As I’m prepping for a talk at Food Matters Live on Maternal and Infant Nutrition I thought it would be a great time to write a blog all about foods to eat and foods to avoid during pregnancy.
Why does nutrition during pregnancy matter?
During pregnancy you’re growing a new life inside you! This means that you need to make sure you’re eating the right balance of foods, and getting the right balance of nutrients for healthy growth and development of your new baby. It’s also important to eat well to keep your own health up to scratch.
A great deal of research now links a mother’s nutrition pre and post pregnancy with the health of a child throughout their lives. We now know that pregnancy is a ‘critical period’ where a mother’s nutrition status can ‘programme’ a baby’s future risk of disease as well as influence their adult weight and, importantly, their brain development too.
This is one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about nutrition during pregnancy and nutrition for the early years – good food and nutrition practices during this stage really can make a difference to a child’s lifelong health.
So what should you be eating during pregnancy?
Firstly, the Department of Health recommends that during pregnancy you follow a typical ‘well-balanced diet’. This means eating a variety of foods from all of the food groups such as fruits and vegetables, wholegrain carbohydrates, protein-rich foods and some dairy foods.
But let’s get into more of the specifics during pregnancy (p.s. there is a summary at the end of the article if you don’t have time for all the nitty gritty!!):
Focus on veggies and fruits during pregnancy…
Fruits and vegetables are an important food group to include during pregnancy – this is because they are PACKED with vitamins and minerals as well as fibre, which can help with symptoms such as constipation during pregnancy. If you haven’t worried too much about getting your 5-A-Day in the past, now is the time to really put the effort in.
Getting your 5-A-Day doesn’t have to be hard – I normally recommend focusing more on the wonder of veggies and trying to include 1-2 portions of fruit or vegetables with every meal. You can also opt for some as snacks, especially if you’re finding yourself hungry in-between meals.
“..but I’m eating for two”
Remember that you DON’T have to eat for two – this is a complete myth. You only need excess calories during the third trimester and, even then, 200 kcals extra is all that’s required – the equivalent of 1-2 slices of wholemeal bread!
The human body is incredibly clever, and during pregnancy actually increases the uptake of vitamins and minerals to compensate for your growing baby’s needs.
For the general population, if we’re eating well and living a healthy lifestyle, we don’t really need to take supplements (unless recommended by your doctor, of course!) But during pregnancy there are a few extra vitamins you need to be taking to make sure you’ve got enough to supply you and your baby. These are…
Folic acid – it is recommended to take 400mcg (micrograms) of folic acid from the moment you decide to get pregnant, right up until your 12th week of pregnancy. This is because folic acid is important for the development of your baby’s spine and to reduce the risk of something called ‘neural tube defects’. If you’ve got diabetes, or have had a previous baby born with a neural tube defect, you may need a higher dose, so talk to your doctor about this before you start trying.
It’s also recommended to eat plenty of foods that are naturally rich in folate (nature’s form of folic acid). These foods include dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, some fortified breakfast cereals, beans, lentils, oranges and bread (see how most of them also fit in with your 5-A-Day too..)
Vitamin D – this nutrient is very important for the growth of your baby’s bones and mothers are recommended to take 10mcg of vitamin D throughout pregnancy (as well as throughout breastfeeding).
It’s a good idea to invest in a pregnancy multivitamin when you’re pregnant. This should include adequate amounts of vitamin D and folic acid as well as other important nutrients such as iron, iodine and calcium, which all can be beneficial during pregnancy (but aren’t always necessary). If you do decide to take a pregnancy vitamin, you can start taking it when you’re trying for a baby to boost your stores and to make sure you’re getting the folic acid recommended pre-pregnancy too. You can continue to take this throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding if you wish too. Make sure you don’t take any other multivitamins at the same time, and avoid taking anything with vitamin A, as vitamin A can be toxic for baby in high doses.
Get some fish in!
As recommended for the general population, during pregnancy we are also recommended to eat two portions of fish, one of which should be oily to ensure you’re providing your baby with plenty of brain benefitting omega-3 fatty acids. Oily fish includes – fresh tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and herring. Try and opt for MSC certified versions as this means they have been caught sustainably and not in the huge nets that are damaging our seas!
However, Department of Health also warn that mothers shouldn’t consume too much in the way of oily fish – no more than 2 portions a week – as some oily fish can contain high levels or mercury, which can be poisonous. This is very unlikely and just a precaution, so don’t worry too much if you’ve eaten more than two portions in one week.
If fish really isn’t your thing, you can try and opt for a pregnancy multivitamin that comes along with a good omega-3 supplement to make sure your growing baby gets enough.
So, what else should I avoid eating during pregnancy?
- We’ve already mentioned avoiding taking supplements containing vitamin A but it’s also important to avoid foods that contain too much vitamin A such as liver, paté and cod liver oil.
- As well as not having too much in the way of oily fish, you should try to avoid eating any shark, swordfish or marlin (just in case you were planning on it!), because these can be high in mercury as well.
- There has been a lot of controversy around the UK’s alcohol advice during pregnancy, as current policy recommends avoiding alcohol completely (especially during the first three months) however, it also recommends that if you do wish to drink, you should have no more than 1-2 units, once of twice a week. See here for more information on alcohol during pregnancy.
- It’s also recommended to limit the amount of caffeine you have during pregnancy as too much may increase the risk of miscarriage or having a low birth-weight baby. 200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine is the maximum amount recommended to have a day. To put this into context 1 mug of instant coffee contains around 100mg and a cup of tea roughly 75mg. Remember that green tea, chocolate and some fizzy/soft drinks also contain caffeine so keep an eye on how much you’re having throughout the day.
- You also need to avoid certain cheeses during pregnancy, mainly because of certain bacteria can grow on some cheeses which may, in very rare circumstances harm your baby. Mould-ripened soft cheeses such as brie and camembert should be avoided as well as blue-veined cheeses such as Danish blue, gorgonzola and Roquefort. The NHS recommends that hard cheeses are fine to eat during pregnancy, along with some soft cheeses such as mozzarella and feta. For a more comprehensive list of cheeses you can and can’t eat during pregnancy, the NHS choices website is a fantastic resource.
- Lastly, avoid any raw or undercooked meat, fish during pregnancy and opt for only pasteurised dairy foods. Eggs were previously advised not to be eaten under cooked or raw during pregnancy and this is still the recommendation unless the eggs are stamped with the Lion Code (red lion stamp), in which case, they are now considered safe to eat.
And finally, to summarise:
- Try and eat a well balanced diet during pregnancy, including getting your 5-A-Day.
- Make sure you’re taking the recommended vitamin D and folic acid during pregnancy; a pregnancy multivitamin is a good idea.
- Try and eat two portions of fish each week, one of which is oily, but avoid too much oily fish as well as shark, swordfish and marlin
- Avoid supplements containing vitamin A as well as cod liver oil and liver products
- Limit your caffeine intake to one or two cups of tea a day, and opt for caffeine-free alternatives
- Avoid alcohol completely if possible
- And, lastly, keep an eye out for certain cheeses as well as raw or undercooked foods, especially meat, eggs and fish!
“Many babies in the womb in the Western world today are receiving unbalanced and inadequate diets. Protecting the nutrition and health of girls and young women should be the cornerstone of public health. Not only will this prevent chronic disease, but it will produce new generations who have better health and well-being through their lives. ” Barker 2012