Maria Pari-Keener, MS, RD answers the question, Which is better -- vitamins from foods or vitamin supplements?

Woman holding prenatal vitamins
Credit: Kaysh Shinn


I keep hearing about all these supplements I'm supposed to be taking: folic acid, calcium, iron. Can't I just take one prenatal vitamin and be done with it? Also, is there any difference between taking vitamins versus getting these same nutrients from foods?


Most pregnant women will require 600 mcg (micrograms DFE -- dietary folate equivalents) of folic acid, 30 mg of iron, and 1000 mg (milligrams) of calcium each day. A prenatal vitamin will often contain 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for folic acid, and 100 percent or more of the RDA for iron. But it may have only around 250 mg of calcium. It's important to get more calcium from foods like dairy products (three servings a day should do it) or from an additional calcium supplement. Note that iron interferes with the absorption of calcium, so you're better off taking your iron supplement with orange juice instead of milk. You could take your iron supplement in the morning and your calcium supplement at night.

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate. Folate, the naturally occurring form, is found in strawberries, citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables such as romaine lettuce and spinach, and many kinds of dried beans. Folic acid, which is more easily absorbed by our bodies than folate, is found in supplements and in fortified foods such as some breads and cereals. Adequate consumption of folic acid in early pregnancy has been linked with prevention of neural tube defects.

Getting your nutrients from food is generally the best route. Foods contain other compounds your body needs -- such as fiber -- that supplements don't provide. You shouldn't use a supplement to correct a poor diet, but rather to supplement a good one. Your growing body and your rapidly developing fetus need the nutrients and the calories from foods.

This information is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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