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Even if you’ve never given much thought to your diet before, becoming pregnant is likely to bring about some changes. Essentially, whatever you eat and drink will eventually find its way to your baby. How your baby grows, develops, interacts and moves inside you will all be partly due to the food which you have eaten. Which means that thinking about your pregnancy diet and investing some energy into making wise and sensible decisions about what you eat is going to be worthwhile. Not just for now, but into the future as well.

General pre-conception dietary guidelines

  • Caffeine and alcohol can be toxic to developing sperm so encourage your partner to minimise his intake of both. If either of you are cigarette smokers, you would benefit from stopping. Male smokers produce less sperm per ejaculation than non-smokers and female smokers can have problems with ovulation and their menstrual cycles.
  • Watch your vitamin C intake and ensure you are eating plenty of citrus foods, berries, kiwifruit and drinking fresh juices.
  • Both watch your weight. Being overweight or obese affects fertility and contributes to hormone imbalance. Women who are too fat or too thin for their age can have abnormal menstrual cycles.
  • Both you and your partner need to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables each day. A healthy diet including red and white meat, fish and seafood, milk and dairy foods as well as bread and cereals will meet your body’s nutritional requirements.
  • Boost your own calcium intake with milk and dairy products, your folate levels with plenty of green leafy vegetables and your omega 3 intake with oily fish.
  • Start taking a folic acid supplement up to 3 months before you conceive to help protect your baby from developing a neural tube defect. A supplement of 500 micrograms/day is the recommendation. Even if you are eating a diet high in folate, it will be difficult to ensure you are getting sufficient to gain the protective benefits from your diet alone.

Eating disorders

We all have a relationship with food which like any other, can be functional or unhealthy. For people who see food as a crutch, a friend or even a great source of comfort, weight issues tend to result. Pregnancy can be a time when it becomes difficult to suppress unresolved eating problems and they often tend to surface.

If not addressed properly, eating disorders tend to linger for many years and there is a potential for children to inherit them, particularly from their mothers.

If you have experienced problems with eating and food in the past, seek advice from a specialist dietitian early in your pregnancy. It will take courage to do this, but the first step towards any improvement is to acknowledge ownership of a problem and then do something about it. Your baby will be relying on you to provide it with all the nutrition it needs to grow and thrive. This is reason enough, for many parents to seek help. Check the New Zealand Dietitians Association website for more information.

Pregnancy diet and morning sickness

  • Listen to your body’s signals that you want to eat or you don’t. Try to avoid eating something you dislike just because it is good for you. It is important to maintain your hydration even if you can’t tolerate too much food. Sips of water, cups of weak tea, fruit smoothies, cereal with low fat milk and even flat lemonade are good fluid options.
  • Keep a container of crackers and a glass of water on your bedside table. Even before your feet touch the floor in the mornings, make sure you have something in your stomach other than your digestive enzymes.
  • Ask your partner to cook the family meals until you feel better. This may not be until after your first trimester. The sight and smell of raw meat can simply be too much for many pregnant women, so avoid it if you need to.
  • Have a glass of milk and something light to eat just before you go to sleep at night.
  • Avoid very spicy, fatty or ultra sweet foods. Bland, easy to digest foods such as rice, pasta, noodles, sandwiches, fruit and toast are all good alternatives.

Benefits of having a healthy pregnancy diet

  • Less risk of developing anaemia and gestational diabetes.
  • Better maternal nutrition during pregnancy has benefits for the baby in terms of their weight, their growth and brain function. These benefits don’t just apply during your pregnancy but will have long term consequences throughout your baby’s life.
  • Better recovery time postnatally and an earlier return to pre-pregnancy weight.
  • A healthy pregnancy diet minimises mood swings and leads to better emotional health.
  • More energy, less fatigue and a better sense of well-being.
  • Less constipation and a feeling of sluggishness in the bowel. Fibre from your food will act like a broom in your large intestine, “sweeping” the contents along.
  • A good pregnancy diet will encourage positive role modelling for older children. This will help them learn that diet is important and a vital way of supporting good health.

General dietary guidelines during pregnancy

  • Don’t skip meals or leave hours to lapse between eating. Aim for 5-6 small to moderate sized meals every day which don’t leave you feeling too full.
  • Eat breakfast, even if you usually don’t. It really is the most important meal of the day and will help to restore your body’s blood sugar levels to a healthy range after fasting for so many hours.
  • Avoid getting caught up in the “trap” of subscribing to diets which are said to eliminate toxins from your body. Unless you have problems with your liver and kidney function, you are unlikely to have any concerns. If in doubt, check with your midwife or doctor.
  • Aim to have a healthy relationship with food where you see it as fuel for your body and a means of functioning at your capacity. Take time to think about what foods are good for you and your baby rather than letting your taste-buds always drive the decisions about what you eat.
  • Don’t limit the range or variety of the foods in your pregnancy diet. Your baby will taste the flavours of the foods you eat when it swallows the amniotic fluid. This will prime their taste buds so that when they are old enough for solid food, around 6 months of age, they will be more receptive to a greater range of tastes.
  • Have some form of calcium in your breakfast. Cereal drenched in milk, yoghurt, milky tea or coffee, or cheese on toast will help to correct the deficit of calcium in your bones which has been used up overnight. Bones are living tissue and like a bank account, they need regular deposits of calcium and vitamin D to stay strong.
  • Keep snacks and nibbles on hand wherever you are. In the first trimester when nausea and vomiting is common, eating something can make all the difference to how you feel.
  • Give into cravings if you’re having them. As long as they’re not for inedible foods (Pica) there is often a biological reason for the carvings which pregnant women have. A craving for oranges or tomatoes for example, makes perfect sense because vitamin C is needed by the body to help absorb iron from foods.
  • Give up alcohol. The truth is there is no proven, safe level for pregnant women to drink and the only way to ensure you’re not having too much is to have none. Rediscover soft drinks, fresh fruit juices, soda water with a squeeze of lime or lemon juice or just plain tap water. The added fluoride will make its way to your baby’s jaw where their teeth and their enamel coating will be forming.
  • Don’t forget to buy iodised salt when you shop. Pregnant women need this important element for their own healthy thyroid function. Importantly, their baby needs it to boost their IQ. Seafood, iodine fortified bread, green leafy vegetables and eggs are other good sources.
  • Read labels and become familiar with the nutritional information of the foods you eat. The general rule is that the greatest concentration of a food component is placed first on the ingredient list. Manufacturers have to itemise contents in descending order. If you have problems pronouncing a particular ingredient or don’t recognise it as a food type, chances are it is not going to be very good for you or your baby.

What to avoid

  • Foods which could potentially harbour the bacterium Listeria. These are unpasteurised milk and milk products, soft cheeses, uncooked “deli” style meats and sushi. Eating at salad or buffet style bars can be risky. Aim to eat foods which you are confident have been stored and refrigerated carefully, or very hot foods which have not been sitting for too long.
  • Raw fish and fish which are predatory and higher up in the food chain can be high in mercury. Shark, swordfish, orange roughy and barramundi are best avoided by pregnant women. Babies whose mothers ingest too much mercury during pregnancy can have neurological problems.
  • Try to cut back on your caffeine intake in tea/coffee/cola drinks and chocolate.

Recommended reading:

  1. Feeding the bump: Nutrition & Recipes for Pregnancy by Lisa Neal: Allen and Unwin
  2. Eating for Two simply delicious recipes for a happy, healthy pregnancy by Kathleen Gandy: Penguin/Viking