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The 6 Nutrients Mothers Need Most

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Have you ever found yourself making a meal out of leftovers from your child's plate or grazing on cold pizza in front of the fridge? I have -- and I'm a dietitian! Moms get so caught up in making sure our kids are well nourished that we sometimes neglect our own eating habits. Maybe that's why 25% of white women and 45% of black women weigh nine pounds or more 10 to 18 months after giving birth than before they got pregnant, according to the Institute of Medicine in Washington, DC. Fortunately, the six nutrients below address your most pressing health concerns -- they increase your energy level, improve your mood, bolster your immunity, and even help with post-pregnancy weight loss. Read on -- it'll better your life!

  • Benefits for Moms

    Calcium is crucial -- and not just for your bones. Research at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville suggests that a high-calcium diet decreases the amount of fat that the body stores. The mineral also helps reduce PMS symptoms by up to 48%, according to a study at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. Finally, your body absorbs more calcium when you're pregnant, and research has shown that breastfeeding helps mothers build strong bones, says Joan Carter, R.D., a Houston-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
  • Your Daily Needs

    1,000 mg for all women ages 19 to 50

  • Great Sources

    1 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt or calcium-fortified orange juice (350 mg), 1 cup skim milk (302 mg), 1 cup calcium-fortified soy milk (300 mg), 1 oz. Monterey Jack cheese (212 mg), 1/2 cup cooked collard greens (179 mg)
  • Runners-up

    2 Tbs. grated parmesan cheese (138 mg), 1/2 cup calcium-set tofu (130 mg), 1/4 cup canned salmon with bones (100 mg), 1 oz. almonds (80 mg), 1 cup cooked broccoli (72 mg), 1/2 cup white beans (65 mg)

  • Supplemental Advice

    If you don't like dairy products, you probably need to take a calcium supplement. Look for a brand with calcium carbonate -- you'll get the most absorbable calcium at the lowest price. If you don't take a multivitamin, make sure your calcium supplement contains vitamin D, which helps your body absorb the mineral, especially if you have dark skin or live in a climate where it's often cloudy.

  • Benefits for Moms

    Pregnancy and breastfeeding wipe out your body's stockpile of this essential fat, which has been linked to a better memory in adults. So you need to replenish it -- especially if you plan to be in the pink or blue again. "Choline is needed to make every cell in an infant's body," says Steven Zeisel, M.D., chair of the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "We think it's most crucial during weeks 25 to 40 of pregnancy. That's when the unborn child takes all it can get."
  • Your Daily Needs

    Many experts advise 425 mg for women 19 to 50, 450 mg during pregnancy, and 550 mg during breastfeeding, but Dr. Zeisel says 900 mg is best for pregnant and lactating women.

  • Great Sources

    3 oz. beef liver (453 mg), 1 egg (345 mg), 3 oz. steak (58 mg)
  • Runners-up

    Milk, lettuce, cauliflower, and peanuts; Dr. Zeisel is working with the USDA to determine the exact choline content of these foods

  • Supplemental Advice

    If you're a vegetarian or a picky eater and are breastfeeding, trying to conceive, or are pregnant, you should talk to a doctor about taking a choline supplement daily because it's unlikely you'll be able to get enough of the nutrient from a limited diet.

  • Benefits for Moms

    This B vitamin helps prevent up to 70% of neural-tube birth defects. In order for it to work best, you need to be taking it before you're pregnant. So even if you're not trying to have another child at the moment, you should still pay attention to folic acid because many pregnancies are unplanned. If you don't become a mom-to-be again, the folic acid won't be wasted; it may lower your risk of heart disease and cancer.
  • Your Daily Needs

    800 micrograms (mcg) for women ages 19 to 50, 1,000 mcg if you're pregnant, 900 mcg if you're breastfeeding. At least half the amount should come from fortified food or supplements.

  • Great Sources

    1 cup enriched breakfast cereal (100 to 400 mcg), 1 cup cooked lentils (358 mcg), 1 cup cooked kidney beans (229 mcg), 6 asparagus spears (131 mcg), 1 cup enriched pasta (120 mcg), 1 cup orange juice (109 mcg)

  • Runners-up

    1 cup broccoli (78 mcg), 1/2 papaya (58 mcg), 1 medium orange (44 mcg), 1 slice enriched bread (40 mcg)
  • Supplemental Advice

    If you don't eat many foods fortified with folic acid, you can opt for a multivitamin (most contain 400 mcg of folic acid) or a separate supplement. Pregnant women should take a prenatal vitamin with 1,000 mcg of folic acid. Whichever you choose, look for a brand with USP on the label -- it signifies that the manufacturer has followed a proven "recipe" for the vitamin so your body can absorb it.

