What you need to know about eating for a healthy pregnancy
Optimising your nutrition both before and during pregnancy will not only give your baby the best start in life but research suggests a healthy pregnancy diet also has long-lasting effects that go well into childhood. Here are just a few key steps to supporting your reproductive health throughout all stages of pregnancy and beyond.
If you're thinking about trying for a baby, it's vital to maintain good levels of a wide range of nutrients including vitamin D and folate. Vitamin D is made in the skin from sunlight (and small amounts of fish and eggs) and has been shown to maximise a woman’s ability to conceive naturally. Studies have also shown that 93% of women dealing with infertility issues are experiencing low levels of vitamin D. Increasing your vitamin D intake is a great place to start when you’re preparing yourself for a healthy pregnancy.
Many health professionals also recommend to start supplementing with folic acid at least three months prior to pregnancy. Folic acid is important for pregnancy, as it can help prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Folate is the naturally occurring form of folic acid so you also want to ensure you're increasing your intake of high-folate foods such as green leafy vegetables, broccoli and asparagus.
Preparing your body for pregnancy early can allow for changes in your own body and will allow you to recover more easily after labour.
Pregnancy – general recommendations
Don’t overdo it with your food intake
There is a common misconception out there that mums-to-be need to eat for two. This couldn’t be further from the truth (even if you're expecting twins or triplets!) as pregnancy only requires a slight increase in calorie intake. For example, you only need an additional 300-400 kcal during your last trimester but it’s really important to instead focus on the quality of the food you're consuming.
Eat a varied diet
Try and eat a varied diet and aim for six to seven portions of fruit and vegetables per day to ensure that you're getting enough fibre, water and important micronutrients. You also want to ensure that you're having a good quality source of protein with every meal and not forgetting plant sources of protein. Great examples include beans, lentils, eggs, beef, poultry, fish and nuts.
Most pregnant women are thirsty a lot of the time which is completely normal. After all, water is needed for building your baby’s body cells and allows for an increase in blood volume. Staying hydrated can also help reduce constipation – a common complaint throughout pregnancy.
As a nutritionist, I often recommend to clients that they pay extra special attention to a few key nutrients as they progress throughout their pregnancy.
Nutrition is absolutely crucial at this stage. This is when your baby is developing most rapidly, with his or her organs forming and developing. Folate is needed during pregnancy, particularly for the first trimester for the prevention of neural tube defects. Adequate levels of folate can also reduce tiredness.
Great food sources high in folate include dark leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus and beans.
Optimal nutrition during the second trimester will help your baby to build strong bones and teeth, so you need a good balance of vitamin D and calcium during this stage. Low vitamin D levels in pregnancy have been linked to low birth weight and supplementing with vitamin D during pregnancy has been shown to cut your risk of preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and prenatal infections by up to 50%.
Calcium-rich sources include full-fat dairy products including yoghurt, cheese and milk. Be sure to include plant-based sources including sardines, white beans and dark leafy vegetables.
With 60% of your baby’s brain made up of essential fatty acids, it’s perhaps no surprise that one of the most important nutrients in your third trimester is omega-3 fatty acids, which are key to the development of your baby’s eyes and brain. Great sources include flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts as well as oily fish such as salmon, herring, sardines and anchovies.
In fact, a recent study found that the children of mums who consumed the least amount of omega-3 during pregnancy were more likely to score in the lowest quartile on IQ tests at 4 years old. Research also suggests that allergy and eczema risk in infants and toddlers may also be reduced if mothers take a fish oil supplement during pregnancy.
Stick to the NHS guidelines on this, though, and don't consume more than two pieces of oily fish per week and avoid shark, swordfish and marlin due to the high mercury content.
Other key nutrients during pregnancy
Iron deficiency anaemia is extremely common in pregnancy, due to the increase of blood volume. You can boost iron sources naturally by eating dried fruit, nuts, seeds and lean red meat.
Top tip: Combine iron-rich foods with natural sources of vitamin C to increase absorption (such as citrus fruits and tomatoes!)
Vitamin B12 is required for a healthy nervous system and can be found predominantly in animal products such as lean red meat and poultry. Consider speaking to your health practitioner about supplementing with this vitamin if you are vegetarian.
Already had your baby? Read on!
As a nutritionist and a new mum myself, I believe that there just isn’t enough of a focus on how new mums can nourish themselves after pregnancy. Labour can leave you short on nutrients (particularly if you’ve had a long labour or lost a lot of blood), so eating a balanced diet will help with the healing process, optimise energy levels and mood and support milk flow if you're breastfeeding.
Here are some quick tips for looking after yourself during those first few weeks as a new parent:
- Consume foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan (which is a building block for serotonin) to help support those baby blues. Great examples include chicken, turkey, salmon oats, lentils, and avocado.
- Invest in a slow cooker – if you’re super organised you can even start batch cooking/freezing portions of things like soups, stews and casseroles in the weeks before your baby is due.
- Do not put any unnecessary pressure on yourself to lose the baby weight! As new mums, we live in a culture that expects us to ‘bounce back’ shortly after giving birth. However, now is not the time to be restricting calories or doing any strenuous exercise that could put added stress on your body. Instead, enjoy those first precious months with your new baby and give yourself some credit for bringing new life into this world!
- Stay hydrated. The first sign of dehydration is tiredness so make sure you drink enough water every day to help reduce fatigue. Drinking enough water is also really important for mums who are breastfeeding so make sure you have a glass of water next to you before a feed.
- Get your nutrient levels checked by your GP. It’s common to experience nutrient deficiencies post labour such as low levels of vitamin D and iron (especially if you are breastfeeding). So, if after a few weeks, you're still feeling under par, request a blood test from your GP to make sure your nutrient levels are all optimal.
Get in touch with a nutritionist to find out more information on how nutritional therapy can help support a healthy pregnancy.