I’m often asked about what foods a pregnant woman should eat to provide her baby with the best nourishment. Everyone assumes I’m gonna respond with “More vegetables,” so imagine the look on their face when I say “Eggs with the yolks!”
Believe me – I’ve got nothing against vegetables and they DO play an important role in prenatal nutrition, but I always mention eggs because a) many people still think they’re not healthy and b) they provide specific baby-building nutrients that are hard to find in other foods.
Years ago, I worked for a prenatal private practice in a low income area of Los Angeles where many of the women I saw relied on supplemental nutrition programs, like WIC. Eggs were one of the few foods that were easily accessible, nutrient-dense, and tasted good.
I was always thrilled when I heard they could easily get eggs… That is, until I realized most of them were throwing out the yolks. Thanks, outdated dietary guidelines and government-sponsored nutrition classes. Ugh!
Needless to say, I spent a lot of time encouraging women to eat the yolks. I’m pretty sure I was known as the “egg lady” because of how frequently I brought it up.
I believe that every pregnant woman should eat eggs (with the exception of those with egg allergies, of course).
For example, did you know that certain nutrients in eggs may:
- Lower your risk of preeclampsia?
- Help reduce cravings and excessive weight gain?
- Prevent neural tube defects (it’s not just folate)?
- Improve long-term memory function of your child?
Simply put, eggs are an incredible superfood. Not only are they a convenient source of protein, but they are an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals commonly lacking in a prenatal diet.
Research-Backed Benefits of Eating Eggs in Pregnancy
Choline is abundant in eggs, but chances are you haven’t heard much about this nutrient. Choline is a relative of the B-vitamins that was not widely discussed (outside of the research sphere) until about 20 years ago. The first recommended daily intakes for choline were set fairly recently in 1998, while most other nutrients had recommended daily intakes set back in the 1940’s to ‘60’s. In the scheme of nutrition science, choline is a new kid to the block.
It turns out choline has some of the same beneficial effects on a developing baby as folate, including fostering normal brain development and preventing neural tube defects. (American Journal of Epidemiology, 2004) Virtually every woman has heard of folate (or the synthetic version, folic acid) and understands how crucial this nutrient is to a healthy pregnancy, but choline rarely gets mentioned.
I like to say “Choline is folate’s long lost cousin.”
Had nutrition research discovered choline at the time when the rest of the B-vitamins were being researched, it would be folate’s sibling, not cousin… but I digress.
So what, exactly, does choline do?
“Metabolites of choline are required for synthesis of cell membranes, neurotransmission, and methyl metabolism—processes essential to fetal brain development and tissue expansion. A large body of evidence suggests that periconceptional choline deficiency increases the risk of adverse birth outcomes, including neural tube defects and other congenital abnormalities. In addition, maternal choline status appears to influence cognitive development in infants.” (Journal of Nutrition, 2015)
Data from rat studies suggest that adequate choline intake in pregnancy may impact memory function for the rest of your child’s life. (Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2004)
According to the study: “When rat pups receive choline supplements (in utero or during the second week of life), their brain function is changed, resulting in lifelong memory enhancement. This change in memory function appears to be due to changes in the development of the memory center (hippocampus) in the brain. These changes are so important that investigators can pick out the groups of animals whose mothers had extra choline even when these animals are elderly. Thus, memory function in the aged is, in part, determined by what mother ate.” (Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2004)
Lastly, it appears that choline plays a role in placental function and may enhance nutrient supply to your baby. (Placenta, 2016)
Studies on human placental cells have found that “choline inadequacy may contribute to placental dysfunction and the development of disorders related to placental insufficiency.” (Journal of Cellular Physiology, 2014)
Furthermore, supplementing pregnant women with high amounts of choline in the second and third trimester (930mg, which is roughly double the RDA) has been shown to improve vascular function of the placenta and “mitigate some of the pathological antecedents of preeclampsia.”(FASEB, 2013)
Unfortunately, most women only consume a fraction of the recommended daily allowance of choline, partly because food sources are limited or perhaps because they’ve been scared away from eating egg yolks. It’s estimated that fully 90% of women in the US do not meet the recommended daily allowance of 450mg per day. (FASEB, 2007)
The top two sources of choline in the diet are egg yolks and liver. Both are incredibly nutrient-dense, but not many women consume liver (at least, not regularly). That makes eggs the number one source of the nutrient for most people.
Just two eggs (with the yolks) per day meets about half of a pregnant woman’s needs for choline.
Most prenatals don’t contain much (or any) choline, meaning you have to be proactive to get enough from your diet. (J Fam Med Dis Prev, 2016) If you’re not consuming eggs or liver regularly, odds are, you’re among the 90% of women lacking in choline.
