What to Eat When You're Pregnant and Vegetarian : Other essential vitamins and minerals (part 1) - Vitamin A , Folic acid

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1. Vitamin A

What it’s for: This vitamin is needed for a strong immune system and the development of healthy skin and eyes. One of the first signs of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness, which is an inability to see in dim light. More severe deficiency can result in permanent eye damage. It is also important for the development of your baby’s lungs.

Amount needed: During pregnancy you need about 700µg of vitamin A (retinol equivalents1) per day. This increases to 950µg per day while breastfeeding.

Where it’s found: There are two forms of vitamin A: retinol and beta-carotene. Retinol is found in animal products, including eggs and milk, and beta-carotene is found in carrots and other orange fruit and vegetables.

  Vitamin A (µg) per 100g * Vitamin A per portion
Milk 25 75µg per half-pint/300ml
Eggs 190 110µg per egg
Carrots 2,230 1,780µg per 80g portion
Mango 116 19µg per 80g portion
Apricots 68 100µg per three apricots
Cantaloupe melon 283 435µg per 150g slice

*1ug of beta-carotene has the effect of approximately 6ug of retinol. The vitamin A content of the foods containing beta-carotene is given here as retinol equivalents. They don’t contain any retinol, but this allows direct comparison with the level of vitamin A that is recommended.

Source: Data taken from the UK Nutrient Databank © Crown copyright 2012

High intakes: Although you need some vitamin A, if you have too much, the levels in your body can build up, which can be a problem. Vitamin A in the form of retinol is teratogenic – a high intake (more than about 3,300µg per day) is associated with an increase in birth defects. This is why pregnant women should avoid liver, fish liver oils (e.g. cod liver oil) and other supplements containing large amounts of retinol. It is perfectly safe to eat other foods containing retinol, such as milk and eggs, as they contain less than 1% of the concentration found in liver. You can also eat foods containing beta-carotene without worrying; the worst effect this could have is to make your skin look slightly orange. Some experts believe that women need to increase their intake of beta-carotene during pregnancy, as vitamin A deficiency can be a real risk, particularly in women having twins or having babies close together.

2. Folic acid

What it’s for: Folic acid is one of the B vitamins and reduces the risk of your baby developing a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida. It also reduces the risk of cleft palate and harelip, and it works with vitamin B12 to form healthy red blood cells.

Amount needed: Women who aren’t pregnant or planning to have a baby need 200µg of folic acid per day. This increases to 300µg a day during pregnancy and 260µg per day if you are breastfeeding. You should also take a folic acid supplement before pregnancy and for the first 12 weeks . Vegetarians have higher folic acid intakes than non-vegetarians, but supplements are recommended for everyone, as it is almost impossible to get enough folic acid, in a form that is easily absorbed, from food alone.

Where it’s found: Folic acid is found naturally as folate in many fruits and vegetables. However, it is easily lost. For example, frozen peas contain 78µg of folate per 100g, but if you boil them in a pan of water this goes down to just 33µg per 100g. To preserve the folate, it is best to microwave, steam, cook in small amounts of water or add vegetables to dishes such as curry, where there is no cooking water to throw away. Folic acid is also added to many processed foods including some breakfast cereals, bread and yeast extract. Different brands are fortified with different amounts.

  Folate (µg) per 100g Folate per portion
Broccoli 75 60µg per 80g portion
Peas 55 44µg per 80g portion
Oranges 31 50µg per medium orange
Milk 8 25µg per half-pint/ 300ml
Marmite 2,500 100µg per 4g portion
Vegemite 2,000 80µg per 4g portion
Fruit and fibre cereal 125–250 50–100µg per 40g bowl
Bran flakes 300–400 120–160µg per 40g bowl
Oatmeal 60 30µg per 50g portion
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