The journey to becoming a mother is sacred, and of course you want to make sure that you and your baby are in the best possible health. You should have an extra focus on your diet at this time because your diet will influence not only your health, but also the wellbeing of your child. It goes without saying that it is vital to have a balanced and varied diet to support the demands placed on your body during the different stages of pregnancy.
Preparations should start before you get pregnant. The quality of the egg and sperm determine the health of your baby. It therefore makes sense for you and your partner to eat well in the months before you conceive.
During pregnancy, your baby is able to get most of its food from what you eat, but this can leave your body depleted. It is important that you take care to replenish the vital nutrients that you and your baby need. As well as making you feel strong, these nutrients are contributing to your baby’s immune system and gut health which will influence its long-term wellbeing.
Nutritional needs during pregnancy
Eating for two does not mean eating double the amount! During pregnancy you only need an extra 200-300 calories per day which is equivalent to two pieces of wholegrain toast or a yoghurt with a sprinkle of almonds.
You will also need more of the foods that help with the development of the brain and nervous system (omega 3, vitamin A, B vitamins), the formation of the neural tube (folate), the eyes (vitamin A) and bone and teeth formation (calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K and vitamin C).
For pregnant women following vegetarian or vegan diets, it is important to be aware of getting sufficient intake of omega 3, iron and B12 and if not, supplementation may be needed.
The sun in the northern hemisphere is not strong enough between October and March to meet our vitamin D requirements. Pregnant women should therefore supplement with vitamin D as this is a key nutrient for bone and immune health for both mother and baby.
Aside from eating well, it is also important to drink at least 2 litres of water a day and to take your prenatal vitamins. It can be difficult to obtain sufficient amounts of certain nutrients, including folate, iron, and choline, from your food alone even if you are eating a very healthy diet.
Best diet for pregnancy
The best diet to eat is a varied one, which means that you are getting all the nutrients you need from a wide range of foods. The basic principles of a healthy diet are the same during this time as other stages in your life, namely to:
ensure adequate amounts of proteins from foods such as pulses, fish, eggs, lean meat and tofu
include healthy fats (such as avocados and olive oil)
Have plenty of fibre-rich foods
The following foods can ensure that you get the key nutrients needed during this time:
Oily fish (eg. salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies and herring) - to support the development of the eyes, brain, and nervous system. If you don’t eat oily fish 2-3 times a week, then it is a good idea to take an omega 3 supplement (or a vegan algae one).
A wide array of colourful vegetables which are rich in fibre, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. These help protect mother and baby from oxidative damage and related diseases.
Green vegetables like broccoli, peas, spring greens and spinach contain plenty of folate.
Eggs (which should be cooked) are packed full of nutrients such as choline, protein, iron and vitamin D.
Lentils, beans and pulses contain plenty of fibre and B-vitamins.
Good quality grass fed meat for iron, B12, protein and healthy fats.
Yoghurt, cheese, tofu and dark green leafy vegetables for calcium.
Nuts and seeds are great energy-boosting snacks and are packed with an array of nutrients including essential omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin E, calcium and iron. It's fine to eat peanuts in pregnancy if you're not allergic to them.
It is generally recommended that pregnant women adopt a ‘Mediterranean diet’, which is anti-inflammatory and full of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, low-mercury fish, and good quality oils such as extra virgin olive oil.
What are the effects of a poor nutrition during pregnancy?
In the past, if a pregnant woman ate mostly sweets, cakes, biscuits and processed foods, we would just put this down to pregnancy cravings and not have been worried about the impact of this on her baby. However, current research clearly shows inextricable links between a mother’s poor diet and the health of her baby going forward throughout its whole life.
During pregnancy, poor diet will be lacking in key nutrients such as iodine, iron, folate, calcium and zinc. These can cause issues for the mother and the baby. Folate, for example, is essential for the formation of the spinal cord and the development of the baby’s brain and nervous system.
Nutrient deficiencies in mothers are also linked to anaemia and pre eclampsia. Unfortunately, poor diet from pregnant mothers can also have long lasting effects, altering the baby’s DNA and causing brain changes. This can lead to low birthweight, birth complications, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, obesity and developmental delays in offspring.
A recent study suggests that having a diet high in fat and sugar during pregnancy may also be linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. A pregnancy diet rich in inflammatory foods including sugars, artificial trans fats and processed meats was associated with greater weight gain in children and possible long term weight issues. This is because the pathways that program metabolism, growth and eating behaviours are sensitive to in utero influences.
Having a better understanding about the importance of diet during pregnancy can help you make more empowered choices. As parents you can start to focus on optimising your food choices as soon as you are planning a pregnancy.
If you crave sweet foods and find it hard to steer away from the odd bar of chocolate, this is not a problem as long as you aim to include plenty of the foods mentioned. If you find it a challenge to change your eating habits then think about what you can add to your diet to make it more nutritious.
I recently had a pregnant student in my yoga class who said she was finding it difficult to eat enough protein as she didn’t have much appetite and felt full very quickly. She said she would often just eat a small sandwich for lunch. I told her to prioritise the protein on her plate and to cut out the bread!
If you need a bit more persuasion, then consider that studies have shown that improving diet and physical activity during pregnancy can prevent excess weight gain from pregnancy by at least 20% whilst also decreasing the risk of gestational diabetes.
Perhaps we should be changing the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ to ‘you are what your mother eats’!