Calcium Is The Healthy Pregnancy Essential Every Woman Needs To Know About

Photo: Gabriel (Gabi) Bucataru

Pregnancy is a time when nutritional needs change in order to support healthy fetal development as well as the mother's body. However, it can be a challenging time to navigate, thanks to information overload, anxiety about whether you're making the right choices, and all of the physical, mental, and emotional changes you need to adjust to. Even women who generally have a good handle on eating well can feel thrown off and confused. Morning sickness, mood swings, fatigue, and other pregnancy symptoms can make navigating nutrition, like prenatal vitamins, other supplements like folic acid, DHA, and vitamin D, meals, and snacks so tricky.

Whenever I start working with a client who’s either pregnant or preparing to start a family, we talk about nutritional basics and how to work through challenges. Calcium is one of the main nutrients to stay on top of. Here’s what you need to know about this mineral and how to work it into your diet.

Calcium pregnancy benefits.

Calcium is a mineral that’s important for building and maintaining strong bones and for carrying out a large number of body processes such as cell signaling involved in muscle and nerve function and helping blood vessels transport blood through the body. The recommended daily allowance for calcium for adult women in pregnancy is 1000 mg. 1300 mg is the RDA for 14 to 18 year olds who are pregnant.

In pregnancy, calcium is needed to support development of healthy teeth, heart, blood vessels, and more in your baby. Not getting enough calcium (and vitamin D during pregnancy) may also increase your risk for pre-eclampsia, a serious condition in which dangerously high blood pressure causes kidney problems and can put the mother and baby’s life at risk.

Food sources of calcium.

Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese are perhaps the best-known sources of calcium. It's worth noting that cheese is not always fortified with vitamin D even though milk and yogurt are. They’re also great sources of protein and vitamin D, two other nutrients also important during pregnancy. Yogurt and kefir also offer the benefits of probiotic bacteria, which can be helpful for supporting regular digestion and overall gut health. Talk to your doctor about safety concerns around unpasteurized dairy products and certain soft cheeses.

Also important: Go slow with sugary stuff like sweetened yogurt and ice cream. Once in a while is totally OK, but when they’re a regular part of your diet, they could mess with your blood sugar and energy levels. A constant blood sugar roller coaster ride could also up your risk of gestational diabetes.

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Avoiding dairy?

Fortunately, there are plenty of nondairy calcium sources. Kale, broccoli, and other leafy greens provide a small amount, and you’ll also find it in tofu, almonds, white beans, sesame seeds, and some whole grains. Fish with soft bones like canned salmon and sardines are good sources of calcium. Calcium-fortified nondairy milks, juices, and grain products are also an option.

Pregnancy is a time when some women who previously limited dairy decide to reintroduce it in order to help them meet their calcium needs. If you’re worried about how you’ll feel, start with a small serving a day or even every few days and see how it goes—you can always increase from there. A lot of women find it helpful to test it out on a day or at a time they don’t have to be out running around or tackling an epic to-do list. For example, you could add a few tablespoons of cheese to a salad or a little bit of plain yogurt to a smoothie. Just make sure you’re still covering your calcium bases through the other foods you’re eating.

Spacing your intake of calcium-rich foods throughout the day can make it less overwhelming to get the amount you need. Incorporating plenty of nutrient-dense foods at all meals helps ensure your body is able to efficiently utilize the calcium you’re consuming. You can easily pack a lot of healthy, tasty stuff into meals and snacks like smoothies, salads, and bowls—great ways to make sure you’re covered.

When to take a calcium supplement.

If you’re having a hard time meeting your needs through food alone, a supplement can be used to cover the gap. Calcium is often included in multivitamin supplements, and you’ll also see calcium supplements with other minerals such as magnesium and zinc. Vitamin D is also commonly included in calcium supplements and prenatal vitamins because vitamin D enhances calcium absorption.

The two main types of calcium supplements are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium carbonate is best absorbed with food, whereas calcium citrate is generally well-absorbed on either a full or empty stomach. The acid in the calcium citrate allows your body to absorb it more easily, whereas calcium carbonate needs the stomach acid produced during digestion of food to help with absorption. If clients are taking more than 500 mg per day, I’ll encourage splitting it up to enhance absorption, since the body generally effectively absorbs only about 500 mg at a time. Splitting a large dose into smaller ones can also help prevent certain side effects like gas, bloating, and constipation.

Getting too much calcium is more common with supplements than food, so remember that getting enough is important, but more is not always better. Scope out labels to see what you’re getting. Some signs that you might be getting too much calcium include constipation and, in more severe cases, kidney stones.

Also important: Don't freak out!

It’s easy to get overwhelmed or beat yourself up if you have a day when you feel way off track, but this is a time to be patient with yourself. During pregnancy, every week—and sometimes it feels like every day—can be a different story, so try to take the big-picture view and focus on having a healthy baby. If you have persistent problems that make it hard to meet your nutritional needs, talk to your doctor or a dietitian to help you come up with a workable plan.

Confused about the vitamins and supplements to take in pregnancy? Check out our guide to prenatal vitamins, including the benefits of vitamin D supplements and folic acid supplements.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.

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