Contrary to popular belief, there’s no need to drastically restrict your diet during pregnancy and cut out all the foods you love. In fact, as David Goding discovers, it’s important to eat a wide variety of foods to meet the nutritional demands of you and your baby

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For first-time expectant mums it can be difficult to know what and how much you should be eating, what nutritional supplements to take and which foods to avoid. There’s just so many conflicting opinions and continually changing advice from experts, friends and family members.

“I have to confess that I found the barrage of information about the number of serves of the various food groups you should eat every day utterly overwhelming, especially when it seemed to be offered in tandem with advice regarding weight gain during pregnancy,” says Kathleen Gandy, author of Eating for Two.

“The recommendations seemed excessive to say the least, and I remember joking with a pregnant colleague that we’d have to give up work and make it a full-time job to work out what to eat every day. In addition, I hated the idea of reducing the act of cooking and eating – surely one of life’s greatest pleasures – to a regimented series of serves.”

Planned correctly, with a fully stocked fridge and pantry of foods high in necessary nutrients, your pregnancy diet needn’t be a chore. It does, however, need to be taken seriously and it is likely you will have to make some important adjustments to the way you have eaten prior to becoming pregnant.

“A well-balanced and healthy diet is essential for both your wellbeing and that of your baby,” says Alison Mackonochie, author of The Practical Encyclopedia of Pregnancy, Babycare and Nutrition for Babies and Toddlers.

“Everything you eat and drink will also become your unborn child’s nourishment, and what you store before pregnancy is important for early foetal development when all the major organs are formed.”

Foods to include

A basic dietary rule during pregnancy is to eat a wide variety of different foods. This gives you the best chance of meeting all the nutritional demands of you and your baby.

Include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, good quality lean protein foods (red meat, chicken and fish), low-fat dairy foods, wholegrain cereals and breads, beans, nuts, seeds and plenty of green leafy vegetables.

While it’s important to have a broad nutritional base, there are some nutrients that are particularly crucial during pregnancy.

Folate or folic acid is a B-group vitamin that is vital in the first trimester when a deficiency can lead to an increased risk of neural tube defects, including spina bifida. Foods rich in folate include broccoli, spinach, asparagus, avocado and folic acid fortified foods such as bread, juice and some breakfast cereals.

Iodine-rich foods are also important, as low levels can increase the risk of mental impairment in the newborn baby. To get enough iodine in your diet, increase your seafood and egg intake, include seaweed and use iodised salt rather than standard table salt.

Iron is a crucial mineral for the developing foetus and is important for the creation of new tissue, a healthy immune system and for reducing fatigue, a common problem particularly during the latter part of pregnancy.

Nutrient-rich ‘superfoods’ that are certainly worth adding to boost vitamin and mineral intake include oats (for fibre, energy, iron and B vitamins), bananas (for iodine, potassium, folate, zinc and iron) and berries (high in vitamin C, folate and antioxidants).

Last but certainly not least is oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel.

“Salmon and other oily fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for your baby’s brain development and vision, and protect against high blood pressure and early labour. Studies have also linked a low intake of omega-3s with postnatal depression,” Gandy says.

Supplements

Pregnant women can benefit from supplementation of specific vitamins and minerals. Folate, as mentioned, is of the greatest importance so including extra in the form of a daily supplement is highly recommended. It can be purchased by itself or as part of multi-vitamin pregnancy ‘formula’, of which there are several on the market.

Other nutrients that may be taken singularly or as part of a formula include iodine, zinc and vitamin C.
Including an omega-3 fatty acid supplement can also be highly beneficial, particularly if you’re not a big fish eater.

Pregnancy increases the need for iron; however, this can usually be met by dietary means alone. Iron stores can vary from individual to individual so a lot can depend on the level of iron stores in your body prior to becoming pregnant. It’s recommended that you discuss the possibility of iron supplementation with your doctor as too much iron can be toxic.

You should also consult your doctor about nutritional supplementation if you are vegetarian, vegan or suffer from a medical condition such as diabetes or obesity.

Foods to avoid

Many women ignore the risks of listeria, a bacteria found in some foods like fish and cheese that can lead to micsarriage or infection of your newborn baby. As Gandy points out, women in Japan continue to eat sushi while pregnant and French women rarely cut out soft or blue cheeses from their diet.
Nevertheless, listeria, though uncommon in Australia, is a very real concern and it’s certainly worth taking seriously. The Australian Government ‘Food Standards’ guide cautions pregnant women on eating cold cooked meats (including seafood such as prawns), uncooked seafood (including oysters), paté, pre-prepared salads, unpasteurised dairy products, soft serve ice cream, soft cheeses (such as brie and camembert), ricotta, feta and blue cheese.

Undercooked meat can also cause taxoplasmosis (a flu-like illness), which can lead to blindness or brain damage in the baby. You should also avoid mayonnaise and sprouts for risk of salmonella.
Some fish contain high levels of mercury, which can cause damage to the nervous system of your baby. Varieties to steer clear of include swordfish, orange roughy (sometimes referred to as sea perch) and the common flake (shark).

Vitamin A is one vitamin that shouldn’t be taken in supplementary form during pregnancy, as excessive amounts of the vitamin can lead to birth defects. For this reason you should avoid eating liver, which contains very high levels of the vitamin.

How much to eat

It’s true that when pregnant you are eating for two. But that doesn’t mean you should increase your food intake to any great extent. Adding 200-300 extra calories to your daily diet is plenty, says Dr Miriam Stoppard, author of Conception, Pregnancy and Birth. This should be spread over five to six meals a day rather than two to three large ones.

Dieting during pregnancy can be potentially harmful to your health as well as your baby’s.
“More problems develop if you eat too little rather than too much,” Dr Stoppard says.
“Pregnancy is not the time for dieting. Research has shown that when mothers-to-be eat poor diets, there’s a higher incidence of miscarriages, neo-natal death and low birth weight babies than normal.”
It’s normal to gain around 12-14kg during pregnancy.

Planning your diet


8am: Breakfast
Don’t skip it! Try to add some protein with wholegrain fibre for a complete breakfast. For example, cheese, eggs or peanut butter on wholegrain toast or oats with fruit, milk or yoghurt.

10.45am: Brunch
Snack away! Go for healthy options such as yoghurt, fruit, nuts, seeds or dried fruit. Avoid sugary drinks.

1pm: Lunch

Make it substantial. Again, you’re looking to include protein and carbohydrates. Try lean meat, chicken or tuna with salad in a sandwich or roll with freshly squeezed vegetable/fruit juice.

3.45pm: Afternoon snack

More snacks! Try a yoghurt smoothie, crackers with dip or toast.

6.30pm: Dinner

Be creative. Add extra vegies for a nutrient boost, include protein (meat, chicken, fish, dairy) and avoid processed and sugary ingredients. Create stir fries, pastas, soups, curries, salad topped with grilled chicken or a tuna noodle bake. You’re only limited by your imagination – and your cravings!

To read part one: Pregnancy myths exposed and part two: Pregnancy & fitness visit www.womenshealthandfitness.com.au c