CRN Experts Explain: Black Maternal Health Week

Q&A with CRN's Haiuyen Nguyen

Haiuyen Nguyen, CRN Vice President, Regulatory & Nutrition Policy, recently answered questions about nutrition during pregnancy in recognition of Black Maternal Health Week (BMHW), which is held annually on April 11–17. BMHW is a week-long campaign founded and led by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance​ to build awareness, activism, and community building​ to amplify ​the voices, perspectives and lived experiences of Black Mamas and birthing people. The week is intentionally held during National Minority Health Month and begins on April 11 each year, joining dozens of global organizations in marking this day as International Day for Maternal Health and Rights—an opportunity to advocate for the elimination of maternal mortality globally. The activities and conversations hosted throughout the week intentionally center the values and traditions of the reproductive and birth justice movements. 

Q: What are the most significant nutritional challenges women have during pregnancy? 

A: Great question. While pregnant and lactating women are advised to consume a healthy diet, it is difficult to get enough of certain nutrients from food alone. For example, iron is available in meat, seafood, nuts, vegetables, and grains, but 95% of pregnant women do not get enough of the mineral. Some nutrients, such as iodine and vitamin D, have few dietary sources. That means taking fortified foods and supplements may be the primary way to achieve adequate intake of these nutrients. 

Q: What do Black women need to know about nutrition and pregnancy? 

A: Good health outcomes for all mothers and babies start with adequate nutrition before conception and throughout pregnancy and lactation. Unfortunately, data show many pregnant women do not get the recommended amounts of essential vitamins and minerals they need, including the primary nutrients needed for the growth and development of their babies. Studies indicate that diet quality is lowest among Black women across all trimesters, as well as during the time leading to conception. This means that Black women planning pregnancy should pay close attention to recommended dietary patterns to ensure adequate intake of nutrients.   

Q:  What are the recommended dietary patterns? 

A: The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 outlines important nutritional considerations and guidance for women before and during pregnancy, and regarding lactation. However, diets of pregnant women fall short of recommendations, and supplementation can play a role in closing those nutritional gaps. How much you need of each nutrient depends on your normal diet and whether you are planning pregnancy or are already pregnant or lactating. It is important to consult your physician before beginning a new supplement regimen. 

Q:  Is there an opportunity for Black Americans as a general population to learn about the benefits of supplementation? 

A:  Yes. Our 2022 annual consumer survey found that 42% of white Americans consider themselves regular supplement users and take a variety of nutrients compared to 31% of Black respondents. Additionally, Black respondents were slightly more likely to say they either take just a multivitamin or consider themselves an occasional user. As a result, we believe greater messaging about the benefits of supplementation may be needed. However, income could also be a barrier as 52% of Black respondents to our survey reported an income of $50,000 or less compared to just 35% of white respondents.  

Q: What are some key nutrients/supplements to promote healthy pregnancies? 

A: Most women hear about the importance of taking folate or folic acid, which is a B vitamin that supports your body making DNA and other genetic material. Folic acid is a form of folate found in fortified foods and dietary supplements. Taking 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid before becoming pregnant and during early pregnancy helps prevent neural tube defects in babies. But there are other important nutrients that promote healthy pregnancies, for example: choline and and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, are essential for brain development; iodine supports your body by making hormones important for bone and brain development; iron, which is a component of red blood cells, is essential for physiological and neurological growth and development; and vitamin D which, along with boosting your immune system, helps your body absorb calcium, the foundation for building strong bones.