Choline’s beneficial effects on brain development may also be related to this little known fact: Choline works synergistically with the omega-3 fat, DHA, enhancing how much DHA is incorporated into cells. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2013)
If you’ve done some reading on prenatal nutrition, you’ll know that DHA is proven to enhance brain development. In rat studies, combined supplementation of choline alongside DHA improves brain development more than supplementing with either one in isolation. (Neurology Research International, 2017) It’s no accident that eggs are rich in both nutrients.
Eggs from chickens raised on pasture (rather than crammed in barns or cages) have higher DHA levels – 2.5x more than eggs from commercially-raised hens. (Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 2010) That’s because the chickens spend time outdoors pecking around and eating grass and bugs.
Eggs are one of the few non-seafood sources of DHA, a key omega-3 fat that is linked to higher IQ in infants. (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2005) You certainly can’t meet all of your DHA needs from eggs alone, but they do contribute to your overall intake.
Egg also contain an array of B-vitamins, including folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, biotin, vitamin B-6, pantothenic acid, and vitamin B-12. Like choline and DHA, these vitamins are most concentrated in the yolks.
Yes, there is a solid reason people consider eggs a food-based multivitamin.
Adequate B-vitamins play a role in everything from brain development, placental function, blood sugar metabolism, detoxification, and management of common pregnancy complaints, like nausea and fatigue.
4. Vitamins A, D, E, K
These fantastic four are the fat-soluble vitamins. Eggs provide a little bit of ‘em all, but I want to highlight vitamin A.
Vitamin A is an essential nutrient, widely recognized for its role in normal growth and development during pregnancy, including the developing lungs, kidneys, heart, eyes, and other organs. Even the National Institutes of Health states “Pregnant women need extra vitamin A for fetal growth and tissue maintenance and for supporting their own metabolism.”
Sadly, fully one-third of pregnant women fail to consume enough, even in areas where they have plenty of access to vitamin A-rich foods. (European Journal of Nutrition, 2007)
Many assume you can get vitamin A from plant foods, like carrots and sweet potatoes, but that’s not exactly true. Plant foods contain beta carotene, which must be converted into vitamin A in your body. BUT, that’s a super inefficient process.
This study sums it up well:
“A summary of the major human studies that determined conversion factors for dietary β-carotene to retinol … show that the conversion efficiency of dietary β-carotene to retinol is in the range of 3.6–28:1 by weight. There is a wide variation in conversion factors reported not only between different studies but also between individuals in a particular study.“ (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010)
Short answer: You have to consume some *actual* vitamin A, not rely on beta carotene to meet your needs.
And paradoxically, the more beta-carotene you eat, the less you convert to vitamin A. (Journal of Nutrition, 2010) Again, if you didn’t believe me the first time, you need some dietary sources of preformed vitamin A to ensure enough for yourself and your growing baby. Eggs are one of many animal foods that provides vitamin A in the ready-to-use form.
5. Protein & Healthy Fats
When you analyze macronutrients, eggs contain only fat and protein (no carbohydrates), so they don’t raise your blood sugar. This makes eggs a perfect breakfast option if you often have food cravings, feel very hungry in the morning, struggle with low energy, or find yourself gaining weight faster than you expected. These are all frequent complaints during pregnancy.
Researchers investigating people’s responses to different types of breakfast found that, compared to a bagel, those who ate eggs naturally ate less throughout the day, had fewer cravings, and experienced fewer spikes in blood sugar and insulin. (Nutrition Research, 2010) Eggs are full of nutrients, they keep you satisfied, and they stabilize your energy levels. They are a win-win-win.
Plus, eggs are a complete protein, providing all essential amino acids in a highly bioavailable form. One way to measure protein quality is by a ranking system called biological value and eggs top the list with a perfect score.
Protein needs increase during pregnancy and greatly exceed conventional prenatal recommendations per the latest research. It turns out that third trimester protein needs are 73% higher than the current estimated average requirement. (The Journal of Nutrition, 2015)
In real world terms, this means that most women in the latter half of pregnancy need a minimum of 100g of protein per day. A large egg provides ~7g of protein a piece, so a few eggs per day can make a significant contribution to your daily protein intake.
6. Other nutrients
Eggs are rich in two antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are crucial to eye and vision development. These antioxidants accumulate in the retina of the eye and prenatal consumption of eggs is one way to ensure you have adequate amounts. Lutein appears to be particularly important in vision development as it is detected in fetal eye tissue in utero. (Experimental Eye Research, 2017)
Trace minerals are another benefit of eggs, especially because they may otherwise be lacking in your diet. Two trace minerals that are found in significant quantities in eggs are iodine and selenium.
