A pregnant woman needs to ensure that her diet provides enough nutrients and energy for her baby to develop and grow properly, and also to make sure that her body is healthy enough to deal with the changes that are occurring.
For a healthy pregnancy, the mother's diet needs to be balanced and nutritious - this involves the right balance of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, and consuming a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. If you are pregnant and your diet may be impacted by ethical beliefs, religious requirements, or health conditions, you should check with your doctor.
A pregnant woman's calorie intake grows during pregnancy. However, this does not mean she should eat for two, i.e. her calorie consumption does not double, it just goes up.
A woman who is not overweight at the start of her pregnancy, should gain between 25 to 35 pounds by the end of the nine months
Weight gain, if the mother is carrying just one baby, varies considerably. According to the Institute of Medicine, USA, a woman whose body mass index (BMI) is between 18.5 and 24.9 should gain from 25 to 35 pounds (11.4-15.9 kilograms) during the nine months. A woman who is overweight at the start of pregnancy should gain between 15 to 25 pounds (6.8 to 11.4 kg).
Weight gain recommendations may also vary, depending on the woman's age, fetal development, and her current health.
Excessive or insufficient weight gain can undermine the health of both the fetus and the mother. (Up to the eighth week of pregnancy the baby is called an embryo, after that, when its major structures have formed, it is called a fetus)
What should I eat during pregnancy?
As mentioned above, the mother should follow a varied, balanced, and nutritious diet, and it must include:
Fruit and vegetables
Plenty of fruits and vegetables are essential for a healthy pregnancy
Aim for five portions of fruit and/or veggies per day. They may be in the form of juice, dried, canned, frozen, or fresh.
Fresh and frozen (if frozen soon after picking) produce usually have a higher vitamin and other nutrient content.
Experts stress that eating fruit is usually better for you than just drinking the juice.
Starchy carbohydrate-rich foods
Starchy carbohydrate-rich foods include potatoes, rice, pasta, and bread.
Good animal-sourced proteins include fish, lean meat and chicken, as well as eggs. Vegan mothers should consider the following foods as good sources of protein: Quinoa (known as a "complete protein", it is said to have all the essential amino acids), tofu and soy products. Beans, lentils, legumes, nuts, seeds and nut butters are also good sources of protein. (Beans, lentils and legumes are also rich in iron)
Eating seafood reduces anxiety during pregnancy - British and Brazilian researchers reported in the journal PLoS ONE (July 2013 issue) that pregnant women who regularly ate seafood had lower levels of anxiety compared to their counterparts who did not. Pregnant mothers who never consumed seafood had a 53% greater risk of suffering from high levels of anxiety, the authors wrote.
Fats should not make up more than 30% of a pregnant woman's daily calories. Researchers from the University of Illinois reported in the Journal of Physiology that a high-fat diet may genetically program the baby for future diabetes.
Team leader, Professor Yuan-Xiang Pan, said "We found that exposure to a high-fat diet before birth modifies gene expression in the livers of offspring so they are more likely to overproduce glucose, which can cause early insulin resistance and diabetes." The typical Western diet, containing about 45% fat is the kind that can cause these changes.
Prof. Pan noted that in recent years, the Western diet has included more and more high-energy, high-fat, cafeteria-type fast foods.
A team at the Complutense University, Madrid, Spain, reported in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition that a balance of fats, proteins and carbohydrates are important for the developing baby's current and future good health. They wrote that "(in their study) more than half of women have low quality diets that include a high amount of animal products rich in saturated fats yet a low amount of carbohydrates from vegetables and pulses. Furthermore, more than a third of women displayed eating habits that differ greatly from the Mediterranean diet."
In the journal Endocrinology, a team from Oregon Health & Science University explained that a high-fat diet during pregnancy raises the risk of stillbirth because the blood flow from the mother to the placenta is reduced.
According to the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center:
- the amount of fat a woman eats before becoming pregnant depends on each person, who should receive an individualized nutritional assessment. For the majority of women, no more than 10% of their daily calorie consumption should come from saturated fat, less than 10% from polyunsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat is the best.
- during pregnancy fat should make up between 25% and 35% of a woman's daily calories. This depends on her carbohydrate goals. Monounsaturated fats are preferable to saturated fats.
Examples of foods high in monounsaturated fats include olive oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, canola oil, avocadoes, and many nuts and seeds.
Wholegrain foods, such as whole meal (wholegrain) bread, wild rice, wholegrain pasta, pulses, fruit and vegetables are rich in fiber. Women have a higher risk of developing constipation during pregnancy; eating plenty of fiber is effective in minimizing that risk. Studies have shown that eating plenty of fiber during pregnancy reduces the risk (or severity) of hemorrhoids, which also become more common as the fetus grows. Fiber can also help prevent obesity; something the mother should try to avoid.
It is important to have a healthy daily intake of calcium. Dairy foods, such as milk, cheese, milk and yoghurt are rich in calcium. If the mother is vegan, she should consider the following calcium-rich foods, calcium-fortified soy milk and juices, calcium-set tofu, soybeans, bok choy, broccoli, collards, Chinese cabbage, okra, mustard greens, kale, and soynuts.
Zinc is a vital trace element. It plays a major role in normal growth and development, cellular integrity and several biological functions, including nucleic acid metabolism and protein synthesis. Since all these functions are involved in growth and cell division, zinc is important for the growth and development of the fetus.
The best sources of zinc are chicken, turkey, ham, shrimps, crab, oysters, meat, fish, dairy products, beans, peanut butter, nuts, sunflower seeds, ginger, onions, bran, wheat germ, rice, pasta, cereals, eggs, lentils, and tofu.
If you are concerned about your zinc intake, talk to your doctor who may advise supplements.
On the next page we look at why you may need extra iron when pregnant and we look at additional supplements such as zinc, folic acid and vitamin D. On the final page we discuss foods to avoid when pregnant and alcohol and caffeine consumption.