You’re growing a human, your blood volume nearly doubles and you produce more oestrogen in a day than your non-pregnant self makes in a year. Pregnancy truly is a remarkable time for your body. But it’s also a time when it prioritises your growing baby’s nutritional needs over your own, leaving your own stores of important nutrients at risk of depletion.
If this nutritional depletion happens over a prolonged period of time, fatigue (over and above that caused by sleep deprivation) and - in some cases - more serious health complications, can occur.
A healthy diet before, during and after pregnancy is clearly key. But while it’s easy to imagine that you’ll eat like a saint, nourishing your bump with only the very best foods, the reality is your pregnant body may have other plans. Cravings, aversions and nausea may put you off all the healthy foods you’d like to eat, while white, starchy foods suddenly start looking a lot more appealing.
Nutrition does play an essential role in the development of your child, it’s true. But before you get too worried about your sandwich-based diet, it’s worth remembering that, when it comes to vitamins and minerals, your baby’s first in line. Their nutritional needs are always taken care of first and you have your own stores of nutrients they can dip into, too - making it a great idea to eat a variety of healthy foods before you conceive, if possible.
Of course, eating well during your pregnancy is important, both for your baby and for your own optimal wellbeing. But piling pressure on yourself to eat perfectly can feel stressful, something that’s not good for you either. So be kind to yourself. Eat what you can, try to stomach nourishing foods where possible and trust that your body will always nourish your baby first.
If you’re looking for healthy pregnancy hints, these simple nutrition tips might help you sneak in some goodness, hopefully without you even noticing...
1. Folate (the natural form of folic acid, which we all know to be essential for reducing the risk of neural tube defects) is found in dark green leafy vegetables as well as legumes. Broccoli, spinach, kale and asparagus, chickpeas, peas and kidney beans are all good sources, so try to eat these every day. When it comes to supplements, check the label for folate in the 5-MTHF form rather than folic acid - it’s closer to the natural form found in plants and is more bioavailable than synthetic folic acid.
2. Eat foods rich in choline. Choline is a key nutrient involved in the development of baby's brain. Primary sources are eggs, meat, dairy, and it can be found in lesser amounts in some legumes, including peanuts and soy, as well as vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower. It can be hard to meet the recommended daily intake of 450mg in pregnancy and 550mg for breastfeeding through food alone, especially if you are vegan. Consider contributing to your intake through a quality pregnancy multivitamin and mineral - many US formulas contain choline, but in the UK this is just starting to be introduced. Inessa Pregnancy Multinutrient contains 250mg per dose - higher than any other product available in the UK market - to give you a good head start.
3. Munch on a variety of fibre-rich foods, including fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grain breads, crackers and pastas. Your microbes love to feast on fibre, so these foods help to support overall gut health. These also help to keep you ‘regular’, which can be beneficial, as constipation is a common pregnancy complaint.
4. Pregnant women are vulnerable to iron deficiency, so remember to eat iron-rich foods such as red meat, eggs, beans, chickpeas and dried apricots. Iron supports baby’s brain and immune development and helps make red blood cells for both of you. Because requirements at this time are high, your prenatal should also contain iron. Look for products containing this mineral in the bisglycinate form as it’s more gentle on the gut than other forms and shouldn’t exacerbate or trigger constipation in the way that some other forms do.
5. If you’re feeling nauseous or your digestive system is unsettled, snacking on carbs every few hours can help. Pasta, toast, oatcakes, or crackers are great choices when you feel you can’t tolerate anything. Aim to choose complex carbs such as brown or whole grain versions of these, where possible. And if food aromas trigger nausea, avoid meals with strong flavours.
6. There is some evidence to show that ginger can help alleviate nausea. Try ginger infusions (fresh or store-bought), crystallised ginger and ginger lozenges, or add fresh ginger to soups or stews.
7. The expression ‘eating for two’ is one of many pregnancy myths. Whilst you may feel hungrier than usual and should always be guided by your appetite, aim to fill up on healthier food choices. You don’t need to eat more than is healthy for your build and activity level, apart from in the last trimester where you’ll need an extra 200 calories per day to support additional energy requirements - roughly equivalent to two slices of toast. On the flipside, pregnancy is not a time to diet for weight loss or for restrictive diets either, unless your medical team has specifically advised that you need to do so.
8. If big meals are a challenge, try changing the way you eat. You may find that consuming small meals more regularly works better for you. Blending up nutrient-rich veg and pulses into soups might be an easier way of getting them down, and smoothies are another alternative way of packing in a variety of fruit and vegetables.
9. Boost baby’s brain power and support the healthy development of their eyes with omega 3 fatty acids. The primary food source is oily fish, though there are some plant sources including chia seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and pumpkin seeds. During pregnancy, there are challenges with both; plant sources contain low amounts, which can make meeting daily requirements difficult for vegans and vegetarians, and many women avoid eating fish in pregnancy for fear of consuming excess mercury. Supplementation with an algae-based omega 3 or high quality ultra pure fish oil is a wise option. Look for products containing at least 300mg DHA per serving and choose oils from the body of the fish rather than the liver, asthe latter is usually not as pure, and contains vitamin A, which needs to be limited in the gestational period.
10. Lutein and zeaxanthin are two nutrients you may not hear spoken of often, but are actually powerful carotenoids that play an important role in your baby’s visual development. Dark leafy greens, butternut squash, pumpkin, peas, brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, carrots and pistachios are all sources, and are easy to incorporate into your diet. Select a quality prenatal supplement that includes some.
11. If you’re vomiting a lot, replace lost fluids with drinking water and speak with your midwife or GP about electrolyte replacement supplements. These can help replenish lost minerals and salts and rebalance your energy levels.
Remember that if you’re struggling to eat well, you could also take a good quality supplement designed for pregnancy plus an ultra-pure Omega 3. Whilst pills are not a substitute for a healthy diet, they will help fill any nutritional gaps to support you and your baby before, during and after pregnancy.
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