Iodine plays an important role in your baby’s brain development and is crucial to maintaining normal thyroid function in pregnancy. (Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, 2012)
Selenium is also important to your thyroid, but it’s also key for maintaining healthy liver function, so your body can safely and effectively deal with toxins that we’re exposed to in the environment.
Given all these beneficial nutrients, you’d think conventional prenatal nutrition guidelines would wholeheartedly endorse eggs.
While they aren’t anti-eggs, per se, they certainly don’t encourage women eat a lot of them.
Need proof? Check out this super sad suggestion for breakfast from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association):
1 cup oatmeal
8 oz low fat milk
½ cup strawberries
Why is oatmeal taking center stage instead of eggs?
I have one guess: cholesterol.
(And the ludicrous assumption that pregnant women require a high-carbohydrate diet…But I’ve addressed that elsewhere.)
In fact, the only place eggs show up in their sample meal plan is in the form of… (wait for it)…light mayonnaise.
>>>Let me pause for a moment and bang my head on my desk several times.<<<
Ironically, this document is titled: “Nutrition and Lifestyle for a Healthy Pregnancy Outcome.”
A note about cholesterol
Yes, eggs are rich in cholesterol.
If you’re nervous to eat eggs because you are worried about cholesterol, know that research has disproven the theory that dietary cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease. (Current Atherosclerosis Reports, 2010) And often, the opposite is true! It turns out that excessive dietary carbohydrates are more closely linked to dyslipidemia than dietary cholesterol (or saturated fat). (Lipids, 2009)
Besides, our brains need cholesterol. In fact, 25% of the cholesterol in our bodies is found in the brain where it plays a crucial role in normal neural function. If you want to provide the raw materials to help your baby develop a healthy brain, you should absolutely be consuming cholesterol!
A note about Salmonella
Some women have been told to avoid eggs (especially if the yolks remain runny after cooking) because they can cause food poisoning. Food safety concerns over eggs have been overstated again and again, especially to pregnant women. According to a 2012 analysis from the Centers for Disease Control, food poisoning due to eggs accounts for only 2% of all reports nationwide. (CDC, 2012)
In fact, you’re 8x more likely to get food poisoning from fresh produce than from eggs. (Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2013)
Yet, you never hear health officials warning pregnant moms to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables.
Sourcing your eggs from pasture-raised chickens is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of food poisoning, since organic farms have a seven-fold lower rate of Salmonella infection compared to commercial producers. (Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, 2010)
Often you can find eggs from pasture-raised chickens by connecting with local farmers or at health food stores. Even eggs from conventional farms are very unlikely to contain Salmonella, with estimates ranging from 1 in 12,000 to 1 in 30,000. (International Journal of Food Microbiology, 2000)
Choose Eggs from Pasture-Raised Chickens
When it comes to eggs, quality counts. Eggs from chickens raised on pasture (meaning outdoors, in grass, pecking at insects and enjoying the sunlight) are not only less likely to harbor Salmonella, they’re also more nutrient-dense than conventionally-produced eggs.
Here are a few ways eggs from pastured chickens are superior: (Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 2010)
- Vitamin A content is 30% higher, which is clearly visible from the rich, orange color of the yolks. The more fresh greens, grasses, and bugs a chicken eats, the higher the vitamin A levels. Vitamin A is crucial for eye and lung development, among many other functions.
- Vitamin E content is fully double that from commercially-raised hens.
- Omega-3 content is 2.5 times higher than eggs from commercially-raised hens.
- Omega-6 fats are found in lower levels, which is favorable, since these fats tend to cause inflammation (Eggs from pastured chickens have less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids).
- Vitamin D content is 3-6 times higher due to regular sun exposure.
I should mention that most of the nutrients discussed above (like choline and DHA) are found in the egg yolk, so do eat the whole egg, otherwise you miss out on the benefits. There’s a reason eggs comes with yolks, after all.
Regardless of how the chickens are raised, eggs are still incredibly nutrient-dense, so even if you can’t access pasture-raised eggs, don’t miss out on the benefits of eating eggs in pregnancy, both for you and your unborn child.
Until next week,
PS – This post includes excerpts from my book, Real Food for Gestational Diabetes. For more on the importance of a nutrient-dense, real food diet during pregnancy (for all moms, but especially those with blood sugar issues), check it out. There’s a whole chapter devoted to the science behind ancestral foods that help your baby grow healthy and strong, including eggs and liver.
Learn more at realfoodforGD.com/book.
PPS – Like this type of in-depth information on prenatal nutrition? My next book will be just that. If you’re interested to stay in the loop and be notified on the release of the book, grab a copy of one of my freebies right here and you’ll be the first to know.