The importance of proper nutrition throughout pregnancy has long been established for optimising the health and well-being of both mother and baby. Pregnancy is a period of elevated metabolic demands with changes in a pregnant person’s physiology and the requirements of a growing fetus. Deficiency in the supplies of essential vitamins and micronutrients can lead to a state of biological competition between the mother and foetus, which can be unfavourable to the health status of both.
A healthy diet is a crucial consideration for optimum development and health of the foetus and the well-being of the mother. Micronutrients known as antioxidants play a vital role in planning a healthy diet to promote pregnancy health. This is because oxidative stress is generated during placental development and can harm fetal development when excessive amounts are not neutralised. Deficiency of trace elements during pregnancy has been seen to be closely associated with increasing the risk of foetal mortality and morbidity.1
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are chemicals that protect cells from peroxidation reactions and prevent adverse outcomes resulting from cellular damage. These reactions result from oxidative stress, where an excess reactive oxygen species (ROS), an unstable form of an oxygen molecule also referred to as ‘free radicals’, can cause damage to our DNA, lipids and cellular proteins.2 Antioxidants are stable molecules that can reduce oxidative stress by scavenging free radicals and donating an electron to their unstable structure, ultimately neutralizing them and reducing their capacity to damage cellular content.3 Oxidative stress has also been implicated in many events involving reproductive and pregnancy disorders, increasing the risk of conditions such as miscarriages, preeclampsia and preterm labour.2
Hence, a healthy, balanced diet is essential during pregnancy, and consuming foods rich in antioxidants can be considered a preventative measure in the development of pregnancy disorders.
Essential antioxidants for pregnancy health.
Vitamin C plays a dual role as an essential water-soluble micronutrient involved in collagen synthesis and as an antioxidant in reducing free radicals. Unlike animals, humans are not capable of synthesizing vitamin C and require dietary consumption to maintain body storage. Vitamin C intake is crucial for a healthy standard diet during pregnancy as it is documented to have been actively transported across the placenta to support fetal growth. Additionally, vitamin C intake prevents conditions such as infantile scurvy, iron-deficiency anaemia and megaloblastic anaemia.4
Sources of vitamin C
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, leafy greens (turnip, mustard, beet, collards), honeydew, kale, kiwi, lemon, orange, papaya, snow peas, strawberries, sweet potato, tomatoes, and bell peppers (all colours).8
- Intake of Vitamin E may benefit pregnant women due to its antioxidant activity in preventing oxidation and free-radical formation in cells.
- Vitamin E supplementation has been documented to prevent the damaging effects of alcohol poisoning on fetal cerebral development and even maternal diabetes on the fetus, suggesting its intake to be effective in ensuring healthy fetal development.5
Sources of vitamin E
Almonds, avocado, Swiss chard, leafy greens (beet, mustard, turnip), peanuts, red peppers, spinach (boiled), and sunflower seeds.8
Beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor)
Vitamin A is an essential antioxidant necessary for the growth and differentiation of specialised cells, leading to the formation of tissues and organs. This is also the case in fetal development, where vitamin A is one of the most crucial vitamins during pregnancy and the breastfeeding period. Its intake is associated with healthy lung development and the maturation of fetuses and newborns. The American Paediatric Association has stated that inadequate vitamin A supplementation during pregnancy cannot be rectified with postnatal compensation, underscoring its importance and necessity during fetal development.6
Sources of beta carotenoids, including lycopene
Apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, bell peppers, kale, mangoes, turnip and collard greens, oranges, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, winter squash, spinach, sweet potato, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon.8
Selenium is a mineral and a micronutrient with antioxidant properties that can boost antioxidant defence and limit oxidative damage. As increased oxidative stress during pregnancy is strongly associated with adverse outcomes such as miscarriages, gestational diabetes, and premature rupture of membranes, selenium intake may benefit fetal development and serve as a preventive measure against pregnancy-related conditions.7
Sources of selenium
Brazil nuts, fish, shellfish, beef, poultry, barley, brown rice.8
Zinc is an essential constituent of metalloenzymes and is crucial in carbohydrate and protein metabolism, nucleic acid synthesis and antioxidant functions. It is an essential component for cell division and differentiation, hence necessary for successful embryogenesis. 1
Sources of zinc
Phenolic compounds can inhibit enzymes associated with the development of human diseases and have been used to treat various common human ailments, including hypertension, metabolic problems, incendiary infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Sources of phenolic compounds
