Pregnancy is an exciting, emotional, life-changing experience with many changes occurring to your hormones and body. The experience effects how you feel from day to day, your energy levels, your emotions and your food preferences and cravings. Some women approach this time as a time in which they can relax with their diet and “eat for two” to satisfy those cravings. Although it may be necessary to give in to those cravings once in a while (for your sanity), there is a no more crucial time to make sure you are eating a nutritionally balanced diet.
Nutrition during pregnancy is crucial for the health of not only yourself but also your developing baby. It is essential to maintain or learn to eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, lean meat or non-meat alternatives (beans, lentils, tofu and cooked eggs), nuts and seeds, and low-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt to ensure the baby receives the required fibre, vitamins and minerals (Dietitians Association of Australia). I like to think of it like this – my baby eats what I eat. Research has shown that the food a mother eats during pregnancy can affect the development of her baby, and may also affect the baby’s health later in life (Nutrition Australia, January 2012).
Nutrition Australia highlights that pregnant women need more protein and iron, folate, iodine and zinc. Contrary to the “eating for two” term commonly used, pregnancy doesn’t mean eating twice as much. Your energy needs only slightly increase and it is more essential to focus on eating nutritionally dense foods to ensure the body receives all the required nutrients (i.e. it is more about quality than quantity). To make sure the mother and baby’s nutrient requirements are met, Nutrition Australia (January, 2012) recommends eating a varied diet incorporating the 5 food groups. Particular attention should be given to the below:
Calcium: Calcium is needed to build healthy bones. During pregnancy, your body absorbs calcium more efficiently from your body. Recommendations for calcium during pregnancy are the same as for non-pregnant women (1000mg per day).
3 to 4 serves of dairy foods each day is recommended. One serve is equal to a glass of milk (250mL), a tub of yogurt (200g) or 2 slices of cheese (40g). Calcium rich foods include milk, yoghurt, cheese, green leafy vegetables (i.e. broccoli, bok choy and kale), almonds, hard tofu, and unhulled tahini.
Folate and folic acid
Folate is a B vitamin found in green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, broccoli and asparagus), fruit (e.g. citrus, berries and bananas) and legumes (e.g. chickpeas, beans and lentils). Folic acid is a form of folate added to foods such as cereal-based products. Consuming sufficient Folate is required in order to reduce the risk of neural tube defects. As recommended by The Dietitians Association of Australia, women of childbearing age should consume 400 micrograms of folate per day. These requirements increase during pregnancy to 600 micrograms per day. Most women do not consume enough folate in their diet and it is recommended that pregnant women take a folic acid supplement to meet the required nutrient intake.
During the second and third trimester, consuming sufficient Iron is essential to meet the needs of your developing baby and support the increase in amount of blood needed by your body. Iron rich foods include red meat, chicken, pork, fish, legumes, green leafy vegetables and iron-fortified cereals. Eating foods that are rich in vitamin C will also help your body absorb iron from plant sources.
Iodine is an essential mineral important for the development of your baby’s brain and nervous system. It is not stored anywhere in the body so regular consumption of foods containing iodine is essential for good health (Dietitians Association of Australia). During pregnancy your iodine requirement increases by 47 per cent and by 80 per cent during breastfeeding. Food sources of Iodine include dairy, seafood and fortified bread. Iodine supplements may also be recommended to ensure your body’s needs are met (consult your medical practitioner for further advice). On another note, it is important for pregnant women to be cautious regarding the types/amounts of fish consumed due to potentially dangerous mercury levels found in some types of fish. Fish that are found to be typically high in Mercury and should be consumed sparingly include shark/flake, billfish (including swordfish, broadbill and marlin), catfish, and orange roughy (Dietitians Association of Australia).
Zinc is an essential mineral for normal growth and development in bones, the brain and many other parts of the body. Consuming zinc is particularly important during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence. Zinc food sources include red meat, fish, dairy and nuts, legumes and cereals.
Additional protein is needed during pregnancy. A healthy balanced diet should provide enough protein to meet your needs during pregnancy. Protein food sources include meat, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, dried beans and lentils, dairy products, and soy products.
Consuming a nutritionally rich diet incorporating food from each of the five food groups with plenty of fruits and vegetables and 3 serves of dairy a day will help ensure the healthy development of your baby.
For specific advice/ concerns I recommend consulting your local medical practitioner. Also take note of foods that should be avoided during pregnancy and consult your doctor for any further information. And most importantly, enjoy the once in a lifetime experience, there is nothing like it!