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  • Rebecca Stevens

Eating healthily during pregnancy

Updated: Nov 22, 2019

An overview of the role of nutrition and how you can eat healthily during pregnancy.

Why we need to eat healthily in pregnancy

Congratulations on your pregnancy, whether it be your first, second, third or more – each pregnancy is the start of an exciting journey. It is also a journey in which nutrition plays an important role for three key reasons.

1. Your diet provides the nutrients for your growing baby – the rate of human growth and development is extremely high during pregnancy. If your baby were to continue along the same growth pattern once born, he/she would be 73kg by the time they turn 1. If your diet isn’t adequate and your nutrient intakes are below optimal levels, your baby won’t be getting all its nutrient requirements either.

2. Your diet helps to keep you healthy and gain an appropriate amount of weight– pregnancy plays stress on your body and it is important that you look after yourself and also put on an appropriate amount of weight for your body as putting on too much or too little can impact on your health and that of your baby’s.

3. Your diet during pregnancy will lead to nutrient and fat storage which will help you recover once the baby has been born and will help with milk production if you breastfeed.

So it may come as a surprise that during pregnancy your nutritional requirements are very similar to healthy eating for the general population but with a few specific changes. This is because our bodies are very clever at adapting and becoming more efficient at utilising the energy and nutrients from the food we eat during pregnancy.

How to eat healthily in pregnancy

Before I talk about the changes to make, I wanted to start by reiterating what we mean by a healthy, balanced diet.Your diet should include a range of different foods to ensure you have covered all of the food groups. These are the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) which I’ll now explain.

Protein– try and eat a variety of protein sources in your regular meals. Protein is found in red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy and plant-based options include tofu, beans, seeds and pulses. All animal-based proteins will need to be cooked thoroughly and if liver was a favourite of yours, now is the time to remove it from your list due to high levels of vitamin A, which can be harmful to your growing baby.

The NHS advises pregnant women should eat two servings of fish a week but no more than two portions due to the potential risk of methylmercury contaminants from the water. Also do stay clear of raw fish – oysters and sushi are off the menu for the time being

Carbohydrates– while this food group has received a hard time of late with mixed messaging around low carb vs. high carb diets, starchy carbohydrates are a really important addition to your daily diet. Not only do they provide you with energy, they include a whole heap of vitamins, minerals and fibre.Try and include carbs at every meal. To recap these are bread, potatoes, pasta, noodles and wholegrains. Where possible try to have brown varieties over white e.g. wholemeal pasta.

Fruit and vegetables – you are all probably familiar with the ‘five a day’ message. During pregnancy it is even more important to include a variety of fruit and vegetables within your diet due to the range of vitamins, minerals and fibre they contain. Fibre supports our digestive process and helps our gut bugs (healthy microorganisms living naturally within our digestive tract that play a key role in keeping us healthy). Fibre can also help to reduce the symptoms of constipation - a common side effect of pregnancy. Always wash fresh food produce and think about streaming your veg so that they retain as much of their nutrition as possible. Boiling veg can cause vitamins and minerals to leach into the water.

Dairy - calcium is essential during pregnancy and you should aim to eat two to three portions a day. This can be obtained from cheese, milk and yoghurt. If you are following a plant-based diet choose calcium-enriched options, check the labelling before your purchase. Always select milk and soft cheeses that are made from pasteurised milk and also avoid mould-ripened soft cheese, such as brie and camembert, due to the risk of bacterial infection.

Healthy fats– fats are another essential food group in our diet as they play a vital role in the functioning of our body including energy provision, hormone and vitamin transport. As with all life stages, we need to cut down on saturated fats (meats, cakes, biscuits, pastries etc) and eat healthier unsaturated fats (oily fish, avocados, sunflower and olive oils, nuts and seeds).

In addition to eating a healthy, balanced diet, a couple of supplements are recommended during pregnancy:

1. Folic acid

Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate which is found in green leafy veg, brown rice, peas, bananas and oranges. The Department of Health recommends that a supplement is taken as soon as you start trying to conceive and throughout the first trimester. There is compelling evidence that supplementation with 400 micrograms per day can reduce the likelihood of neural tube defects (NTDs) such as spina bifida. It is known that about 90% of women aged 16-49 have a folate status below the level recommended to reduce the risk of an NTD-affected pregnancy. Women who are at higher risk of having a child with a NTD will need a higher dose and possibly women with type 2 diabetes or who are taking anti-epileptic medications. In these cases, the higher dose will be prescribed by a doctor. To help improve the levels of folate consumption and reduce the risk of NTDs, the UK Government is currently conducting a consultation regarding the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid. The results are expected soon but regardless of the outcome, the advice regarding supplementation and ensuring you are eating sources of folate within your diet will still stand.

2. Vitamin D.

As with the general population, pregnant women are advised to take a daily dose of Vitamin D (10 micrograms). As with folic acid some women may need higher amounts – this depends on your family origin, weight, lifestyle and diet. Check with your healthcare professional.

This post was originally developed for @on_point_training.

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