Pregnancy is probably the most important period in our lives in terms of what we eat. It is when our cells are dividing with unbelievable speed, brand new tissues and organs are developing rapidly. This explosive process requires a lot of different nutrients and energy to ensure a healthy development of a new human being. Where else are the nutrients going to come from if not the mother’s body.
The female body is able to adapt to the process of pregnancy by increasing the uptake of Iron and turnover of bones for Calcium. So, even without having a very healthy diet the baby will be able to receive most of needed nutrients from the existing diet. The placenta even protects against very bad habits like smoking, alcohol consumption and poor activity levels. Even this is a very energy requiring process, the advised calorie intake is just slightly larger than normal average females with the exception of underweight and very physically active individuals.
Weight gain during pregnancy is a seemingly normal process with an expectancy of on average + 12kg but less in overweight women. There is a great risk for both undernourished and overweight mothers during pregnancy. Lack of weight-gain might lead to low birth weight which is the major killer of babies on the other hand excess weight might lead to a still birth or complicate the birth (i.e. Need for performing caesarean, more anaesthetics required).
Other popular worries are related to some food which might harm the baby; however there are many products which might help to decrease risks of complications during pregnancy.
As mentioned already, energy requirements for pregnant women are almost the same as usual but the needed values of some nutrients might increase.
Protein although very essential mostly is being provided by the Western diet anyway thus 6-10g of extra protein might be unnecessary. It would be beneficial to avoid protein sources which are also rich in cholesterol to help maintain a good health. Alternatives to meat could be pulse origin foods like tofu (see benefits of eating tofu).
Folates are both very important prior and during pregnancy and are advised to have increased dietary intake most from all nutrients. As discussed in our benefits of eating bananas article, folates prevent blastic anaemia, neutral tube defects and increase plasma homocystene. Some other food rich in these are peanuts, liver, eggs, beans and leafy vegetables.
Calcium which is the major mineral in bone production has been proved recently to have a sufficient availability in the mother’s body. If the mother does not suffer from Calcium deficiency already, increased intake is not necessarily. More Calcium in diet is rather a general health advice which applies to the majority of population not just pregnant women. More on Calcium can be found in articles about the benefits of eating cheese and benefits of eating dairy.
Iron requirements increase during the pregnancy. Lack of iron is associated with anaemia and perinatal mortality. On other hand supplementation of iron again might not be necessary for the same reason why we don’t need more protein. Benefits of eating chia seeds include the high content of Iron which is much needed if the mother has low haemoglobin levels.
Zinc is another metal which if deficient in the body might cause retardation of the new-born. This is due to the Zincs role in DNA synthesis in cells. Not just lack of Zinc from dietary sources might cause preterm delivery and fetus abnormalities but also increased supplementation of Iron and Calcium as they limit Zinc’s absorption. It has been concluded that Zinc should come from food, for example liver.
Iodine like other metals also doesn’t show deficiency in developed countries. Lack of it though causes cretinism with general mental and physiological retardation. The most common sources of Iodine are dairy products and iodized salt.
Lack of Vitamin A in developing countries causes weak immunity, death from measles, general increases morbidity and high AIDS mother-to child transmission. In West we get enough vitamin A from different foods like carrots, liver and tomatoes. High intakes of liver are on other hand are considered to be dangerous as too much of metals and vitamin A might cause toxic levels in the blood. The consequences are defects of the nervous and cardiovascular systems.
Many Ethnic minorities with darker skin have risk of vitamin D deficiency when living in less sunny climate. Lack of vitamin D during pregnancy might cause lower weight gain, disturbed skeletal homeostasis in the child and neonatal pelany. Most of women in UK therefore are advised to increase their vitamin D intake during pregnancy.
Vitamin C is required for the use of Iron the body and formation of collagen. Rich in this vitamin are food like citrus fruit, apples, green vegetables and potatoes. As it can be noted they are common part of the Western Diet. Even needed more during pregnancy a balanced diet should already cover the needs of vitamin C.
Things to avoid
Although most substances when not over consumed should not cause any harm, there are some which carry more health risks than others and should be restricted during pregnancy.
Alcohol – One drink a day might be tolerated by the body though excess will lead to under development of the face, body size and mental retardation of the infant.
Nicotine – Should be totally avoided as it increases risk of spontaneous abortion, retardation, preterm delivery and lack of pregnancy weight gain.
Caffeine – Intake of more than 2 cups of coffee or 4 cups of tea might cause low birth weight and spontaneous abortion.
Mercury – present in large oily fish like tuna, shark and sword-fish cause impaired neurological development and increase risk of cancer. However it is still allowed to eat approx. 4 cans of tuna a week.
Bacteria – Mother should avoid uncooked foods which carry risk to be contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria monocytogens. Such foods are maturated, soft and blue cheeses, pates. Even if you would enjoy rather a rare cooked steak, think of your baby and make it well done. Otherwise continuous exposure to bacteria will lower the strength of immunity both for a new-born and the mother.