When you're expecting, it often seems like everyone from your next door neighbour to complete strangers on public transport are keen to offer advice about what you should and shouldn't do in the interests of your health and wellbeing. Here, we debunk some of the most common pregnancy myths.
Myth 1: You can't have a healthy vegetarian pregnancy
During pregnancy your iron requirements increase, so it's no surprise that many women are concerned that a diet lacking in iron-rich red meat may not be the healthiest choice.
But according to accredited practising dietitian Natasha Murray, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, you can enjoy a healthy vegetarian pregnancy, as long as you eat enough plant sources of iron. "With pregnancy, iron needs are increased and meat is the best source of iron, so you need to make sure you're eating plenty of plant-based sources of iron to meet your requirements," she says.
Dark leafy green vegetables, lentils, whole grain foods, dried beans and dried fruit are good plant sources of iron. Because iron isn't as easily absorbed from plant sources, Murray recommends eating these foods with a food rich in vitamin C – such as strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli – which helps the body absorb the iron.
Vitamin B12 is needed for baby's brain development, and as it's only found in animal foods it's also important to include dairy and soy products in your vegetarian diet.
Myth 2: It's better to avoid fish because of mercury and toxins
Yes, mercury has been linked to birth defects, but not all fish is high in mercury, so there's no need to cut it out entirely. Plus, fish is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for the development of bub's nervous system and associated with a reduced risk of premature birth and postnatal depression.
Intake of fish higher in mercury should be monitored. "We do recommend limiting big game fish like shark [flake], broadbill, marlin and swordfish," says Murray. "They should only be eaten once a fortnight with no other fish that fortnight. Medium-sized fish like sea perch, orange roughy and catfish should be eaten no more than once a week with no other fish that week."
Most other fish types are safe – and recommended – to eat each week. "If a pregnant woman isn't eating any of those fish but she's eating fish like tuna and salmon she can safely include two to three serves a week of any other fish," says Murray.
But it's important to only eat cooked fish to avoid food-borne illnesses like listeria, so chilled seafood such as sushi, sashimi and smoked salmon should stay off the menu until after bub arrives.
"Cooked salmon is fine but hold off on the smoked salmon until your baby is born," Murray advises.
Myth 3: You should stay out of the sun when you're expecting
There's no doubt that Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, but it's estimated that about four million Aussie adults are vitamin D deficient. We need some sun exposure to maintain levels of vitamin D, which is essential for strong bones, muscles and overall health. It's especially important to maintain healthy vitamin D levels during pregnancy, as bub needs the vitamin for bone and teeth development.
The sun's ultraviolet radiation is the best source of vitamin D as it's virtually impossible to obtain enough vitamin D from diet alone. So where's the sweet spot between getting enough sun exposure without increasing your skin cancer risk, especially during summer?
"If you're exposed to sun when it's not particularly intense, like the beginning and end of the day, you won't damage your skin in a way that could cause skin cancer, but you will be able to produce vitamin D," says Professor Ian Olver, CEO of Cancer Council Australia.
"A normal woman over summer would probably only need the equivalent of 10 minutes to their face and arms during the course of a summer day in order to produce enough vitamin D."
Myth 4: It's not safe to dye your hair during pregnancy
Of all the pregnancy myths, the idea that you should hold off dying your hair is perhaps one of the most pervasive – yet most research, although limited, shows that it's safe to colour your hair when you're expecting.
"Generally speaking, we don't absorb huge amounts of chemicals through the skin, which is what you worry about when you dye your hair," says Dr Gino Pecoraro, spokesperson for The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
But he recommends waiting until your first trimester is up before booking an appointment at the salon. "A lot of what's in hair dyes is a trade secret for the company, so my advice is don't do it in the first trimester, as that's when baby is being formed and the organogenesis happens," he says. "But after that I don't think you should let it go just because you're pregnant."
Myth 5: Eating peanuts during pregnancy can cause bub to become allergic
Peanuts are the most common cause of severe allergic reactions to food, and the number of children allergic to peanuts is growing. But mums-to-be chowing down on the nut in pregnancy aren't to blame.
According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, excluding allergenic foods such as peanuts – as well as eggs, fish, soy and cow's milk – from a pregnant woman's diet hasn't been shown to reduce the risk of developing an allergic disease. It has also been associated with impaired weight gain by babies.
"Restricted diets during pregnancy aren't recommended," says Murray. "Nuts are an excellent snack or addition to salads and stir-fries during pregnancy – a small handful every day is great. They contain healthy fats, are low GI and a good source of protein. Plus, they're awesome for vegetarian women."