Quercetin (apples, red wine, onions), catechins (tea, cocoa, berries), resveratrol (red and white wine, grapes, peanuts, berries), coumaric acid (spices, berries), anthocyanins (blueberries, strawberries).8
Incorporating antioxidant-rich foods into the pregnancy diet
Given our current understanding of the importance of antioxidants during pregnancy for fetal growth, it is crucial to increase the intake of antioxidant-rich foods in a pregnancy diet. Here are some examples of antioxidant-rich foods you can find in your local grocery store:8
- Brazil Nuts
- Berries: Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries
Pregnancy-safe and antioxidant-rich recipe ideas
- Chicken fajita
A chicken fajita recipe is versatile and packed with ingredients that are rich in antioxidants. Ingredients such as chicken are a good source of protein and zinc, while vegetables such as bell peppers, kale and onions are abundant with antioxidants. This recipe provided is an excellent example of a healthy fajita recipe that can be adjusted to your preferences.9
- Mango chia pudding
This refreshing dessert idea is a healthy yet delicious alternative to your typical ice cream. Filled with mangoes and chia seeds, this dessert is rich in flavour, fibre, antioxidants and protein. You can also use plant-based milk for this recipe if you’re vegan. This recipe can be a base for your puddings, and feel free to customise it with different fruits and nuts to make it your own.10
- Mango green smoothie
A mango green smoothie is always a great choice for hot summer days or as a snack during the day if you’re hungry but not in the mood for a meal. This recipe, recommended by the author Taylor for its deliciousness and nutritional content, is filled with spinach, mango and lemon. This smoothie has also been developed to alleviate symptoms of nausea and digestive issues.11
Currently, there hasn’t been any research explicitly recommending a specific dosage for the intake of many antioxidants. However, please follow the recommended dosage if you use antioxidant supplements. It’s also essential to note that while consuming fruits and vegetables is healthy, moderation is the key to avoiding unknown adverse outcomes. Additionally, consult with your doctor before making any significant diet changes.
- Excessive free radicals contribute to chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, cognitive decline, and vision loss.
- Increased knowledge about the importance of these specific antioxidant micronutrients and the crucial part that they have in maintaining successful pregnancy and determining both the long- and short-term health of both mother and baby needs to be addressed and made a key focus for future health strategies in improving pregnancy outcomes.1
- Antioxidants are essential micronutrients and should always be part of your daily meals through the intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and protein. This is especially important during pregnancy when you’re feeding for two.
- If you find it challenging to maintain a consistent intake of antioxidants, spice up your favourite meals with some antioxidant-rich foods. Alternatively, try out new recipes that are both delicious and healthy for your pregnancy.
- Mistry HD, Williams PJ. The importance of antioxidant micronutrients in pregnancy. Oxid Med Cell Longev [Internet]. 2011 [cited 2023 Aug 12];2011:841749. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3171895/
- Duhig K, Chappell LC, Shennan AH. Oxidative stress in pregnancy and reproduction. Obstet Med [Internet]. 2016 Sep [cited 2023 Aug 14];9(3):113–6. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5010123/
- Lobo V, Patil A, Phatak A, Chandra N. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2023 Aug 14];4(8):118–26. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249911/
- Rumbold A, Ota E, Nagata C, Shahrook S, Crowther CA. Vitamin C supplementation in pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. 2015 Sep 29 [cited 2023 Aug 17];2015(9): CD004072. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9039972/
- Boskovic R, Gargaun L, Oren D, Djulus J, Koren G. Pregnancy outcome following high doses of Vitamin E supplementation. Reprod Toxicol. 2005;20(1):85–8. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0890623805000079.
- Strobel M, Tinz J, Biesalski H-K. Beta-carotene is important as a source of vitamin A, with special regard to pregnant and breastfeeding women. Eur J Nutr. 2007 Jul;46 Suppl 1:I1-20. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s00394-007-1001-z.
- Biswas K, McLay J, Campbell FM. Selenium supplementation in pregnancy-maternal and newborn outcomes. J Nutr Metab [Internet]. 2022 May 4 [cited 2023 Aug 23];2022:4715965. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9095401/
- Avenue 677 Huntington, Boston, Ma 02115. Antioxidants. The Nutrition Source. 2012 [cited 2023 Aug 24]. Available from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants/
- Haas S. Sheet-Pan Chicken Fajita Bowls. EatingWell [Internet]. [cited 2023 Aug 24]. Available from: https://www.eatingwell.com/recipe/274851/sheet-pan-chicken-fajita-bowls/.
- Karo. All Nutritious [Internet]. 2021 Mango chia pudding; [cited 2023 Aug 24]. Available from: https://allnutritious.com/mango-chia-pudding/
- Yip V. Smoothies to Enjoy When Pregnant. Verywell Family [Internet]. [cited 2023 Oct 31]. Available from: https://www.verywellfamily.com/smoothies-to-enjoy-when-pregnant-5191427.