Best Baby-Builders

Include these nutritional superstars in your prenatal diet.


Every year, scientists uncover information about the critical role nutrients play in the mental and physical development of the fetus, including their ability to reduce the risk of birth defects and disease in newborns. Prenatal vitamins can help, but they can't do the job alone, which is why your diet is so important.

The basics: Try to eat 300 extra calories a day, focusing on vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein; they're the best sources of the important nutrients highlighted here. Limit fat to 30 to 35 percent of calories daily, and sugar to no more than 10 percent of calories. During your second and third trimesters, add two snacks a day (see "Power Snacks," below).

Calcium (1,000 mg):

Your developing baby needs this mineral for bone growth. Getting an adequate amount also can help prevent you from losing bone density during pregnancy.

A Day's Worth of Calcium: 1 cup 2% milk, 1 cup instant fortified oatmeal, a salad with 1 cup chicory greens, 1 ounce cheddar cheese and 1 cup low-fat yogurt.

Get Calcium at GNC Live Well

Folate (600 mcg):

This B vitamin and its synthetic form, folic acid, protect against defects of the fetus's brain and spinal cord, such as spina bifida. Because these neural-tube defects develop in the first 28 days after conception—before many women realize they are pregnant—experts say it is essential that all women of childbearing age eat foods rich in folate or fortified with folic acid, and that they take a daily supplement before becoming pregnant.

A Day's Worth of Folate: 1 cup orange juice from concentrate, 1 cup fortified oatmeal and 1¼ cup chickpeas.

Iron (27 mg):

Iron helps both your and your growing baby's blood carry oxygen, and plays an important role in proper muscle and organ function. Vitamin C aids absorption of iron from foods such as dairy, vegetables, fruits, grains and eggs; a 5-ounce glass of orange juice or a cup of steamed broccoli is enough to get the job done.

A Day's Worth of Iron: 1 cup fortified oatmeal, 2 slices whole-wheat bread, 3 ounces broiled beef tenderloin, 1 baked potato with skin and 2 cups cooked spinach.

Protein (71 g):

The amino acids in protein are responsible for tissue growth and repair in your body as well as your baby's. "One way to get enough protein each day is to consume two 3-ounce servings of meat, plus three servings of dairy products," says Lola O'Rourke, M.S., R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"For vegetarians, beans, eggs and nuts are good meat-free sources of protein." Avoid eating fish with high mercury content such as shark, mackerel and swordfish; safer types of fish such as salmon and flounder are OK, just don't limit your intake to one type or exceed 12 ounces of fish per week.

A Day's Worth of Protein: 1 cup reduced-fat (2%) milk, 1 egg, 3 ounces turkey breast, 1¼ cup baby lima beans and 3 ounces salmon.

Vitamin C (85 mg):

A recent study shows that vitamin C may help prevent preterm delivery. Researchers suspect this nutrient may be necessary for proper collagen formation (it's essential for strengthening your body's membranes).

"You need a good amount of vitamin C to prevent premature rupture of the amniotic membranes, which causes preterm delivery," says Anna Maria Siega-Riz, Ph.D., R.N., L.D.N., lead researcher of the study, sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The analysis of more than 2,000 pregnant women showed that daily intakes of 21 mg or less during the first trimester doubled the risk of preterm delivery.

A Day's Worth of Vitamin C: (One of the following) 1 medium navel orange, 1 cup broccoli, 1 cup cantaloupe or 1 cup strawberries.

Note: Nutrient amounts are from the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Medicine Dietary Reference Intakes guidelines for pregnancy.

Power Snacks

-1 ounce baked tortilla chips (about 16 chips) with 1¼ cup salsa (150 calories)

-5 whole-wheat crackers with 1 ounce reduced-fat cheddar cheese (160 calories)

-1 medium apple with 1 tablespoon peanut butter (165 calories)

-1 hard-boiled egg and 3¼ cup calcium-fortified orange juice (160 calories)

-1¼ cup frozen yogurt drizzled with 1 tablespoon chocolate syrup (165 calories)

-Smoothie made from 1 cup vanilla soy milk, 1 1/2 cups fresh strawberries and 1 tablespoon wheat germ (170 calories)

-1 multigrain waffle topped with 1 tablespoon light cream cheese and 2 teaspoons apricot preserves (160 calories)

-1 1/2 cup low-fat vanilla ice cream topped with 1 tablespoon each dried cherries and low-fat granola (160 calories)

The Importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

No specific daily amount has been recommended for pregnancy; however, it is known that omega-3 fatty acids (one type is docosahexaenoic acid, commonly known as DHA) help boost your growing baby's brain, eye and neurological development. And, research findings point to a reduction in prenatal depression in women who have an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids.

Australian researchers are currently recruiting expectant women for a trial to determine the effectiveness of taking a fish oil supplement during pregnancy to ward off postnatal depression. Best sources of omega-3's: fattier varieties of fish, such as lake trout, Atlantic salmon, sturgeon and canned sardines. Flaxseed, tofu, walnuts and canola oil also are good sources.