February is full of heart… heart health that is! And what better time than now to talk about what nourishes a healthy heart for your growing baby!?

It has been well accepted among traditional cultures and across multiple nutrition philosophies that the way you nourish yourself during pregnancy has an effect on the development of your growing baby. In fact, it quite literally shape’s your baby’s health – not just in the early years, but for the rest of his or her life!

I know that puts a lot of pressure on us mamas, especially because when it comes down to it I can bet (or at least hope) that we all want a happy AND healthy future for our children! Right?

Well, let me take a little pressure off by sharing a few important nutrients you can focus on in your diet that will help the development of your baby’s cardiovascular system, that is, your baby’s heart, blood and blood vessels.

FOLATE

You may be familiar with folate (vitamin B9) as an important vitamin for preventing neural tube defects in early pregnancy. But it is also plays an important role in maintaining healthy red blood cells and fostering healthy brain development in your baby.

Your prenatal care provider has likely recommended you take a prenatal vitamin or supplement that contains adequate amounts of folic acid. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, often found in supplements or fortified foods like breakfast cereals. Unfortunately, researchers estimate that up to 60% of the population has a genetic variation of the MTHFR enzyme preventing the body from making use of synthetic folic acid (Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2011). Relying on folic acid as your sole source of vitamin B9 could potentially lead to a deficiency and negative health effects for your baby.

For that reason, choosing a high-quality prenatal vitamin containing the naturally-occurring, activated form of folate – L-methylfolate – is preferred. Additionally, it is incredibly important to obtain folate from real foods, like those listed below:

  • Green leafy vegetables (preferably organic or locally-sourced)
  • Liver from grass-fed beef or pasture-raised chickens
  • Legumes
  • Eggs from pasture-raised chickens
  • Avocados
  • Nuts and seeds

Wait… did I just say, LIVER!? Yes. I’m suggesting you eat liver. In fact, liver is one of the richest food sources of folate. Give it a try! Perhaps it sounds strange (or repulsive), but there are several ways to prepare liver to make it more appealing. Try this recipe for Grass-Fed Beef Liver Pate or Shepherd’s Pie by Lily Nichols, Registered Dietitian and author of Real Food For Pregnancy.

GLYCINE

What is glycine, you ask? Glycine is a type of amino acid found most abundantly in gelatin and collagen. Typically, our bodies are able to make this amino acid from other amino acids; however, during pregnancy we must obtain additional glycine from our diet. Researchers have found that “the demand for glycine during pregnancy may already exceed the capacity for its synthesis, making it conditionally indispensable.” (The Journal of Nutrition, 2006)

Okay, so glycine is an important nutrient to include in our diet during pregnancy. But why? And where do we find it?

Glycine is important to support the growth of your baby’s skeleton, teeth, internal organs, hair, skin and nails. Not only does it help your circulatory system adapt to the demands of pregnancy, but it is also essential for the metabolism of folate. (And you’re an expert on why folate is so important for your baby’s heart, now aren’t you?)

“The availability of glycine appears to be of critical importance for normal cardiovascular development.” (Clinical Science, 2002)

Glycine is mostly found in the connective tissue, skin and bones of animal products, but can be found in significantly lower amounts in some plant sources. This makes it difficult for vegans and vegetarians to obtain adequate amounts of glycine from food intake alone.

Here is a list of the top real food sources of glycine, categorized by animal versus plant source:

Animal sources of glycine:

  • Bone broth
  • Slow cooked tough cuts of meat (i.e. pot roast or pulled pork)
  • Skin-on and bone-in poultry (i.e. chicken wings/thighs or whole-roasted chicken)
  • Pork rinds
  • Bacon
  • Sausage
  • Ground meat

Plant sources of glycine:

  • Sesame seed flour
  • Spirulina algae
  • Sunflower seed flour
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Nori seaweed
  • Watercress
  • Beans
  • Spinach

I will always recommend a real-food diet over taking a multitude of supplements; however, if none of the above options sound appetizing (especially if you’re having some food aversions to meats at this time), you can also add pure gelatin powder or collagen powder (ideally from grass-fed cows) to other foods.

Check out this recipe for Tart Cherry Gummies. This simple recipe offers a tasty way to add glycine to your diet with the use of pure beef gelatin powder from grass-fed cows!

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

A baby’s heart begins to develop at conception and is said to be completely formed by 8 weeks into the pregnancy. During these early weeks of a baby’s development, there are crucial steps that must take place in order for the baby’s heart to form correctly. At times, one of these crucial steps may not happen as intended and the baby can develop a heart defect. Congenital heart defects (CHD) are the most common birth defects in the United States, affecting approximately 1 in every 110 (about 40,000) babies each year.

Unfortunately, most cases of congenital heart defects are unknown; however, researches are still trying to determine an identifiable reason. Only a small percentage of all CHDs are related to known genetic conditions. There is an association between heart problems and certain medications a mother may have been taking during early pregnancy. For this reason, it’s very important to speak with your provider about any medications or prescriptions you are taking if you think you might be pregnant.

Women with diabetes are at an increased risk for having a pregnancy affected by a CHD. If you have diabetes coming into a pregnancy, it is important you receive proper health care and are keeping your blood sugar under control. Researchers estimate that 2,670 babies could be born without CHDs each year if women with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes had their blood sugar in control before they became pregnant (American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2014).

If you have diabetes and have struggled with keeping your levels under control, be sure to work with your provider as well as a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator.

THE TAKEAWAY

The foods you eat during pregnancy can directly impact the health and development of your growing baby, there’s no doubt about that! I could talk on the subject for hours (really, no joke), but I’ll save bits and pieces for future discussions.

For now, remember these key points:

  • Eat foods rich in folate and glycine during your pregnancy to help your baby develop a healthy heart and cardiovascular system
  • If you have diabetes, make sure your blood sugars are in control before pregnancy and during the early weeks to help reduce the risk of your baby developing a congenital heart defect

With Valentine’s Day coming up this week, these are some great ways you can show your baby’s heart some love. Cheers!

From one Mother to another,

Kayla Thorngate, RDN, CLC