Following a healthy diet and eating well is one of the best things we can do for our wellbeing. Nutrition affects our lives from before we are born right up until our last days, and has a significant impact on our physical, mental, and social health.
The importance of eating healthy and making the correct food choices is amplified during pregnancy, which lasts, on average, between 37 to 40 weeks. During this time,proper nutrition can help moms-to-be to handle the extra demands on their bodies, maintain a healthy weight, and determine the future health of their babies.
It All Starts Before the Positive Test…
The first 1,000 days of life – or the period between conception and a baby’s second birthday – are crucial for human development. This is because these 1,000 days make up the period in which a baby’s brain begins to grow and develop. Nutrition, in particular, plays a fundamental role in this: the right mix of nutrients helps them resist infections and lays strong foundations for optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment. This means that, ideally, women should be following a healthy and nutritious diet before they start trying for a baby, especially since it can take a while for future moms to realize they are pregnant. To shine a light on the importance of nutrition during pregnancy, the European Union (EU) has developed a research project called Early Nutrition Programming with the aim of investigating how nutrition and lifestyle during pregnancy and infancy can affect a range of different body functions.
Poor nutrition in the first stages of life can cause damage to a growing brain and set the stage for non-communicable diseases in later life – especially obesity. For that reason, what both mother and father eat during the conception period is important.
Foods to Crave
The basic principles of a healthy diet remain the same during all life stages. While pregnancy cravings are a common thing, making healthy food choices help handle the extra demands on your body and fuel your baby’s growth. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and low-fat dairy are healthy choices and are pillars of a healthy diet.
- Try out different kinds of fruits and vegetables. They will provide many different vitamins and minerals. Remember, it’s important to enjoy fresh fruits and vary your veggies!
- Protein should come in healthy forms. It’s ideal to include a variety of protein sources such as seafood, lean meats, poultry, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and eggs.
- Moderate amounts of pasteurized dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese (or dairy alternatives fortified with calcium), are also of great importance.
Food Safety During Pregnancy
Some food and drinks should be avoided during pregnancy for the safety of the mother and the baby. For example, any unpasteurized cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk should be avoided, as well as any soft blue cheese because unpasteurized milk can contain Listeria, a bacteria that causes Listeriosis and can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth.
Also, it’s generally advised for pregnant women to avoid eating any kind of raw or uncooked meat and patés, because they are associated with a small risk of toxoplasmosis, which can lead to miscarriage. The same is true for raw or partially cooked eggs, as they can contain Salmonella, which can cause food poisoning.
On top of that, it’s recommended that the intake of some fish, such as tuna, be limited as they contain high amounts of mercury, a heavy metal that can be harmful to the baby’s health during its early development.
“Eating for Two”
Although this saying makes sense for some people, strictly “eating for two” might not be the best choice during pregnancy and may be one of the reasons behind excessive weight gain in pregnant women.
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), no extra calories are needed during the first trimester. Through the second and third trimesters, respectively, 260 and 500 extra calories should be added per day. That equates to approximately the amount of calories in a small sandwich or an avocado toast and would best come in the form of healthy snacks such as fresh fruit, nuts, and yogurt.
In relation to protein, an increased intake is recommended, depending on the trimester. During the first trimester, only 1 gram of protein should be added daily, in addition to normal intake. During the second, 9 grams, and. Finally, in the third trimester, 28 additional grams are recommended.
Vitamins and Minerals
Even though pregnant women don’t have to eat that much more than non-pregnant women, they need to be cautious about certain nutrients. Let’s take a look at some of them:
Probably one of the most famous vitamins when it comes to pregnancy, folic acid helps prevent birth defects in the brain and spine of the baby. It also supports the general growth and development of the placenta. The recommended intake of folic acid during pregnancy is 600 micrograms per day, which should come from vitamin supplements, since foods alone are usually not able to provide that amount.
The recommended intake of folic acid should begin before pregnancy, as it is most helpful during the first 28 days after conception.
