10 foods for a healthier pregnancy

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 Photo: Getty Images

I stared at the pregnancy test a little harder. There was definitely a second very faint line appearing. This took me by surprise. I read the box again. And there it was in black and white – even the faintest second line means you are pregnant. And so began nine months of joy – and worry.

I didn't expect to worry so much throughout pregnancy but I found myself worrying about everything. I worried about the lady near me on the train who wouldn't stop coughing. I worried about my unborn baby and hoped it would make it into this world healthy. I worried about using hot water bottles or having the water too hot in the shower. But more than anything I worried about the food I was putting into my mouth.

I knew there were certain foods I had to avoid while this little baby grew inside me, but I also knew there were certain foods that could help my unborn baby develop well

Natasha Murray, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, explains that it's important to think about what you're eating while pregnant. "A lot of people think you are eating for two when you're pregnant," says Natasha. "You don't have to eat the total amount for two, but you do need to make sure you are getting enough good quality nutrients because [your unborn] baby will take nutrients from mum – sometimes at the expense of mum."

Natasha gives the example of calcium: your unborn baby will need calcium from you to help with bone and teeth development. But if you don't eat enough calcium, it may come from your bones and teeth instead, leading to problems with your bone and dental health.

Other key nutrients to eat throughout pregnancy, according to Natasha, are folate, iron and iodine.

"Folate is a very important vitamin during pregnancy as it is used to develop your baby's spinal cord, and research shows that making sure pregnant mothers have enough folate reduces the risk of neural tube defects like spina bifida," she says. "Good food sources of folate include green vegetables, fruit, legumes and breakfast cereals that have had folate added."

It's also important for pregnant women to eat more iron during pregnancy. Not only is iron needed to make extra red blood cells for you and your unborn baby, but a baby's iron stores needs to last them the first five to six months of life.

"Lean red meat is the best source of iron, and chicken and fish are also good - the iron in these foods is easily used by the body," says Natasha.

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"Grains, legumes, nuts and vegetables also contain iron, but it is harder for the body to use. Vitamin C helps the body use this type of iron, so include foods like tomatoes and capsicum with meals, or have fruit like oranges, kiwi fruit and strawberries for dessert."

Lastly, Natasha explains how iodine is used by the thyroid to make hormones that are vital for the normal development of the brain and nervous system. This happens both before birth and in baby's early years, making it important that pregnant and breastfeeding mothers get enough iodine.

To help meet the extra nutrition requirements throughout pregnancy, Natasha says it is important for pregnant and breastfeeding women to eat a variety of foods from all five food groups every day as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, pregnant women are advised to aim for eight to nine serves of breads, cereals, rice, pasta and noodles; at least five serves of vegetables and legumes; two serves of fruit; two to three serves of low-fat dairy such as milk, yoghurt and cheese; and two-and-a-half to three-and-a half serves of meat and meat alternatives.

This is why snacking can become important throughout pregnancy as you'll likely find it easier to spread out the extra energy you need throughout the day. But rather than reaching for high sugar, high salt or high fat snacks, it is important to go for healthy snacks full of the nutrients you need, like fruit smoothies, vegetable sticks, yoghurt and wholemeal crackers.

For a little help in choosing what snacks you could switch to, check out Bupa and The George Institute's app called FoodSwitch, which helps you to find out how much salt, sugar and saturated fat is in the food you are eating and suggests simple, healthier alternatives.

Jenelle Croatto, accredited practising dietitian at FEEDinc, also offers some great alternatives to those high-energy snacks that are full of  kilojoules. Try swapping potato crisps for air-popped corn (resist the urge to douse it in butter and salt!), or switching from hot chocolate preparations from the supermarket for hot cocoa with low fat milk or water.

And if you are like me – someone who worries too much throughout pregnancy – here is a list of 10 foods, according to Jenelle, that pregnant women should consider putting on their shopping list:

  1. Lean meats
  2. Salmon
  3. Eggs
  4. Wholegrain, low GI (slow energy release) breads and cereals
  5. Low fat dairy foods (or dairy alternatives) – milk, yoghurt and cheese
  6. A range of colourful fruit and vegetables
  7. Sweet potato
  8. Leafy greens
  9. Legumes (like lentils, chickpeas, edamame, and kidney beans)
  10. Walnuts

And as both Natasha and Jenelle point out, alcohol is one thing to absolutely avoid throughout pregnancy.

Download the free FoodSwitch app to learn more about healthy eating decisions in pregnancy and beyond.