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What nutrients are important during pregnancy?

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There are many nutrients that you and your baby need to be healthy. Some nutrients, like folate (folic acid), iron, calcium and omega-3 fats are especially important during pregnancy.

Folic acid

Having enough folate during the first 3 months of pregnancy is critical to lower the baby’s risk for neural tube, brain or spinal cord damage. Your doctor will strongly recommend that you take a folic acid supplement over this time, but top up your intake further by focusing on beans, lentils, spinach and whole wheat products.

Try these ideas to boost your folate intake:

  • Eat folate-rich fruits such as papaya, grapefruit, grapes, banana, cantaloupe melon and strawberries.
  • Add dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach to soups and stews. 
  • Use folate-rich vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, spinach and Brussels sprouts in a stir-fry or salad.
  • Beans and peas are especially high in folic acid. Try preparing bean and vegetable curries or lentil dahls, hummus and bean or lentil soups.
  • Have a handful of sunflower seeds or peanuts as a snack.
  • Avocado is not only one of the best foods with folic acid, it is also a great source of essential fats and vitamin K.


Your need for iron almost doubles during your pregnancy! That’s because iron is an essential component of blood, and your blood volume increases by about 50% over this time. To meet your iron requirements, your doctor will recommend a daily prenatal multivitamin which contains iron.

However, it is also important to get iron from foods:

  • Our bodies absorb heme iron best, which usually comes from animal foods, such as red meat, poultry, fish and shellfish.
  • Non-heme iron can be found in plant foods, but is not absorbed by our bodies as well as heme iron is. Plant foods that have iron include beans and lentils, whole grain and enriched breads and pasta, fortified breakfast cereals, green leafy vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, tofu and eggs. Include foods rich in vitamin C to help your body use non-heme iron. 



Calcium is critical for developing your baby’s bones, but also helps to preserve your bone mass during pregnancy. Focus on having at least 3 servings of dairy foods per day, like milk or mass (250 ml), yoghurt (200 ml), or cheddar or gouda cheese (40 g). Eating foods which contain vitamin D, like fish, eggs and cod liver oil, also helps to increase your body’s absorption of calcium.

To meet your calcium needs throughout pregnancy:

  • Eat three servings of dairy foods every day. One serving is equal to:
    • 250 mL (1 cup) of milk, yoghurt or fortified soy beverage.
    • 50g of cheese (about the size of a small matchbox). 
  • Choose other calcium-rich foods, such as canned fish with soft bones.

Omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fats, found in oily fish, are important for your baby’s brain and eye development. To meet your omega-3 fat needs throughout pregnancy:

  • Have two palm-sized servings of oily fish per week, such as salmon, lake trout, herring, sardines, pilchards and tuna. Avoid fish that could have a high mercury content, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. 
  • If you do not eat fish, you can safely take fish oil supplements while you are pregnant. However, do not take more than 3000 mg per day. If you already eat fish twice a week, taking fish oil supplements has not been shown to have any extra benefits for your baby.

For more guidelines on health and nutrition during pregnancy, please contact the Pick n Pay Health Hotline registered dietitian on 0800 11 22 88 or healthhotline@pnp.co.za. To find a registered dietitian in your area, visit the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) website at www.adsa.org.za.

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