Iron is required for oxygen transportation and energy metabolism. Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional deficiency disorder, and it is not uncommon during pregnancy. Although the body’s requirements for iron increase during pregnancy, it also becomes more efficient at absorbing it. This is the reason why supplements are not routinely offered to pregnant women and should be considered on an individual basis.
Iron is found in red meat, beans and legumes, eggs, dark leafy greens, and fortified foods. To help the body absorb it better, it’s a great idea to combine iron-rich foods with rich sources of vitamin C, such as lemons, oranges, acerola, and cruciferous veggies.
Vitamin B12 plays an important role in the formation of red blood cells, as well as the maintenance of the nervous system. In that way, 4.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 should be taken daily. It is strongly advised that vegetarians consider supplementation.
Calcium is a key component of our bones and skeleton. Rich food sources of calcium include dairy products, dark leafy greens, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fish. During pregnancy, adaptive changes in calcium metabolism occur, and the recommended daily amount varies from 950 to 1.000 milligrams daily.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat found naturally in many types of fish and are crucial for brain development before and after birth. Besides fish, other sources of omega-3s include flaxseed, walnuts, kidney beans, and spinach.
The recommended daily intake of DHA (one kind of omega-3 fatty acids) is increased by 100 – 200 milligrams during pregnancy.
Pregnant women should also be aware of their iodine, chlorine, vitamin D, and vitamin B6 intake. It’s always a good idea to discuss supplementation with your trusted doctor. Remember, when prescribed, supplements are a great help but they don’t replace a healthy diet!
It’s a well-known fact that a person shouldn’t drink alcohol when pregnant. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why this is the case?
Everything that a mother eats or drinks during pregnancy is passed directly on to the fetus. Since the fetus has an immature body, it causes alcohol to be broken down more slowly by the baby’s metabolism. This means that alcohol remains in the baby’s body for a longer period of time, increasing the chances of causing more harm to the developing fetus.
So, how much alcohol is safe for a pregnant woman to drink? The answer is none. Even light drinking can be harmful. Alcohol consumption is a leading cause of birth defects in a fetus and fetal alcohol syndrome, which also heightens the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.
What constitutes a healthy body weight during pregnancy is both relative and contingent on the weight of the mother-to-be before a positive test. For example, women who are underweight before pregnancy starts will gain more weight than a woman who used to have an average weight. On the other hand, overweight women tend to gain less weight.
Excess weight during pregnancy is associated with certain complications, including high blood pressure (also called hypertension), gestational diabetes, preterm birth (before the 37th week), and preeclampsia (a disorder in which there is high blood pressure and other signs of organ injury).
In most cases, it is not harmful to the baby to continue or start regular physical activity during pregnancy. In fact, regular physical exercise during pregnancy has many benefits and can help reduce the risk of maternal hypertension, neonatal respiratory distress syndrome, cesarean delivery, and promote healthy weight gain.
One common question asked by pregnant women: how much exercise is enough? Ideally, a pregnant woman would engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, or around 30 minutes per day, if she works out five days a week. This kind of exercise can include walking, swimming, yoga, cycling, and other relatively leisurely activities. Remember that you don’t need to exhaust yourself, and make sure to listen to your body, as you might need to slow down as your pregnancy develops.
Pregnant women who suffer from severe anemia, preeclampsia, lung diseases, or other complications would benefit from discussing exercise with their obstetrician or health care provider before starting out. Some potential warning signs that might indicate the need to stop exercising include bleeding from the vagina, chest pain, headache, muscle weakness, and dizziness.
Combining healthy food choices with regular physical exercise tends to boost the experience of pregnancy in almost every aspect, as it’s important not only for the mother’s health, but also for the health of the growing baby.
All of this talk may sound slightly overwhelming at first, but don’t worry! By considering the information this article provides, it’s certainly possible to make pregnancy a magical time, happy, and healthy time! Trust us – you’ve got this.