By Sanja Nel – dietitian, SACLC
We all know the saying: “you are what you eat.” During pregnancy, we can take it a bit further: your baby is what you eat. Your baby’s body is literally constructed using the proteins, fats, minerals and other substances that you take in. Therefore, a healthy diet during pregnancy is absolutely essential for a healthy baby.
A simple approach to healthy eating
To ensure that you get in all the nutrients that your body needs, you need to eat a variety of foods from all the major food groups:
Carbohydrate-rich foods are an important source of energy for you and your growing baby. And any pregnant woman will tell you – you need all the energy you can get! Low-GI carbs will give you energy that lasts the whole day, and prevent the energy slumps, moodiness and headaches that come with low blood sugar. Whole-wheat bread and crackers, brown rice, oats, durum-wheat pasta, quinoa, sweet potatoes and mealies are just some good sources of low-GI carbs. As a bonus, these whole-grain products are all high in fibre, which can help to ward off constipation.
Protein-rich foods provide the building blocks that are used to construct your baby’s body. During the second half of your pregnancy, when baby is growing rapidly, you will need to eat more protein than previously; and if you are carrying twins you will need even more protein. Most animal foods are rich in protein, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and dairy products. For a vegetarian alternative, look to plant proteins such as nuts, beans and lentils. You should try to include some form of protein with every meal.
Fruits and vegetables are important for your own health more than anything else. Getting your five-a-day will help to keep your immune system strong and your colon happy.
A balanced meal could be made up of a low-GI starch, a protein, a fruit or vegetable and a bit of healthy fat. This will ensure that you get in a good mixture of nutrients.
Energy requirements, appetite and weight
During the first trimester, your energy requirements stay more or less the same. Many women also struggle with nausea and food aversions during this time. During the second and third trimesters, however, you need to take in more energy to help your baby grow. You may also notice an increase in your appetite, and you should start to put on weight at a rate of 1-2 kg per month. All of this is normal and healthy; pregnancy is definitely not the time to attempt a weight-loss diet!
Some nutrients are required in such large amounts during pregnancy that it is nearly impossible to get enough from your diet alone, so it is advisable to supplement them. The two most important nutrients to supplement are folic acid (folate) and iron. Folic acid is critical in the first trimester to ensure that the baby’s brain and spinal cord develop properly, and it is important during the rest of the pregnancy to support growth. Iron is needed to produce extra red blood cells, both for yourself and your baby.
The minimum supplements that you should be taking is folic acid (preferably starting even before conception) and iron from the second trimester onwards. However, there are many studies that show that a combined multivitamin-mineral supplement gives the best possible outcomes for both mom and baby, so the best is to take a pregnancy-specific multivitamin. If you suffer with nausea you may want to stick to folic acid in the first trimester, since multivitamins can make the nausea worse. You should start taking a multivitamin no later than the second trimester. Add a pregnancy-specific omega-3 supplement at least from the third trimester, to support baby’s brain and eye development.
During pregnancy, your immune system is not as strong as usual, so you can get sick more easily. This is especially true for foodborne illnesses, so food safety and hygiene are very, very important during pregnancy. Animal foods are at especially high risk of containing harmful germs. For that reason, it’s important that all animal foods should be well cooked – including eggs, meat and fish (so no sushi – sorry). All the milk you drink should be pasteurised, and you should avoid soft and blue cheeses. Any foods that you eat raw – such as fruits and vegetables – need to be washed well.
Harmful things to avoid
There are a few things that are downright dangerous for your baby, that you should avoid or limit during pregnancy:
- No amount of alcohol is known to be safe for the developing foetus.
- If you haven’t quit yet, now is the time.
- Caffeine should be limited to no more than two cups (of tea, coffee or cola drinks) a day. Rooibos tea is caffeine free, so you can drink that as much as you like.
- Medicine, including any herbal or traditional remedies, should be discussed with your healthcare provider. Even something as simple as a headache tablet can be harmful at certain times during pregnancy – so please, please talk to a medical professional before you take anything.
Your baby’s health starts right here, right now, with every bite you put in your mouth. Choose the healthiest options to give your baby the best possible start in life.