Nutrients for pregnancy

What nutrients are vital to your unborn baby’s health and development, and what foods are they found in?


When you’re pregnant, folic acid, B vitamins, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, antioxidants (that’s vitamins A, C and E), and essential fatty acids (that’s omega-3 and omega-6) are important for foetal development.


Folic acid and B vitamins

Folic acid is important in preventing spina bifida and other neural tube defects in your baby. Folic acid and B vitamins – especially B12 – are needed to produce genetic materials like DNA, essential for foetal development.

Folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 also control homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that has been linked to miscarriage.

How much do I need daily?

  • Folic acid: 400mcg
  • Vitamin B12: 1.5mcg
  • Vitamin B6: 1.2mg

Current advice is to take a folic acid supplement three to four months prior to conception, and through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

What foods are B vitamins and folic acid found in?

  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Yeast extract
  • Oranges
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Lamb
  • Eggs
  • Banana
  • Wholegrain bread
  • Fortified cereals
  • Cheese, but not blue or unpasteurised cheese
  • Beans
  • Pulses


Iron is essential to make red blood cells and to transport oxygen around your body. You need more than usual during pregnancy.

“Iron is vital for physical growth and brain development, and helps produce the blood required to supply nutrition to the placenta,” says midwife and lecturer Maggie Evans

Not enough iron, and you can feel tired and be more susceptible to infections. There’s also a greater risk of premature birth and your baby having a low birth weight. Too much iron can result in low zinc levels, which can lead to pregnancy complications. There’s also a risk of developing hemochromatosis (an overload of iron).

Iron supplements can cause constipation, so finding the balance is important.

Vitamin C helps iron absorption, whereas wine, tea and coffee all contain tannins that block iron absorption.

How much do I need daily?

  • 14.8mg

Only take an iron supplement if your doctor advises you to.

What food is iron found in?

  • Lean meat
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Oily fish
  • Cereals
  • Baked beans
  • Dried fruit
  • Dark green leafy vegetables


Low zinc levels have been linked to low birth weight, spina bifida and other abnormalities.

Zinc is vital for fertility. If you’re trying to conceive, make sure you and your partner are both getting sufficient amounts of zinc. Deficiency can cause chromosome changes, leading to reduced fertility and increased risk of miscarriage.

How much do I need daily?

  • 7mg

What food is zinc found in?

  • Seafood
  • Dairy products, especially hard cheese
  • Wholegrain cereals
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Lentils

Mum’s story

“I really needed more iron”

“I have never been iron deficient, but I am vegetarian and I found that I felt really wobbly in pregnancy if I hadn’t eaten enough food. Once I started taking a supplement with iron in I felt so much better. I had made sure my diet was iron rich but I think in pregnancy it just wasn’t enough.”

Andrea, 35, mum to Katie, 2

Getting enough calcium may reduce the risk of hypertension and osteoporosis.

Calcium and vitamin D

Calcium is essential for building your baby’s bones and teeth, and is vital for her heart and nervous system.

Vitamin D and magnesium help you absorb calcium.

During pregnancy, you absorb more calcium from the food you eat, but you still need to have three serves of calcium-rich foods a day.

Getting enough calcium may reduce the risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension and protect you from pregnancy-associated osteoporosis.

How much do I need daily?

  • Calcium: 700mg
  • Vitamin D: 10mcg

What food is calcium found in?

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Oranges
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice
  • Bread
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

What food is vitamin D found in?

Fortified foods such as:

  • Milk
  • Soya milk
  • Vegetable margarine
  • Butter
  • Oily fish
  • Eggs


As well as helping you absorb calcium, magnesium is important for heart health and for relaxing your muscles (so it’s great for those leg cramps!).

How much do I need daily?

  • 270mg

What food is magnesium found in?

  • Wholewheat bread
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Pulses
  • Green leafy vegetables
Organic milk? The Food Standards Agency has no opinion on whether organic food is better.

Antioxidants – vitamins A, C, E

Vitamins A, C and E are powerful antioxidants, vital for protecting your baby while she develops in the womb.

Very high doses of Vitamin A could make you sick and may cause birth defects, so it’s advised that you avoid liver products. However, the plant form of vitamin A, beta-carotene, is safe for you and your baby.

For your developing baby, vitamin A is essential for healthy eyes.

Vitamin C helps in the formation of collagen, a protein found in connection tissue, cartilage and bone.

Vitamin E can help prevent low birth weight, the risk of premature delivery and pre-eclampsia.

How much do I need daily?

  • Vitamin A: 700mcg (it’s toxic when taken in excess of 3,000mcg)
  • Vitamin C: 50mg
  • Vitamin E: 5mg

What food is vitamin A found in?

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Spinach
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Dried apricots

What food is vitamin C found in?

  • Citrus fruits, such as oranges
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Kiwi fruit

What food is vitamin E found in?

  • Wheat
  • Oats
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Sardines
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Essential fatty acids – omega-3, omega-6

Essential fatty acids are crucial for your unborn baby’s growth and development, particularly his brain, retina and nervous system. Our brains are made up of 60% fat!

Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are especially important during your last trimester, when your baby’s brain goes through a tremendous growth spurt. 

How much do I need daily?

The Food Standards Agency recommends at least one portion of oily fish a week, but no more than two during pregnancy, due to possible levels of pollutants.

Generally, 1g of omega-3 oil in liquid or capsule form is fine, but not cod liver oil.

What food is omega-3 found in?

  • Oily fish, like salmon, sardines and mackerel
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Flaxseed
  • Walnuts
  • Soya beans
  • Pumpkin seeds

What food is omega-6 found in?

  • Vegetable oils
  • Most nuts
  • Most seeds

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