Getting a balanced diet while you're pregnant can be hard. Here, we look at how to get the nutrients you need, and why 'eating for two' is just a myth.
So, you’ve just found out you’re pregnant. While you’ve certainly got plenty to think about, as an expectant mum one of the most important areas to focus on is your diet.
The phrase ‘eating for two’ is often taken to mean that you should scoff twice as much in order to feed your growing baby. This is misleading. If anything, it’s a warning that a healthy, balanced diet is more important than ever.
It’s only natural that your main concern will be for your baby, but it’s important to look after yourself as well. Here’s a quick guide:
What do you need?
The good news is, if you’re already eating a balanced diet, you won’t need to change all that much, as your body becomes much more adept at absorbing nutrients while you’re pregnant. However, if you know your diet could be healthier, there’s no better incentive than pregnancy to inspire the necessary adjustments, such as:
Get plenty of starch
Pregnancy can really take it out of you, so starch is going to be one of your best sources of energy. Meals that contain a portion of rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pasta, noodles or bread will give you the boost you need.
Wherever possible, go for wholegrain varieties over those containing refined white flour, as these contain more fibre. This is an important nutrient during pregnancy, as many women find that constipation can be a problem.
Make sure there’s protein in your diet
Another nutrient that needs to feature highly in your pregnancy diet is protein, particularly in your second and third trimester when your baby is growing fastest.
Lean meat, fish and eggs will do the trick, provided they’re cooked thoroughly - although, as you’ll see later, not all fish are acceptable.
Nuts are also a good source of protein. There’s a popular myth that eating peanuts during pregnancy will mean your baby is more likely to be allergic to them, but there’s no real science behind this theory, so it isn’t something you need to worry about,
Fruit and veg are your friends
Fruit and vegetables are just as good for you during your pregnancy as they are at any other time in your life, so keep getting those five portions a day. The difference now is that all the useful vitamins and minerals you’re taking in will also benefit your unborn baby as well.
Leafy, green vegetables are particularly good for you right now, as they also contain dietary fibre and iron, both of which can be a real help as your pregnancy progresses. Dried apricots are also a great source of iron.
We know that calcium helps build strong teeth and bones, so make sure you get plenty while your baby is growing, particularly during your final trimester. Pasteurised milk and yoghurt are two good sources of calcium.
If morning sickness is a problem during your pregnancy, ginger is a known antiemetic (meaning it’ll help you stop throwing up). Try a glass of flat ginger ale or nibble on a ginger biscuit to help keep nausea at bay.
What should you avoid?
There are some foods that, while they’d normally be fine, could harm your baby if you eat them during pregnancy. While this is far from a definitive list, here are a few foods that need to stay off the table until after your baby is born:
Specifically, red meat that hasn’t been fully cooked through. This means steaks should be cooked well done and anything with ‘tartare’ in the name has to go. Undercooked or rare meat could contain parasites that cause toxoplasmosis, which is known to increase the chances of a miscarriage or stillbirth.
Animals such as rabbit and pheasant might have been shot with lead, which could prove poisonous to an unborn baby.
Liver contains high amounts of preformed vitamin A, and too much of this could cause birth defects. You might be wondering why this means you can eat as many vegetables as you like, given that these also contain vitamin A. The answer is that they contain a different type known as provitamin A carotenoids, which are very good for an unborn baby.
While we’re talking liver, you also need to steer clear of pâté while you’re pregnant, as it can contain very harmful bacteria such as listeria.
Any cheese made or ripened with mould is a no-go area, as these may also contain listeria. This includes soft blue cheese, or those with a white rind such as camembert, brie or goat’s cheese.
As bacteria can’t survive extreme heat, cooking these cheeses is thought to make them safe to consume, but you’ll need to be very careful here. If you don’t fancy a cheeseless nine months, look for a hard cheese that’s made with pasteurised milk, as this will be safe to eat.
Certain types of fish
The fish you need to be wary of are the ones that contain high levels of mercury, which will have a negative impact on the baby’s nervous system.
Shark, swordfish, marlin and fresh tuna all need to go on your banned list, while you should also eat no more than two portions of oily fish such as salmon, trout and mackerel per week. You can eat as much white fish or shellfish as you like, provided it’s cooked through.
Sushi can also be safe to eat, as long as it doesn’t contain of the risky fish we’ve already mentioned and any fish it does contain has been frozen beforehand in order to kill off any bacteria.
Too much caffeine can result in your baby having a low birth weight, which is thought to result in a higher risk of problems such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure in later life.
The suggested caffeine limit for pregnant women is 200mg per day, which equates to between one and two cups of coffee or tea. Look out for decaffeinated varieties if you still need your morning fix.
There’s a fairly constant debate about whether or not drinking during your pregnancy will harm your baby. However, the fact that alcohol is a poison and no definitive study has found it to be safe would suggest that you shouldn’t take the risk. This is particularly true during your first trimester, when the risk of miscarriage would be much greater.
What happens if you can’t stomach certain foods?
Everyone’s pregnancy is different. From cravings to morning sickness to indigestion, the unfortunate reality is that your carefully laid out diet plan might go out of the window in the first week.
And that’s okay, as long as you’re prepared for it.
Your sense of smell and taste will be be extra-sensitive during your pregnancy. It’s thought that this evolved as a protective mechanism to prevent you from eating anything that doesn’t taste right and might harm your baby.
Unfortunately, it might also mean that you need to stay away from foods you previously enjoyed. For many mums, their sense of smell becomes so acute that they can’t even be around certain foods, never mind eat them. Let’s be honest, if the aroma of freshly cooked fish sends you dashing for the toilet, no amount of prattling on about protein is going to make it bearable.
Indigestion can become a problem, particularly during your third trimester. If this happens, it’s just a case of working out what’s causing symptoms such as heartburn, acid reflux or wind and cutting those foods out. You might find that spicy and fatty foods are the main culprits here.
One tactic you can try is swapping the usual ‘three meals per day’ approach for a routine involving five or six smaller meals spread evenly throughout the day. This can make your food more manageable and ease the burden on your digestive system.
If you have days where getting a balanced diet is hard, just eat what you can, rest up and see how you feel the next day. Don’t feel guilty if you have the odd day where you don’t eat as many vegetables as you intended, or you couldn’t face breakfast. If you’re really struggling, you can always speak to a doctor and find out if there’s anything you can do to manage your morning sickness or indigestion.
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