Nutrition and fitness go hand in hand when thinking about a healthy, happy pregnancy. Whilst everyone’s experience of pregnancy is different, there are key elements of nutrition that are worth knowing and important to consider as you feed not only yourself but your growing baby inside.
We are very lucky to have Amy Powederham as part of the Bumps & Burpees team. She is an adult & paediatric dietitian registered with the Health & Care Professionals council. I recently collated the recurring questions that I get asked by members on the Pregnancy Plan and Amy has kindly provided some brilliant advice for nutrition during your pregnancy.
Should I increase certain foods in my diet – are their pregnancy superfoods?
OK, so firstly…”superfoods”! I once heard someone describe superfoods as “normal foods with excellent PR!”, and I think it’s pretty spot on. No one food has superpowers. Some foods are more nutrient dense than others, but it’s important to remember that there’s a place for all foods in our diet. Particularly when you’re pregnant, listening to your body is key.
In terms of specific nutrients to consider when pregnant, there are a few that play a particularly important role and general guidance is that a balanced and varied diet will meet nutritional requirements. There are a few nutrients to pay particular attention to, however, and I’ve set these out below.
Firstly, Omega 3. Important for your little one’s developing nervous system, advice is to aim for one or two oily fish portions per week as this a good source. Salmon, herring and mackerel are all good options but remember not to exceed the two portions owing to fish containing high levels of mercury. If you don’t like or eat fish, then alternative sources are walnuts, chia and flaxseeds. Some other everyday products, such as eggs, are now also being fortified with omega 3.
Iron, folate and iodine are other nutrients that are key to include in the prenatal diet. The body is very clever and increases iron uptake from foods when pregnant, however it’s still important to make sure there are plenty of iron sources in the diet. Iron can be found in animal foods, such as beef and chicken, and plant foods, such as lentils, almonds, dark green vegetables and fortified breakfast cereals (e.g. bran flakes). Folate can be found in dark green vegetables, and iodine in fish, milk and dairy products. You should also be taking a folic acid supplement during the first trimester.
Calcium, much like iron, is better absorbed in pregnancy but it’s still worth making sure you’re including plenty in the diet. The growing foetus is prioritised when it comes to nutrients so to avoid your body being zapped of all its goodness it’s important to up the intake of nutrients the foetus will be needing. Aiming for at least three calcium sources per day is a good starting point (and a good habit to continue if breastfeeding postpartum). Calcium can be found in dairy products, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, and non-dairy foods such as almonds, chickpeas, broccoli, bread and fortified cereals (such as Cheerios). If opting for plant-based dairy, ensure these are fortified with calcium and, ideally, iodine.
Finally, fibre-rich foods. Our digestion slows down in pregnancy so high-fibre foods, such as wholegrains and vegetables, will help to reduce the unfortunately common pregnancy symptom of constipation.
You do need a little extra protein in pregnancy, but typically we’re all eating more than enough anyway so just aim to include a protein source at lunch and dinner at least and if vegan or vegetarian an additional protein-rich food at breakfast (e.g. nuts & seeds) would be wise.
What foods should I avoid during my pregnancy?
Unfortunately, there’s no particularly fun way of writing this so I’ve simply listed below the foods to avoid or limit…!
- Owing to risk of Salmonella, raw shellfish, raw and undercooked meats, unpasteurised milk and raw or undercooked eggs (without the British Lion Quality stamp) should be avoided.
- To limit the risk of Listeria, unpasteurised dairy products, all types of pate and soft serve ice cream should be avoided. Cheeses to be avoided include goat’s cheese, mould-ripened cheeses (such as Brie and Camembert), and blue veined cheeses (such as Roquefort and Gorgonzola). Smoked fish products should also be thoroughly cooked owing to this risk.
- Pate should also be avoided as it often contains liver, which has high levels of vitamin A. Large amounts of vitamin A can be harmful. Similarly, liver and liver products or supplements should be avoided for this reason and ensure multivitamins, if opting for one, don’t contain vitamin A.
- Owing to contaminants, such as mercury, shark, swordfish and marlin should be avoided. Tuna should be limited to four medium cans, or two steaks, and oily fish (e.g. salmon or mackerel) to two portions per week.
- Limit caffeine to less than 200mg per day, or roughly 2 instant coffees or 3 cups of tea. Other foods that contain caffeine include chocolate, green tea and certain fizzy drinks.
- UK guidelines recommend avoiding alcohol if pregnant.
Should I be taking supplements during my pregnancy, and for how long?
Two vitamins are advised to be supplemented in pregnancy; folic acid and vitamin D.
Folic acid reduces the risk of your baby developing Neural Tube Defects (defects of the brain and spinal cord). For the majority, it is advised to take 400 mcg of folic acid daily in the first trimester. In some instances, such as if you’ve coeliac disease, the amount of folic acid supplementation increases but your GP should advise you on this.
A vitamin D supplement of 10 mcg per day is advised for all pregnant women throughout pregnancy.
If you are following a vegan or vegetarian diet it may be necessary to supplement additional nutrients, such as vitamin B12 and iodine. Speak to a healthcare professional if this is you.
If you choose to take a multivitamin, ensure this does not contain vitamin A as high doses of this nutrient can be harmful to your baby.
What should you do if you are struggling to eat during pregnancy?
Firstly, keep hydrated. This is easier said than done when the nausea means it’s a struggle to keep even water down, but dehydration can worsen nausea. It’s a chicken and egg. However, it’s important to try and maintain fluid intake particularly if you’re nausea is accompanied with sickness. Sometimes, flavouring water (either naturally, e.g. with cucumber, or with no added squash) can help tolerance. Alternatively, changing the temperature of the water and taking small sips at a time might help.
Eat little and often. Sometimes big meals are harder to stomach, so grazing can be more appealing. This has the added benefit of maintaining blood sugars and energy levels. You might also like to have a carb-based snack (e.g. crackers) to settle the stomach first-thing before getting out of bed.
Keep it simple. Often high fat foods (e.g. butter) and hot foods can worsen nausea. Dry and plain carbohydrates (e.g. crackers and toast) may help settle the stomach, and cold foods lessen the impact of strong smells.
Give ginger a go. Some evidence suggests this can reduce nausea and vomiting…but it’s not for everyone (myself included!).
Make the most of the days you’re feeling a little more yourself. You don’t have to be hungry to eat. Optimise on the opportunities you have and think about adding in the more nutrient-rich foods in the windows you can stomach them. Easy ideas include adding a handful of nuts and seeds to eggs, yoghurt, or breakfast cereals and aiming to have at least two or three different types of vegetable in one meal.
Think about the week, not the day. If you’re having a particularly bad bout of sickness, don’t focus on that day…or days! Looking at intake over the weeks can be helpful if you’ve managed to squeeze in the odd veggie on the less nausea-heavy days.
Take your supplements. If you’re struggling with food, try to keep up with your supplements as these are important to your developing foetus. Folic acid is advised for the first trimester and vitamin D throughout pregnancy.
Finally, remember your body is very clever. Hopefully, your nausea will be short-lived and you’ll be able to pack in the nutrient-dense foods before you know it so don’t worry too much if you can only stomach certain foods for the time being. Your body prioritises the little one and they’ll be getting all they need.
If you would like to find out more about Amy’s work take a look at her website.