If you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, chances are you’re taking prenatal vitamins or have considered taking them.
While there is nothing wrong with wanting to give your body a bit of a nutritional boost, make you sure you don’t fall for these 6 common prenatal vitamin myths:
PRENATAL VITAMIN MYTH #1
Prenatal vitamins improve the health of mothers and their babies
Many women instinctively buy prenatal vitamins the second they find out they’re pregnant in order to give their babies a better head start. This was my reasonable assumption when I was pregnant with my first child as well.
In reality, there is no scientific consensus that routine prenatal vitamin supplementation in developed countries improves the health of mothers and their babies.
There are a few exceptions isolated to some of the prenatal multivitamin nutrients though:
— FOLIC ACID / FOLATE
Folic acid/folate is the only component of a prenatal multivitamin that has been scientifically proven to be helpful in pregnancy. Also known as vitamin B9, this nutrient plays an important role in fetal development by helping prevent major birth abnormalities like neural tube defects.
The terms folic acid and folate are used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.
FOLATE is the natural form of vitamin B9 and can be found in many foods.
FOLIC ACID is a synthetic form of folate that can lead to a folate deficiency in SOME pregnant women which it’s actually supposed to prevent. Beware of folic acid if you’re pregnant and don’t know your MTHFR status.
Pregnant women need more iron than non-pregnant women in order to make more blood to supply oxygen to the baby. In fact, about 4 pounds of total pregnancy weight gain can be attributed just to the extra blood supply.
Pregnant women don’t need extra iron until about the second half of pregnancy though (unless they’re deficient in iron!) which is when the blood volume starts rising.
Research shows that supplemental iron can be helpful in pregnancy for women diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia (which is detected early on in pregnancy through a standard blood test).
On the other hand, taking iron supplements as a precautionary measure in pregnant women with normal iron levels doesn’t appear to have any noticeable health benefits.
— VITAMIN D
There is some evidence that VITAMIN D can be helpful in pregnancy, but the research surrounding vitamin D is relatively new and not very thorough.
PRENATAL VITAMIN MYTH #2
Poor nutrition in pregnancy can be fixed by taking prenatal vitamins
While it’s true that women that don’t obtain enough nutrients from their diets alone will benefit from taking prenatal vitamins preconceptually and during pregnancy, there is no substitute for REAL nutrition from REAL food.
Even if you take prenatal vitamins, you’ll still need to do your very best in eating a healthy and varied diet when you’re pregnant.
Take CALCIUM, for example.
Calcium is a crucial nutrient during pregnancy. Calcium helps with a healthy development of bones, muscles, nerves, and teeth. That’s a lot of stuff, right?
Give or take, prenatal vitamins may contain anywhere around 150 – 300 milligrams of calcium. Pregnant women need at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily though!
PRENATAL VITAMIN MYTH #3
All prenatal vitamins are alike – just grab a box!
This prenatal vitamin myth is fairly common, and it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
(1) Synthetic vs. Whole food vs. Food-based vitamins
The majority of prenatal vitamins (like all other multivitamins) on the market are synthetic.
SYNTHETIC USP VITAMINS are created in a lab with isolates separated from their natural compounds. Even though they may be chemically identical to natural vitamins, your body might have a hard time utilizing them because nothing beats real nutrition from real food.
WHOLE FOOD VITAMINS are derived from whole foods. While they’re still heavily processed, they aren’t separated from their natural co-factors and tend to be better absorbed than their synthetic counterparts.
FOOD-BASED VITAMINS are almost always synthetic USP vitamins mixed with a small amount of food.
Some prenatal vitamins contain questionable ingredients and unnecessary additives and fillers. This is why squinting over the lists of ingredients on prenatal vitamins pays off!
(3) Variety of nutrients
There are no standards to the composition of a prenatal multivitamin (that’s not a bad thing though). The content of nutrients and their amounts can vary significantly from one prenatal vitamin to another.
Some prenatal vitamins contain extra nutrients while some are targeted for women that have a higher need for iron, folic acid, or other nutrients. Always read labels and choose the right prenatal multivitamin according to YOUR specific nutritional needs.
PRENATAL VITAMIN MYTH #4
Taking prenatal vitamins improves fertility
Taking prenatal vitamins in the months leading up to conception can help prevent serious birth defects, but it does not improve the odds of getting pregnant. Sorry!
PRENATAL VITAMIN MYTH #5
PRESCRIPTION prenatal vitamins are better than OTC prenatal vitamins
For a second there you may believe that prescription prenatal vitamins are superior. They have to be prescribed, they’re doctor-approved, they may contain more folic acid or other nutrients. They’re probably safer and better…?
[They’re probably not.]
Unless you have specific health issues or nutritional deficiencies, you don’t need your doctor to prescribe any specific prenatal vitamins or other supplements for you. There are plenty of great prenatal vitamins on the market to choose from.
I’m even willing to bet that most (if not all?) fancy schmancy prenatal vitamins that require a script are strictly synthetic and contain fishy ingredients. Don’t take my word for it though. It’s just my assumption.
PRENATAL VITAMIN MYTH #6
Prenatal vitamins may reduce the risk of autism
OK, this one may only be a partial myth. I’ll explain.
“Several studies have indicated that babies of mothers that took a prenatal multivitamin before and during pregnancy may be less likely to have autism.”
Just imagine prenatal multivitamins flying off the shelves all of a sudden. We’ll do anything to protect our babies, so for a lot of women that weren’t so much into taking a prenatal multivitamin during pregnancy, this could have easily been the tipping point.
When in reality, this should have been read as…
“Several studies have indicated that babies of mothers that took folic acid or a prenatal multivitamin containing folic acid before and during pregnancy may be less likely to have autism.”
This means that a relatively cheap folic acid / folate supplement (I recommend choosing folate if you don’t know your MTHFR status in order to prevent deficiency of usable folic acid) would do the trick if these findings are indeed true. Or, better yet, focus on eating a lot of folate-rich foods prior to and during pregnancy for a sure way of optimizing your folate levels.
Still, while I don’t think this is an absurd theory, I wouldn’t get too excited just yet.
We’re talking about observational studies.
The women that took part in these studies have not been assigned any particular supplements and followed up thereafter. These studies simply recorded a behavior from the past. A behavior that may or may not have happened.
These studies didn’t take into account other factors.
Women that take supplements during pregnancy may be health-conscious in other ways which could also possibly reduce the chances of having a child with autism.
It’ll be interesting to see the outcome of broader studies that will hopefully be available soon.
In the meantime, whether you take prenatal vitamins or not this pregnancy or while trying for a baby, finger crossed for a smooth sailing!
- Antenatal nutritional supplementation and autism spectrum disorders in the Stockholm youth cohort: population based cohort study; BMJ 2017; 359 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j4273 (Published 04 October 2017).
- Association Between Maternal Use of Folic Acid Supplements and Risk of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children; JAMA. 2013;309(6):570-577. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.155925.
- Maternal periconceptional folic acid intake and risk of autism spectrum disorders and developmental delay in the CHARGE (CHildhood Autism Risks from Genetics and Environment) case-control study; Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Jul;96(1):80-9. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.004416. Epub 2012 May 30.
- Are autistic-behaviors in children related to prenatal vitamin use and maternal whole blood folate concentrations?; J Autism Dev Disord. 2014 Oct; 44(10): 2602–2607, doi: [10.1007/s10803-014-2114-x].
- Association of Maternal Use of Folic Acid and Multivitamin Supplements in the Periods Before and During Pregnancy With the Risk of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Offspring; JAMA Psychiatry. 2018 Feb 1;75(2):176-184. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.4050.