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Choosing an antenatal supplement

If you're looking to enhance your diet with an antenatal supplement either before or during pregnancy read our essential guide on what to look for and what to avoid.
Do I need to take an antenatal supplement?

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is one way to help get your body in the best shape possible to conceive and nurture a baby. Ideally, you should try and get your 5 a day along with plenty of lean meat, fish, pulses and whole grains so that your body is treated to a varied supply of nutrients. However, it can sometimes be a good idea to enhance the goodness of your diet with an antenatal supplement just to make sure that you are getting a sufficient supply of the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs for pregnancy. This is especially true if you cut or restrict certain foods such as meat, wheat or dairy from your diet.

What should I look for in a supplement?

As supplements are not regulated in the UK there are no official recommendations as to what a good antenatal supplement should contain. However, the most important vitamins and minerals for preparing your body for pregnancy include:

Folic acid - It's recommended that you take at least 400 micrograms of folic acid a day for at least a month before you start trying to conceive and then for the first twelve weeks of your pregnancy as your baby's spine and nervous system develop. While we can get folate (the natural form of folic acid) from the food we eat, with leafy green vegetables, beams and whole grains being good sources, it's very difficult to get a sufficient supply. As research has shown that taking the recommended dose of folic acid both before and during the early stages of pregnancy can reduce the incidence of neural tube defects by up to 70% this is an essential vitamin for those trying to conceive. For more information on folic acid visit: http://www.askbaby.com/folic-acid.htm

Iron - It's a good idea to look for a supplement that includes iron as this will help to build up your reserves in preparation for when you become pregnant. Once you conceive the volume of blood in your body will increase to cater for both your own and your babies needs and this can make you more susceptible to anaemia, so ensuring you have a healthy intake is important. Iron is naturally found in green vegetables such as spinach, pulses and some dried fruits such as figs and apricots, so eating these regularly will help to give your iron reserves a boost too.

Calcium - All women should aim to consume around 1000mg of calcium a day regardless of whether they are pregnant or not. Because of the relatively large amounts needed it's unlikely that you'll be able to find a comprehensive antenatal supplement that will meet your daily calcium needs, however, they can be used to increase your intake to its recommended levels. As your body draws on its calcium stores to help your baby's bones to form during pregnancy it's important that you maintain your supply so that your keep your own bones strong and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis later in life. Dairy products, green leafy vegetables and some nuts and pulses are rich in natural calcium and so are useful to include on a daily basis.

What should I avoid?

All antenatal vitamin and mineral supplements should specify a list of ingredients along with the percentage of your 'RDA' (recommended daily allowance) that they represent. It's important that you don't exceed these doses on a daily basis as over time they can do more harm than good. Because of this it's advisable to avoid doubling up on any vitamins you are taking so that you never exceed 100% of your daily allowance.

It's especially important not to 'over dose' on vitamin A, as if you take this in large amounts while you are trying to conceive it can be harmful to your baby's development once you become pregnant. Many antenatal supplements will contain a certain amount of Vitamin A although this is likely to be derived from beta carotene, a plant derived extract that's safe for consumption before and during pregnancy. However, intake of retinal, the animal based form of vitamin A often found in fish oil supplements should be avoided wherever reasonably possible.

How should I take supplements?

If you decide to supplement your diet with an antenatal vitamin while you're trying to conceive, it's generally advisable to take them on a full stomach with a vitamin C rich drink (such as orange juice) as this can help you to absorb more of the beneficial nutrients.

It can be a good idea to discuss antenatal vitamins with your doctor as they will be in the best position to identify and advise you on your supplement needs.

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