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Prenatal Vitamins: Are They Really Necessary?

I have a confession to make: I didn’t take my prenatal vitamins. I took folic acid before and around conception. And tried to keep up in the first trimester; but the iron supplements made me constipated and miserable. Early into the second trimester I stopped all together.

I’ve long known that I was bucking a trend; prenatals are standard issue for the newly pregnant. For months it seems like all you’re told to do, is “take your vitamins.”  Prenatal vitamins include lots of good things but the biggies are: iron, folate, and calcium.  But do we really need them? According to a nutrition expert in Australia the answer is yes, no and maybe.

Maria Makrides, Professor of Human Nutrition, at the University of Adelaide has come out to say there’s very little evidence to support taking iron and iodine (which is on the list of recommended supplements in Australia) before or during pregnancy. She claims the recommendations that women take these supplements is driven by the supplement industry.

“When studies have been done where women take (iron) supplements it does not change the outcome of their pregnancy, or the development of the child, and it may even be related to an increase in behavioural problems. And with iodine we just don’t have the information.”

She stands by the folic acid recommendation– folic acid taken around conception and in early pregnancy can reduce the chances of neural tube defects in babies.

My mother was skeptical of the burgeoning vitamin culture of the 1970s. She wasn’t buying it. My siblings and I had a healthy diet at home. Nothing fancy. But nothing processed. We rebelled when we were old enough to go to 7/11 and buy fruit loops with our lawn mowing money but as adults we’re all fit and healthy.

When I became pregnant, I, like many, found prenatals hard to stomach. I tried some less barfy chewables that helped a little. But as the daughter of my mother, I felt certain that eating a healthy diet would be enough. My diet probably wasn’t “optimal”: I got nowhere near the 5 servings of leafy greens recommended by some pregnancy nutrition books! I ate cereal, toast, sandwiches, salads, chocolate, cheese, juice, milk. Maybe it was just right. I certainly will never know– the idea of sitting down and figuring out precisely how many milligrams of each vitamin I was getting each day was not going to happen.

My feeling was: This has been going on for so many hundreds of thousands of years with nary a GNC in site. As long as I don’t abuse my body, I figured things should be OK. I know this may sound irresponsible to some of you, but I’m talking about my own situation here. This is not a PSA. I know that supplements are important when dietary needs are not being met due to serious nausea, aversions and/or the processed food diet typical for most Americans.

Neither my ob for my first pregnancy, nor my midwife for the second, were particularly concerned about my lack of vitamin supplementation. I recall they both encouraged early folic acid. They both talked to me about iron and calcium-rich foods and ways to maximize their absorption. But in general the response was: Are you eating healthy food? Great.

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