During pregnancy and breastfeeding your body works hard and needs more vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. In addition to fueling your own body and providing for the needs of your growing baby, the increased tissue of the uterus, placenta and blood requires more calories, vitamins, minerals and protein.
Consequently, as you move through your pregnancy, your appetite will probably increase to ensure that you eat enough for you and your baby. This doesn't mean you need to eat twice as much! Your energy requirements will only increase by approximately 15% (500 calories per day).
You need to make sure that everything you eat is good for the health and well-being of both you and your baby. If your diet is inadequate during pregnancy problems can arise, but you also need to make sure you don't gain too much weight!
Try not to eat take-away and convenience food. Firstly, it contains too much fat and sugar and not enough of the nutrients your baby does need. Secondly, the fat and sugar will probably become maternal fat - hard to lose when you finish breastfeeding, or if you are unable to breastfeed.
It's very important not to diet while you're pregnant or skip meals - your baby grows all day every day and will suffer if you diet or starve.
This doesn't mean you need to eat twice as much!
While you need to ensure that you eat well during pregnancy, you may not feel like following normal eating patterns! It's OK to spread your meals out a bit, so try eating smaller meals more often if it suits you better.
It is normal for a woman of average weight to gain somewhere between 10-15 kg during pregnancy. Approximately 3-4kg of this new weight will be the baby while the balance is tissue for the new baby support system (placenta, amniotic fluid, blood, fat stores and breast tissue).
Your fat stores will be converted to breast milk during breast feeding, so it's possible to lose a fair amount of fat by breastfeeding your baby. Bear in mind that some fat will remain, but if you are eating a healthy diet and taking regular exercise, the extra weight should come off naturally.
Your baby's nutritional Needs
You have a very important and responsible role to play in pregnancy. As the only source of nourishment for your baby, you are the only one who can ensure that he or she receives all of the nutrients needed to grow and thrive. Make sure you eat a varied diet from a range of different foods. If you eat lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, fish, chicken and low fat dairy products, you should be able to meet your baby's needs.
Your nutritional needs
One of your most important roles during pregnancy is looking after your own well being. A healthy diet will help your body to manage and recover from the strain of pregnancy and the rigours of labour.
Your healthy diet may also help you to avoid problems such as anaemia and pre-eclampsia and decrease fatigue, mood swings, morning sickness, leg cramps and other common complaints during pregnancy.
Do you need supplements?
A daily supplement of 400mcg of folic acid is recommended for women who are trying to conceive and during the first trimester of pregnancy. Talk to your Health Practitioner about any other supplements to check whether they are suitable for you! Ideally, you should be gaining all of your nourishment from your diet.
Check that your diet includes adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals that, when in short supply, have been associated with problems during pregnancy. For example, zinc is important for growth and development and a good intake of Vitamin B is recommended during the early stages of pregnancy. Vitamin A is another nutrient linked to growth and when necessary (and in consultation with your Health Practitioner), supplements of Vitamin A as carotene, Vitamin D and Vitamin C can build up stores that can be passed across the placenta and through the breast milk to the growing baby.
While vitamin and mineral supplements for pregnant mothers are readily available, it is most important that you check with your Health Practitioner prior to taking any supplements.
Why is good nutrition so important?
Now that we know how to achieve a healthy diet, it's important to understand why you need to work towards maintaining it throughout pregnancy.
Inadequate food intake can have serious consequences for your baby. Malnutrition can retard the growth of the placenta and may increase the risk of miscarriage and a premature or low birth weight baby. These babies are more vulnerable at birth and throughout life.
A severely malnourished mother may prevent optimal brain function in her baby, as the most rapid brain development occurs in the last trimester of pregnancy and in the baby's first month. Also, when malnourished, the foetus will divert whatever is available to the cells that need it immediately and away from those cells that aren't important until later in life.
This means inadequate nutrition during pregnancy can continue to affect your child later in life and may contribute to middle-aged diseases such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and obesity.
A well nourished mother is more likely to produce a good sized baby that is active and more mentally alert, suffering less from colic, diarrhoea, anaemia and infection.
How do you know if you are at risk nutritionally?
When your Health Practitioner confirms that you are pregnant, he or she will ask questions to establish your nutritional well-being. If you fall into any of the categories below, inform your Health Practitioner:
- If you have had a recent miscarriage or still birth or if you have recently had a baby (less than 18 months ago)
- If you smoke or drink alcohol heavily
- If you are allergic to foods such as wheat or cows milk
- If you have a chronic illness for which you take medication
- If you are under 18 and your own body is still growing
- If you are carrying twins or multiples
- If you have had a physical injury or have been experiencing stress
- If your job entails hard labour or exposure to hazards
- If you were run-down, underweight or eating inadequately prior to conception
- If you have a history of a vitamin or mineral deficiency (eg; anaemia)
Foods to try and avoid for optimum nutrition during pregnancy
Processed foods (particularly processed cheese, meats, cheese spreads and sausages), which contain chemicals, additives and salt.
Preserved foods such as smoked fish, meat and cheese, pickled foods and sausages, which contain nitrate - a substance that can reduce the oxygen carrying power of your blood.
The stimulant caffeine, which is found in coffee, tea and chocolate and the tannin found in tea, which can interfere with iron absorption. Soft drinks that contain sugar or artificial sweeteners. The best options are herbal teas, mineral water and fresh juices.
Foods containing only sugar, sugar substitutes and refined flour - these are of no nutritional value to you and your baby and include:
- sugar and artificial sweeteners
- lollies and chocolates
- soft drinks and sweetened fruit juices
- tinned fruit in syrup
- artificial cream and ice cream
- sweetened cereals
- savoury sauces and dressings that contain sugar + jam and conserves
- packaged biscuits, cakes and pastries
Try eating fresh fruit, nuts, yoghurt and other healthy snacks instead!
Food hazards during pregnancy
Certain foods may contain bacteria that can cause illness, particularly in pregnant women and babies.
Some bacteria that can be harmful include:
Listerosis Sometimes found in large numbers in un-pasteurised milk, soft cheeses, pates, cooked chilled foods, rare meat and ready prepared coleslaw.
Toxoplasmosis Sometimes found in raw or rare meat, particularly lamb.
Salmonella Most often traced to eggs and chicken meat. It's advisable to avoid foods that contain raw egg and always cook chicken and eggs well.
Botulism Caused by improperly canned or preserved food such as cured ham or pork.
Reminders for a healthy diet:
- Eat a wide variety of nutritious foods
- Choose vegetable rather than animal fats
- Ensure you have a good intake of calcium
- Eat plenty of salad, vegetables and fruit (preferably raw)
- Be sensible about sweet and fatty foods
- Drink water and fruit juices to keep up your fluid intake
- Drink tea and coffee alternatives such as herbal tea and de-caffinated coffee
- Take adequate daily exercise (low impact)
By learning about eating well now, and developing good eating habits, you will find that you will automatically pass good eating habits on to your children.
Healthy Parents, Healthy Baby is an excellent resource and provides a wealth of information on the effect of nutrition on birthweight and development, social poisons, potential dangers during pregnancy and essential nutrients for you and your baby prior to conception and during pregnancy.