  • Benefits for Moms

    Tired and scattered? Most new moms are -- it goes with the territory. But for many, poor iron intake, not just 2 a.m. feedings, is partly to blame. Only about 25% of women ages 20 to 40 take in at least the recommended amount of iron daily, according to the USDA. When your iron level is low, less oxygen gets to your brain. This lowers your energy level and interferes with your ability to concentrate. Plus, falling short on iron makes you more prone to picking up your child's colds and infections. If you suspect that you're iron-deficient, ask your doctor to run a blood test.
  • Your Daily Needs

    18 mg for women ages 19 to 50, 27 mg if you're pregnant, but only 9 mg if you're breastfeeding

  • Great Sources

    3 oz. lean sirloin (2.9 mg), 3 oz. chicken, pork, or fish (1.1 mg). Your body absorbs iron from meat, poultry, or fish two to three times better than from other sources.
  • Runners-up

    1 oz. fortified cereal (4.5 to 18 mg), 1 cup canned kidney beans (3.2 mg), 1 medium baked potato with skin (2.8 mg), 3/4 cup prune juice (2.3 mg), 1/2 cup cooked Swiss chard (1.9 mg), 1 cup raw spinach (1.5 mg), 1/3 cup raisins (1.1 mg)

  • Supplemental Advice

    Prenatal vitamins usually supply all the iron that a pregnant woman and her unborn child need. If you breastfeed, your iron needs decrease because you're not losing the nutrient during your period. Otherwise, opt for a multivitamin with 18 mg of iron if you don't get enough in your diet, suggests Alison Eastwood, R.D., a lactation educator at Day One Center in San Francisco. Avoid taking more than 45 mg daily because too much iron has been linked with heart disease and cancer.

  • Benefits for Moms

    Consider magnesium the overlooked mineral for moms: A British study found that it can reduce the tension, mood swings, irritability, and anxiety that accompany PMS. It also works with calcium and vitamin D to keep bones strong. The trouble is, the typical woman in her 20s to 40s falls short by about 100 mg daily.
  • Your Daily Needs

    310 mg for women ages 19 to 30 (including those who are breastfeeding), 350 mg for pregnant women ages 19 to 30, 320 mg for women 31 to 50

  • Great Sources

    1/2 cup soynuts (196 mg), 1/2 cup tofu (128 mg), 1 cup cooked black beans (120 mg), 1 oz. almonds (86 mg), 3 oz. fish (87 mg), 1 cup cooked brown rice (84 mg), 1/2 cup cooked spinach (78 mg), 1 oz. cashews (74 mg)
  • Runners-up

    1 cup cooked oatmeal (56 mg), 1 medium baked potato with skin (55 mg), 1/2 cup edamame (54 mg), 1 cup cooked wild rice (52 mg)
  • Supplemental Advice

    Pass on supplements. With a healthy diet, it's easy to get enough magnesium from foods, says Carter.

  • Benefits for Moms

    Trying to take off the 25 or more pounds you gained during your pregnancy might not bode well for your vitamin E intake. This antioxidant, which promotes a healthy heart and a strong immune system, is found mainly in higher-fat foods and oils -- which weight-watching moms try to avoid at all costs.
  • Your Daily Needs

    15 mg for all women 19 to 50 except for breastfeeding moms, who require 19 mg
  • Great Sources

    1 oz. sunflower seeds (14.3 mg), 1 oz. almonds (6.7 mg), 2 Tbs. peanut butter (3.2 mg), 1 Tbs. canola oil (2.9 mg), 2 Tbs. toasted wheat germ (2.6 mg)
  • Runners-up

    1 Tbs. olive oil (1.7 mg), 1 cup cooked pinto beans (1.6 mg), 1/2 avocado (1.4 mg), 1 cup cooked brown rice (1.4 mg)

  • Supplemental Advice

    Since many healthy diets are low in vitamin E, consider a supplement of 100 to 400 International Units (that's 45 to 180 mg) daily, suggests Eastwood. Look for one that contains "mixed tocopherols."

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Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the March 2002 issue of Child Magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.