Nutrition during pregnancy is about quality, not quantity. Dietician Deidre Lindeque helps you to eat for your and your unborn child’s best health.
From the day a mom-to-be discovers that she is pregnant she needs to start ‘eating for two’. Contrary to popular perception, this is not with reference to calories or portion size, but rather the responsibility she takes for making healthy choices as she is no longer only feeding herself but also her growing baby.
Not only do these recommendations aim to keep mom and baby safe, but we also want to optimise development of the growing baby. During pregnancy there are foods and nutrients that your body needs to consume more of, to ensure optimal development of your baby and maintain maternal health.
Maintaining optimal nutrition using whole foods is always preferable and supplements should never be used to compensate for poor dietary choices. However, pregnancy symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, as well as limited access to good quality whole food such as omega-3 rich fish can make it difficult to obtain everything one needs to meet requirements, so supplements are a great option for ‘topping up‘.
A pregnant mom needs more calcium and vitamin D, folic acid, iron, choline, fibre and protein than a woman who is not growing a tiny baby.
- Calcium is essential for building strong teeth and bones. Calcium plays important roles in blood clotting, as well as muscle and nerve function. In populations with low dietary calcium intake, daily calcium supplementation (1.5–2.0g oral elemental calcium) is recommended for pregnant women to reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia.
- Calcium-rich food sources: Milk, yoghurt, cheese, sardines or salmon with bones, some leafy greens (kale, bok choy), sesame and chia seeds, almonds and dried figs.
- Iron and Vitamin B12 requirements of the pregnant women increase during pregnancy because of the increase in red blood cell mass and the transfer of iron to both the growing foetus and the placental structures. Adequate intake of iron is vital for both mom and baby, and inadequate iron intake can make one feel extra tired and more likely to catch infections. It also increases the risk that your baby is born prematurely, with birth defects or with a low birth weight. The WHO recommends daily oral iron and folic acid supplementation with 30-60mg of elemental iron and 400µg (0.4mg) folic acid for pregnant women, to prevent maternal anaemia, puerperal sepsis, low birth weight, and preterm birth. It’s important to note that iron from plant foods is not easily absorbed. Improve this absorption by avoiding tea or coffee with meals, and make sure to eat iron-rich plant foods together with foods high in vitamin C, such as oranges, guavas, and kiwi. Liver and organ meats can be a great source of iron, but can be high in retinol, an animal form of vitamin A. If eaten in excess, this can be harmful to your baby and due to this, it is best to limit it to only occasional intake in small quantities during your pregnancy.
- Iron-rich food sources: meat, poultry, fish, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Certain vegetables also contain good amounts, particularly spinach, asparagus, snow peas, beetroot greens, kale and green peas.
- Folic acid, also known as folate, is important for the formation of the red blood cells and it is used to transport oxygen to cells. For the foetus, folic acid is necessary for cell growth, nervous system development and DNA production. It is crucial in helping to prevent birth defects in the baby’s brain and spine, known as neural tube defects. A folic acid supplement is recommended particularly for the prenatal period and first trimester. A folic acid-iron combination is a great option to consider.
- Folic acid-rich food sources: legumes, dark leafy green vegetables, wheatgerm and fortified or enriched grains .
- Choline is an essential nutrient for many processes in the body, including your baby’s brain development. Low intake during pregnancy can decrease the baby’s brain function and increase the risk of birth defects. Choline-rich food sources: Eggs, dairy and peanuts
- Protein is an essential nutrient for pregnancy. It is necessary for the proper development of the baby’s organs and tissues, as well as the placenta. Vegetarians and vegans should pay particular attention to varying their protein sources to ensure they get all the essential amino acids they need.
- Protein-rich food sources: Well-cooked meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dried beans, peas and lentils, nuts, seeds and tofu. Fish is a good source of iodine and lean protein, and some fish, including salmon and sardines, also contain omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy fat that’s good for the heart. However, methyl mercury found in fish is a toxic chemical that can pass through the placenta and can be harmful to an unborn baby’s developing brain, kidneys and nervous system. Swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel high in methyl mercury should be avoided. It is safe and recommended for pregnant women to eat well-cooked oily fish such as fresh tuna, salmon, mackerel and sardines, twice a week. Canned tuna has less mercury and is safe to eat during pregnancy, but should be limited to two cans a week. An omega-3 supplement containing adequate DHA is recommended but the intake of omega 3 oil supplements should be discussed with your doctor. It is also a good idea to avoid them during the first trimester if you are struggling with severe nausea or vomiting.
- Fibre helps reduce cravings, keeps blood sugar levels stable and reduces the constipation often felt during pregnancy. Regular adequate intake of well washed fruits and vegetables as well as good quality unprocessed whole grains can assist in ensuring that one’s digestive system continues to work regularly.