and vegans need to pay particular attention to potential dietary sources or supplements.[9]


Iodine contributes to normal cognitive function, and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy it contributes to babies’ brain development. During pregnancy, the amount of iodine you need increases. This is because you have to make enough thyroid hormones to transfer to your baby to help its brain develop correctly. You also have to supply all the iodine that the baby needs10.

Iodine deficiency in pregnancy can have serious consequences for your child so it is really important that you meet that higher iodine requirement if you are pregnant. Breast-feeding moms also need a higher amount of iodine, so their breast milk has enough iodine for their baby. This is because the brain is still developing at that early stage.[10]

The main source of iodine in our diets is often milk and other dairy foods although it is found in higher amounts in fish (especially white fish like cod and haddock), seafood and sea plants.[10] A large UK study has shown that two thirds of pregnant women are iodine deficient with low levels in pregnancy reducing their children’s IQ and reading ability aged 8-9.[11]  The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that pregnant women should have 250 mcg every day.

I’ll be discussing three other nutrients that help to support a healthy pregnancy in my next article.  Stay tuned!


1.      First 1000 days Nutrition (2016) Accessed from Last Accessed 8th September 2016

2.      DTB (2016) Vitamin Supplementation in Pregnancy. Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin vol 54, no 7: pg. 81-84.

3.     EFSA (2014) Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of a health claim related to DHA and contribution to normal brain development pursuant to Article 14 of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA Journal. 12(10):3840 [8 pp.]

4.     EFSA (2011) Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and brain, eye and nerve development (ID 501, 513, 540), maintenance of normal brain function (ID 497, 501, 510, 513, 519, 521, 534, 540, 688, 1323, 1360, 4294), maintenance of normal vision (ID 508, 510, 513, 519, 529, 540, 688, 2905, 4294), maintenance of normal cardiac function (ID 510, 688, 1360), “maternal health; pregnancy and nursing” (ID 514), “to fulfil increased omega-3 fatty acids need during pregnancy” (ID 539), “skin and digestive tract epithelial cells maintenance” (ID 525), enhancement of mood (ID 536), “membranes cell structure” (ID 4295), “anti-inflammatory action” (ID 4688) and maintenance of normal blood LDL-cholesterol concentrations (ID 4719) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA Journal. 9(4):2078 [30 pp.].

5.      The Urban Child Institute (2016) Baby’s brain begins now: Conception to Age 3. Accessed from Last Accessed 8th September 2016

6.      Kannass KN, Colombo J, Carlson SE (2009) Maternal DHA levels and Toddler Free-Play Attention. Dev Neuropsychol. Vol 34(2): 159–174.

7.      Zeisel SH. Choline: Needed for normal development of memory. JACN 2000;19(5):528S-531S.

8.      Shaw GM, Finnell RH, Blom HJ, Carmichael SL, Vollset SE, Yang W, Ueland PM (2009). Choline and risk of neural tube defects in a folate-fortified population. Epidemiology. 20(5):714-9

9.      Shaw GM, Finnell RH, Blom HJ, Carmichael SL, Vollset SE, Yang W, Ueland PM (2009). Choline and risk of neural tube defects in a folate-fortified population. Epidemiology. 20(5):714-9

10.   British Dietetic Association (2016) Iodine Food Facts Sheet. Accessed from Last Accessed 8th September 2016

11.   Bath SC, Steer CD, Prof Golding J, Emmett P, Prof Rayman MP (2013) Effect of inadequate iodine status in UK pregnant women on cognitive outcomes in their children: results from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). The Lancet. Volume 382, No. 9889, p331–337

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