Managing Your Diet and Nutrition in Pregnancy
Breaking the news of your pregnancy is often met with a smorgasbord of ‘well-meaning’ advice from friends and family advocating what you should and shouldn’t eat. Sure – some of it is grounded in truth, but the vast majority is based on old wives’ tales and hearsay. Lots of things can stress you out during pregnancy but eating should never be one of them. So, we think it’s time to dispel some myths. Here’s how to manage your nutritional needs in pregnancy.
Do eat the rainbow
Did you know your child’s tastes are set in the womb? After five months, your little nut begins to recognise a variety of flavours in the amniotic fluid from the food and drink you consume. Researchers now propose this exposure could influence a baby’s taste preferences later in life. In one study, pregnant women who drank carrot juice throughout the last trimester had children who responded much better to carrot flavours during weaning i. Equally, studies suggest women who consume junk food – that is, processed, fatty, sugary treats – throughout pregnancy have babies who also soft spot for the junk ii.
With that in mind, it’s vitally important to follow a varied, colourful, rainbow-esque diet during pregnancy. We’re not talking about the colours you’d find in a tube of Smarties; we’re talking about the natural hues found in fresh fruit, veggies, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and seeds. This won’t only give you and your growing babe all the nutrients needed to thrive, but it will provide your munchkin with the best start in life, too. A palette for healthy, nourishing food will hopefully see her chowing down pears and pomegranates – not pizza and pies. Pro pregnancy tip: look for fruit and veggies with the deepest hues (think carrots, blueberries, and spinach), as they tend to be the most abundant in antioxidants – powerful weapons against pesky toxins called ‘free radicals’.
Do fill up on the ‘big five nutrients’: folate, iron, calcium, zinc, fibre, and iron
During pregnancy, there are five key nutrients your body needs to transform that teeny tiny ball of cells into a healthy, rosy-cheeked baby. In the first few weeks of pregnancy, no nutrient is more essential than folate (the synthetic form is folic acid). This potent B vitamin works its magic at reducing birth defects, like spina bifida iii. To meet the daily recommendation of 400mg (disclaimer: you need 600mg in the first trimester), embrace legumes, beans, dark leafy green veggies, poultry, fish, pork, and whole grains.
Iron is another crucial compound for pregnancy. Your body uses this nutrient to make enough blood for you and your little nut iv. Plus, it helps to transport oxygen around your body to your little one. Battling with bouts of pregnancy fatigue? Iron will help you out in this department, too. Aim to pack your diet with 30mg per day. Lentils, beans, green veggies, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit are chock-full of this compound. For optimal absorption, combine iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C.
Calcium really comes into its own in your second and third trimester, supporting the development of baby’s bones and teeth. Since your blossoming baby leaches from your calcium stores, it’s crucial to have enough to safeguard your own bones v. You need roughly 1,200mg of calcium per day, so start loading up on dark green leafy veggies, low-fat dairy products, and fortified orange juice.
Did you know your zinc needs increase by 50 per cent to 15mg a day when you’ve got a bun in the oven? Low levels of this nutrient have been associated with birth defects, premature delivery and restricted foetal growth vi. While legumes, nuts, and whole grains are rich in this mineral; the most readily absorbed sources can be found in seafood and meat.
Finally, let’s talk fibre. Found in fruits, veggies, and whole grains, this compound serves an important role in pregnancy because it helps to reduce constipation – a common pregnancy blah vii. Added bonus: fibre keeps you fuller and satisfied for longer, which can help with weight management, energy production, and curbing those unhealthy pregnancy cravings. Aim for 35mg per day. Discover more ways to up your fibre consumption here
Do load up on essential fatty acids
Eating enough omega-3 fatty acids is a cornerstone of a happy, healthy pregnancy. These compounds are the building blocks of baby’s brain and retina, leading to better memory, vision and language skills in early childhood viii. Loading up on oily fish, walnuts, and omega-3-fortified eggs is a trusty way to achieve your recommended 300mg per day.
A quick word on fish: mercury-rich fish is off the menu during pregnancy since it can harm your little one’s nervous system. With this in mind, steer clear of shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and both fresh and canned tuna. Instead, choose their omega-3-rich counterparts, such as wild salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies, and mackerel.
Don’t “eat for two”
With a growing baby in your belly, it can be tempting to gorge on food with the excuse you’re now “eating for two”. But this is a common misconception. Government advice stipulates that pregnant women only need an extra 200 calories per day in their final trimester ix. Indeed, a growing raft of scientific research suggests unhealthy weight gain during pregnancy can put children at risk of obesity in later life x. Plus, those extra pounds can be much harder to shift after giving birth. There’s no need to meticulously count calories, though – just eat until you’re full and satisfied, no more.
Don’t overlook food precautions
To protect yourself and your little nut from harmful bacteria, like Listeria, Salmonella, and E.coli, you need to exercise precaution with certain foods. Never eat raw or undercooked poultry, meat, seafood, and eggs. And avoid eating leftover scraps that have been sitting out for more than two hours. Deli meat fan? Don’t worry; you can still have your ham and eat it – just make sure it’s piping hot before serving.
When it comes to blue cheese, Brie and other soft cheeses, you need to become an ingredient sleuth and religiously check labels. Make sure any cheese you eat is made with pasteurised milk; unpasteurised cheese often contains Listeria, which can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth and premature delivery. No label? Don’t take the chance.
Finally, stay well away from sushi made with raw fish. If a hunger for that nori-rice-fish-combination really gets the better of you, you can enjoy California roll, thanks to it containing imitation crabmeat. Not such a bad compromise, right?
Don’t drink (or if you do, limit your consumption)
It’s no secret that alcohol and pregnancy is an explosive combination. Drinking throughout pregnancy, especially in the first 12 weeks, has been associated with increased risk of premature birth, low birth weight and miscarriage xi. Like many other countries, including France and the United States, the UK government suggests tee totalling in pregnancy. If, however, you do decide to drink, consume no more than one to two units, once or twice a week.
Don’t go OTT on refined carbs
Cookies, sweets, and fizzy drinks all sound deliciously inviting when you’re pregnant and battling cravings. But besides satisfying your sweet tooth, these treats rush into your bloodstream and increase your blood sugar levels. Worryingly, these spikes may result in plumper babies who are more susceptible to weight gain in later life xii. Resist the urge to indulge in the white stuff; instead, choose unrefined grains like quinoa, whole wheat bread, brown rice, and spelt pasta.
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Keri Filtness has worked in the Nutrition Industry for 19 years. She is regularly called upon for her professional comments on health and nutrition related news. Her opinions have been featured by BBC3, Prima, Vitality, The Mirror, Woman’s Own and Cycling Weekly, amongst others. She has also worked one to one with journalists, analysing their diets and health concerns and recommending changes and additions, where appropriate.