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Registered dietician and lactation consultant Deidre Lindeque offers some straightforward advice for what you should keep in mind when feeding your unborn baby. Pregnant and hungry? Here’s what you need to know.
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. Not only do these recommendations aim to keep mom and baby safe, but they also prioritise the optimisation of the development of the growing baby. During pregnancy there are foods that your body needs more of and there are also foods that you should avoid or limit.
Foods to add
A pregnant woman 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. It plays important roles in blood clotting and muscle and nerve function. Calcium-rich food sources include 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
The Iron and vitamin B12 requirements of 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. Inadequate iron intake or iron deficiency can make one feel extra tired and more likely to contract infections. It also increases the risk that the baby is born prematurely, with birth defects or with a low birth weight.Iron-rich food sources include 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. However, it is important to note that iron from plant foods is not easily absorbed by the human body. 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, guava and kiwi.Folic acid
- Folic acid, also known as folate, is also 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. Folic acid-rich food sources include legumes, dark leafy green vegetables, wheatgerm and fortified or enriched cereals, breads and pastas.
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 include 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 to ensure their baby’s healthy development. Protein-rich food sources include well-cooked meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dried beans, peas and lentils, nuts, seeds and tofu.
Fibre helps to reduce cravings, keeps blood sugar levels stable and reduces the constipation often experienced during pregnancy. Regular adequate intake of fruits and vegetables as well as good quality unprocessed whole grains can assist in ensuring that one’s digestive system continues to work regularly.
Foods to moderate
The following food sources do not need to be avoided altogether, but speak to your doctor or caregiver about the best amount of consumption based on your body and on your baby’s health.
Caffeine is easily absorbed and unborn babies do not have the main enzyme needed to metabolise caffeine. High levels in the mother can easily build up in the baby. The British Dietetic Association recommends no more than 200mg of caffeine daily, which equates to no more than two to three cups of coffee or tea. Rooibos tea is a great caffeine-free alternative, which may help with increasing fluid intake if you are not a huge fan of plain water.
- Liver and other organ meats
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 avoid or restrict organ meats to only occasional intake in small quantities during your pregnancy.
Fish is a good source of lean protein, and some fish – including salmon and sardines – also contain omega-3 fatty acids, which is 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 are all high in methyl mercury should be avoided. It is safe for pregnant women to eat well-cooked oily fish, e.g. fresh tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines – though no more than twice per week. Canned light tuna has less mercury and is safe to eat during pregnancy, but should be limited to two cans per week.
Foods to avoid
Pregnant women are at higher risk of food poisoning, especially from bacteria and parasites such as listeria, salmonella and toxoplasma. The following foods should be avoided during pregnancy.
- Raw fish, eggs and sprouts
- Raw fish and shellfish – including fish-containing sushi. In the meantime, try vegetarian sushi options if you need to manage your cravings.
- Foods containing raw or undercooked eggs and raw sprouts can be contaminated with salmonella, a type of bacteria that causes flu-like symptoms in the mother. The danger with salmonella is that it sometimes causes cramps in the uterus, which can lead to premature birth or stillbirth. Possible sources of raw eggs include cookie dough, cake batter, caesar salad dressings, tiramisu, chocolate mousse and Hollandaise sauce – all of which should be avoided. Also avoid raw alfalfa, clover, mung bean and radish sprouts.
- Foods that could expose you to listeria, which increases the risk of miscarriage and can harm your unborn baby, include lunch meat, meat spreads, hotdog sausages, shop-made salads and ready-prepared sandwich fillings like chicken mayonnaise.
- Unpasteurised dairy products – Unpasteurised milk or soft cheeses (blue cheese, queso blanco, brie, feta, Roquefort) can be risky for pregnant women. Pasteurisation involves heating a product to a high temperature to kill harmful bacteria and it serves as an effective method to protect you and your baby from harmful bacterial infections such as listeria. Be careful when choosing dairy products and make sure they have been pasteurised.
- Alcohol – Alcohol is one of the most common causes of birth defects. When consumed during the first trimester, it may also increase the risk of miscarriage. Alcohol can cause foetal alcohol syndrome, which leads to facial deformities, heart defects and mental retardation. According to The British Dietetic Association, it is currently not known what the lowest safe level of intake is, so the best approach is for pregnant women to avoid alcohol completely.