It used to be thought that pregnancy was a time when women needed to eat for two. This old chestnut has been proven wrong many times though as a suburban myth, it still has some devotees. The scientific evidence is, that it is not so much the quantity of food which needs to increase, so much as the quality of the nutrients contained in the food.
The general recommendation from (Australian) experts is that during pregnancy you will need more kilojoules in your diet than usual, but certainly not double. By the third trimester this will mean an increase of about 14% in normal kilojoule intake.
What makes the difference during pregnancy?
During pregnancy, a mother’s metabolic rate increases and her body becomes much more efficient at utilising the nutrients in her diet. Because of the slowing down in most pregnant women’s activity levels, the extra kilojoules which are not being used up in energy tend to be absorbed within her higher metabolic rate.
Why can’t I eat what I want to?
Too much energy (food) for the amount being used (exercise) will end up stored on your body as fat. Women who gain too much weight during their pregnancy tend to have more difficult births and a higher rate of caesarian section deliveries. Pre-eclampsia, PIH (Pregnancy Induced Hypertension) and Gestational Diabetes are all more common in women who gain more than the recommended 10-14 kilograms weight increase during pregnancy.
Developing gestational diabetes increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life. For a lot of women, gaining excess weight during their pregnancy is a catalyst for long term weight issues. Conversely, limiting kilojoule intake during pregnancy with the mistaken belief it will mean an easier or less painful childbirth is not true. Babies who are born small for their gestational age or underweight struggle with all sorts of problems; intellectually, developmentally and physically. Children of mothers who do not gain sufficient weight during their pregnancy are also at an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes as adults.
Don’t be frightened of fats
Two very important fats are necessary to include in your overall pregnancy nutrition. Docosahexanoic Acid (DHA) and Arachidonic Acid (AA). These fatty acids are vital for the development of your baby’s eyesight and brain. The best way to ensure you have a healthy intake is to eat oily fish such as sardines, salmon and mackerel. It you cannot tolerate fish, consider taking a quality supplement. But check with your health care provider first.
Increase these nutrients in your pregnancy diet
- More iron, especially haem iron from animal sources. Non-haem iron from green leafy vegetables is not as well absorbed by the body and you will need to eat much more of it to gain the same nutritional benefits. Even some percentage of haem iron in your diet will help your body to be more efficient in absorbing the non-haem iron from your food.
- Vitamin A, but only in small amounts. Too much Vitamin A is toxic to the body and can be lethal. Some experts warn against eating liver during pregnancy as it is very high in this nutrient. Fruits and vegetables which are yellow or orange are high in Vitamin A, so include some carrots, pumpkin and squash in your diet. Be careful though, too much can stain your skin and you’ll end up looking like you’ve had a spray tan gone wrong.
- The B group vitamins will help you to maintain general good health and wellness. They support the nervous system and brain pathways to function effectively. Good sources are wholemeal cereals and grains, green leafy vegetables, nuts and bananas. Avocados and mangoes are other excellent sources.
- Vitamin C is what is known as a water soluble vitamin which means it is excreted in the urine. Too much cannot be stored by your body or your baby, so it is important to ensure you have an adequate intake every day. Vitamin C will also help you fight infection, boost your immune system, help with the absorption of iron in your diet and will help your tissues heal after birth. Good sources are citrus fruits, berries, fresh fruit juices, pawpaw, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
- Calcium and Vitamin D. Dairy foods, milk and fortified soy products are good sources, so try for 2-4 servings each day. A small amount of filtered sunlight each day, before 10am and after 3pm is good for boosting Vitamin D intake. If you have dark skin, or cover a lot of your skin due to cultural or religious conventions, speak with your midwife or doctor regarding the need for a daily supplement.
- Vitamin E is what is known as a fat soluble vitamin, which means it is one of the vitamins which can accumulate in your body. Vitamin E helps to support healthy eyes and skin and is known to help the body rid itself of free radicals; those nasty aging compounds. In pregnancy, Vitamin E will help your baby’s nervous system development as well as its muscle growth. Nuts, vegetable oils including olive oil, legumes and seeds are all excellent sources.
- Protein, to help your baby grow. Rich protein sources have generally walked on legs so think all sources of meat and chicken. Your protein requirements will increase by around 15-20% even in the early weeks of pregnancy, purely because of the muscles, bones and organs which your baby is developing. Aim for 2-3 serves of quality, lean protein every day.
- Iodine, zinc, magnesium, copper and chromium. These elements are only needed in trace amounts though can be found in fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and beans, nuts and peas. Try to eat foods which resemble their original source as much as possible. Be suspicious about foods wrapped in lots of plastic and which have ingredient lists a mile long.
- Carbohydrates are vital for energy. Two different forms of carbohydrate are important but one more so than the other. Simple carbohydrates are in sugar, cakes and biscuits, the foods you may crave when you are pregnant. Think of what’s inside the glass cabinet at the corner bakery and you’ll have some good understanding. More complex carbohydrates are on the racks at the back, especially the whole grain breads and rolls. Brown rice, wholegrain flour, wholemeal pasta and potatoes are also quality sources of carbohydrates and are good to prevent constipation.
- If you are vegetarian or vegan, think about consulting with a dietician to ensure you are getting adequate, first class nutrition during your pregnancy. You need to ensure you are getting enough iron and vitamin B12 in particular, which are vital so you do not become anaemic. You will also need to ensure your protein and calcium intakes are adequate.
How to maximise the nutrients in your diet
- Follow the guidelines above to ensure you are eating sufficient quantities of each nutrient per day.
- Think about taking your own lunch to work. Although it takes a little planning, home prepared foods tend to be more healthy than take-away. Avoid bringing too many convenience foods into the house and make lists before you go grocery shopping. Think about how important your pregnancy nutrition is, not only for your own health but for your developing baby as well.
- When you prepare fruits and vegetables for eating, aim to peel and chop them immediately before you place them in your mouth. Vitamins can be oxidised and lost into the air as soon as their protective skins are removed. Buy fresh, from large, busy shops where the turn over of stock is likely to be quicker with less storage time.
- Remember, to reach for the fresher produce which is generally placed at the back of the rows. Heavier fruits and vegetables usually contain more juice and taste better.
- If you’re too busy to shop regularly, consider joining a fruit and vegie co-op where produce is bought directly from the market and family groups join together. Farmer’s markets and ordering on-line are other practical alternatives.
- Use minimal water for cooking and if you’re particularly keen, you can drink this or use it in soups or stock. Avoid cooking vegetables and fruit for long periods as this leads to excess vitamin destruction.
- Tinned, frozen, dried and stewed fruits offer reasonable alternatives to fresh fruit if it is not available.
- Each colour in a vegetable or fruit indicates a different range of nutrients. So aim for a diverse range of colour on your plate. Not only will it look good but will offer you a wide range of antioxidants and nutrients for you and your baby.
- Avoid taking vitamin/mineral supplements unless they have been prescribed for you. Folic acid is the exception. Many nutrients are not stored by the body and are excreted in urine and faeces.
- The absorption of zinc can be interfered with by iron, particularly if you are taking supplements. If you have been prescribed iron tablets, try to avoid taking them when you are eating foods rich in zinc. These are meat, bananas, seafood and nuts.