For women who want to conceive, or are pregnant, good nutrition is crucial for preparing the body for the demands that come with pregnancy. Any foods or supplements consumed are used to maintain and develop both the mother and her baby.
Once a woman conceives, her macronutrient (energy) and micronutrient (e.g. vitamins, minerals) requirements change, she will need foods which can provide more energy and certain micronutrients that are vital for the growing baby’s health and development. By the third trimester, women will require 200 additional calories per day as the foetus will be growing at a much faster rate (1).
It appears that maternal diet during the pregnancy can even have a foetal programming effect, in the sense that the foetus will learn nutritional habits in the womb; these habits learnt in the womb can influence the child in later life after birth. Foetuses can naturally adapt their metabolism to deal with different nutrition states – under-nourished foetuses respond by reducing glucose and insulin production, ultimately slowing their growth rate and are at high risk of a low birth weight and metabolic disorders later in life. Under-nourished foetuses will also redirect blood supply to the brain which compromises the development of other major developing organs. Foetuses which are exposed to high-fat diets in the womb are more prone to consuming such diets later in life, and can be born with a high birth weight leading to difficult deliveries (2).
Follow these five tips for pregnancy nutrition so that you can give your baby the healthiest start to life:
Folic acid is naturally found in leafy green vegetables, berries, citrus fruits, nuts and also in fortified breakfast cereals. Many doctors recommend that expectant mothers take folic acid supplements, especially within the first trimester as it can help to prevent neural tube defects –defects of the spinal cord and brain. Folic acid is also understood to help the body produce new cells and prevent DNA mutations that are potentially cancerous, adding to its importance for pregnant women. Not taking enough folic acid has even been linked to cases of foetal paralysis, incontinence and even disabilities in terms of intellect (3).
By eating various types of foods a day, women are more likely to intake multiple nutrients and maintain higher energy levels. Pregnant women need almost 10 extra grams of protein per day which isn’t included in prenatal vitamins, protein can be found in meats, dairy products and legumes. Also, foetuses need calcium for healthy bone and teeth development as well as mothers who require stronger bones to get through pregnancy and decrease their risk of osteoporosis later on in life – calcium can be found in milk, yogurts and even almonds. Fibre from potatoes, breads and cereals not only satisfies hunger, but is essential for expectant mothers to ward off conditions such as constipation and haemorrhoids.
Fluid intake is just as important as food intake in pregnancy in order to prevent dehydration. Dehydration in pregnancy can lead to many unpleasant symptoms such as headaches, nausea and dizziness. In the third trimester, if the mother is dehydrated the body can react via contractions and put the mother and child at risk of pre-term labour. Expectant mothers should be making sure that they are up to twelve glasses of water or other liquids throughout the day. Drinking enough water can help to prevent UTIs, constipation and haemorrhoids – all which are common conditions for pregnant women.
The dangers of drinking alcohol, smoking and drug usage especially in pregnancy are well understood, which is why many experts advise that pregnant women avoid such activities for the sake of their baby’s health. Such behaviours can limit the degree to which a mother’s body can absorb and utilise available nutrients and many studies have documented pregnant women who drink or smoke will usually have low birth-weight babies.
Healthy eating habits developed in pregnancy should be continued postpartum also. By eating a well-balanced and nutrient rich diet, women can keep their energy levels high and can drop off extra pregnancy weight easily. If breastfeeding, a good diet can help produce milk – breastfeeding mothers need an additional 500 calories per day to keep energy levels up.
For more information on pregnancy nutrition, read about our Pre and Postnatal course