Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for everyone, but it’s even more crucial when you’re pregnant. What you eat before and during your pregnancy will reflect your health, as well as the growth and development of your baby. Although your body requires additional nutrients, you don’t need to eat for two, as your body becomes more efficient at absorbing nutrients from foods.
Your diet should be based on general healthy eating guidelines outlined in the Eatwell Guide and you should be focusing on the quality and nutrient density of the foods you eat rather than quantity. There are some important changes that you need to be aware of when you’re expecting, including foods that you should be eating more of and others that you should be avoiding.
Foods you should be eating:
Green leafy vegetables
Green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, cabbage, spring greens, broccoli and peas are rich in folic acid. Folic acid is a B vitamin which helps to reduce the risk of central neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in a developing baby. Whether you are already pregnant, trying for a baby or of childbearing age, it’s important that you are getting enough folic acid in your diet. It is needed right at the beginning of pregnancy, often before you realise you’re pregnant, right up until week 12. As well as making sure you’re getting enough folic acid in your diet, it’s recommended that you take a daily 400mcg folic acid supplement.
Dairy products such as yoghurt are rich in the mineral calcium. Your body needs double the amount of calcium during pregnancy, particularly during the last ten weeks when the baby’s bones are strengthening.
You don’t need to eat additional calcium as your body will absorb more from the foods you eat, but you do need to make sure you’re eating enough in the first place. You need around 700mg of calcium a day, which could include milk with cereal for breakfast, a yoghurt with berries as a snack and a stir-fry with tofu, broccoli and sesame seeds for dinner. Foods rich in dairy include milk, yoghurt, cheese (more about this below), canned fish with bones such as sardines, green leafy vegetables, almonds, dried apricots, sesame seeds, tofu and fortified drinks. When buying yoghurts make sure you read the nutrition label as some can be very high in sugar.
Chicken and eggs
Chicken and eggs are both good sources of iron. Iron is important in making red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. Having low levels of iron can lead to iron deficiency anaemia, which, in pregnancy, increases the risk of having a low birth weight baby and a premature delivery.
Other good sources of iron include red meat (once a week) and fish (more below), and plant sources like dried apricots, green leafy vegetables, beans and lentils. The body cannot absorb iron from plant foods as efficiently as animal foods, so it’s important that you combine plant foods with a food rich in vitamin C such as peppers, kiwi or oranges, as this has been shown to enhance absorption.
Oily fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel are great sources of omega-3 fats which are essential in the diet as the body cannot produce them itself. Omega 3 fats are important to prevent the risk of heart disease, and during pregnancy or breastfeeding, they help to develop a baby’s nervous system. During pregnancy, the recommendation for oily fish is the same as the general healthy eating guidelines of 2 fish per week, with one being an oily fish. However, there are some fish that you should avoid or limit during pregnancy, which is discussed below.
Plant foods rich in omega 3’s include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp, however, omega-3’s are not absorbed as efficiently from plant foods.
Wholegrains including bread, pasta and rice, as well oats, barley, fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, are all good sources of fibre. Fibre is an important nutrient in everyone’s diet and most people in the UK only eat around half the recommended intake.
Fibre helps our digestive system to run smoothly and reduces problems such as constipation, which many women during pregnancy suffer from. It also acts as a prebiotic and feeds the healthy bacteria in our gut, which benefit us in many ways such as boosting the immune system, controlling hormones and extracting key nutrients from foods.
Foods to limit or avoid:
Raw or partially cooked eggs
Avoid eating raw or partially cooked eggs in foods such as mousse, mayonnaise, soufflés and soft- boiled eggs, as there is a risk of salmonella. However, if the eggs have been produced under the British Lion Code of Practice (or equivalent standards), and therefore have a red lion logo stamped on the shell, then the risk is very low and they’re safe to eat as they come from vaccinated flocks.
Mould-ripened soft cheeses such as brie and camembert, those made with goats cheese, and blue-veined cheeses such as Roquefort, Danish blue and gorgonzola should be avoided or only eaten if cooked. These cheeses can contain listeria bacteria that can cause a gastro infection called listeriosis. Hard cheeses are safe to eat as it’s the reduced acidity in soft cheeses and the increased moisture that creates the ideal environment for harmful bacteria.
Meat and poultry needs to be thoroughly cooked through so that is steaming hot and there is no pink or red blood. This is due to the potential risk of an infection called toxoplasmosis. Although this infection is rare, it can damage your baby and is therefore not worth the risk. There are no symptoms, so if you feel you may be at risk, contact your GP.
Unpasteurised dairy foods
Raw or unpasteurised milk should be avoided because it has not been heat-treated to kill bacteria and therefore prevent the risk of food poisoning. You should choose pasteurised milk, which is the milk normally sold in supermarkets, or ultra-heat treated (UHT) milk, which is sometimes called long life. If you are going to use raw or unpasteurised milk, make sure you boil it first. You should also avoid unpasteurised goats and sheep milk.
All types of pâté should be avoided during pregnancy, including those made from vegetables, meat and fish. This is because pâté can contain high levels of listeria bacteria and therefore lead to a gastro infection called listeriosis. Pâté made from liver and other liver products is also very high in vitamin A and too much of this vitamin can damage your baby.
Certain types of fish
During pregnancy you can eat most types of fish, however, there are some fish that you need to limit or avoid. You should avoid eating fish that are high up the food chain such as shark, swordfish and marlin. This is due to the high levels of mercury in these fish which can affect the baby’s development of the nervous system. You should also avoid having more than 2 portions of oily fish a week, as the fish contain pollutants which accumulate in the food chain which can affect the baby’s development. When it comes to shellfish make sure it is cooked rather than raw as it also contains harmful bacteria or viruses that can cause food poisoning.
For more information, help and advice about nutrition and following a healthy lifestyle, visit The Food Doctor.