Many patients ask me what is safe to eat and what is not. This is natural, we all want the best for our growing baby. A healthy balanced diet is the best plan for any pregnant woman. The best way to meet you and your baby’s nutritional needs is to eat a wide variety of nutritious foods and be as healthy as possible as early as possible. These foods should include a variety of:
- Bread, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles and other grain foods—mostly wholegrain and/or high fibre
- Vegetables and legumes
- Milk, yoghurt, hard cheese and dairy alternatives with added calcium—mostly reduced fat
- Meat, fish, poultry, cooked eggs, nuts, seeds and tofu
Multivitamin supplements may be recommended for some groups of pregnant women, such as vegans and vegetarians, substance mis-users (of drugs, tobacco and alcohol), pregnant women who are already very overweight and who are trying to prevent excessive weight gains. Always be advised by your doctor before taking vitamin or mineral supplements.
Vitamins, nutrients and minerals
During pregnancy your body needs extra vitamins, minerals and nutrients to help your baby develop. The best way of getting most of these vitamins is though your diet. It is important to talk to your doctor or an accredited, practising dietician before taking supplements. Some supplements (eg too much vitamin A) can be a risk to the baby.
Folate is a B vitamin and is added to food or supplements as folic acid. Folate is important for your baby’s development during early pregnancy because it helps prevent birth abnormalities like spina bifida. The best way to make sure you get enough folate is to take a daily folic acid supplement of at least 400 micrograms (μg) one month before becoming pregnant and during the first three months of pregnancy. If you have a family history of neural tube defects you may need even more folate, so you should consult your doctor. It is also important to eat foods that have added folic acid or are naturally rich in folate.
Foods with folic acid added to them (fortified) include most breads, some breakfast cereals, and fruit juices. Check the nutrition information panel on the package to find out how much folate is present. Foods naturally rich in folate include green leafy vegetables such as spinach and salad greens, broccoli, chick peas, nuts, orange juice, some fruits and dried beans and peas.
Pregnancy increases your need for iron. Your baby draws enough iron from you to last it through the first five or six months after birth so it’s vital that you consume more iron while pregnant. The recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron during pregnancy is 27mg per day. Taking a supplement may help to meet this recommended intake but you should only take iron supplements under your doctor’s advice.
Iron-rich foods include:
- Lean beef and lamb
- Breakfast cereals fortified with iron
- Cooked legumes such as chick peas, lentils, kidney and lima beans
- Dried fruits
- Green vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and spinach
Eating foods high in vitamin C may also help you to absorb iron if you consume them at the same time. Try drinking some orange juice when eating green vegetables or legumes. You also need to watch out for tea, coffee and cola because caffeine reduces the body’s absorption of iron.
Calcium is essential to keep bones healthy and strong. During the third trimester of pregnancy, your baby needs a large amount of calcium as they start to develop and strengthen their bones. If you’re not getting enough calcium in your diet, the calcium needed by your baby will be drawn from your own bones. To prevent this and the risk of osteoporosis later in life make sure you are getting enough calcium in your diet for both of you. The recommended daily intake of calcium during pregnancy is 1000mg to 1300mg per day.
Two and a half serves of dairy foods, such as milk, hard cheese, yoghurt or calcium fortified soy milk, should meet your daily requirements. Pregnant women who are 18 years or under should aim to consume three and a half serves per day.
Iodine is important for everyone, but particularly for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Mild to moderate iodine deficiency during pregnancy can result in the baby having learning difficulties and affect the development of motor skills and hearing. In Australia, most breads, except organic varieties, are fortified with iodine which will help to address the iodine needs of most of the population.
Healthy weight gain during pregnancy:
Steady weight gain during pregnancy is normal and important for your health and your developing baby. However, it is also important not to gain too much weight. Pregnant women don’t need to “eat for two” in fact the calories per day that are pregnant woman needs is very similar to the caloric intake needed for a non pregnant woman.
If you are pregnant, a good approach is to eat to satisfy your appetite and continue to monitor your weight. For women who are a healthy weight, it is recommended that you gain between 11.5 and 16 kg. Underweight women may need to gain more weight (between 12.5 and 18 kg).
If you are overweight, pregnancy is not the time to start dieting or trying to lose weight. However, it is recommended for women who are overweight to gain less weight during pregnancy (between 5 and 11.5 kg).
Alcohol during pregnancy
There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption for women who are pregnant. Consuming alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, congenital deformities and effects on the baby’s intelligence.
The Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol recommend that the safest option for pregnant women is not to drink alcohol at all.
If you find it difficult to decrease or stop drinking alcohol during pregnancy talk to your Doctor.
Small amounts of caffeine are safe during pregnancy but excessive volumes may increase the risk of miscarriage and premature birth. Caffeine is in coffee, tea, chocolate and cola (and some other soft drinks and energy drinks). Dr Lenore Ellett recommends pregnant women limit themselves to 200mg of caffeine daily. That amount would be obtained from about 1-2 cups of espresso style coffee, 3 cups of instant coffee, 4 cups of medium strength tea, or 4 cups of cocoa or hot chocolate. Avoid double shots of espresso coffee and drinks marked as sports or energy drinks that contain caffeine.
Smoking is dangerous for your baby. Smoking increases the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, respiratory problems and SIDS. There is no safe level of smoking. For help to quit smoking call the Quitline on 13 78 48.
Drugs & Medications
There is no safe level of recreational drugs in pregnancy and you need to check any medications with your Doctor or Pharmacist to ensure they are safe during pregnancy.