Good nutrition during pregnancy

Did you know eating right foods could prevent serious pregnancy-related complications? Read on for more nutrition advice for moms-to-be

Pregnant woman eating

Let’s discuss important nutrients and the role they play in the development of the baby.

Good nutrition is of paramount importance for pregnant women. In fact, optimal nutrition helps prevent many pregnancy-related problems, including serious complications. Not only will getting plenty of right nutrients ensure that your baby is healthy, it will also ensure that the mother  too remains healthy during and after pregnancy.

Most women have some knowledge of what it means to ‘eat right’. However, many do not know what goes into a healthy diet.

Diet basics

The first step toward becoming well nourished is to make a commitment to do so. Ideally, this commitment would also involve the baby’s father and other family members who can lend support. Pregnant women need to learn to eat when they are hungry, as opposed to emotional eating [a common act that accompanies feelings of frustration, anger, depression, and boredom]. Similarly, it is important that mothers-to-be learn not to skip meals if they are upset or stressed. This is important for women who dread gaining weight. Pregnancy is a time to worry only about what and how much you eat, not how much you gain.

If possible, a pregnant woman should eat every few hours. This does not necessarily mean feasting all day long, but it does mean enjoying a wide variety of high-quality, nutrient-rich foods throughout the day. While a good prenatal supplement can help a woman take care of her body and her baby during pregnancy, it is always ideal to get the bulk of essential micronutrients [like vitamins and minerals] from foods rather than from supplements. In order to do this, mothers-to-be will need to include a wide variety of healthy, natural [and if possible, organic] foods into their diets. Of course, the best sources of good nutrition are foods that are close to their natural state as possible, minimally processed with no additives or preservatives.

Essential nutrients

As with most aspects, there is some debate as to how much of each particular nutrient is optimal for a pregnant woman. Each nutrient plays a vital role in helping the developing foetus. And though it is not often said this way, remember that babies are incredibly effective, loveable parasites. That is, they take from the mother everything they need for their health, regardless of how it affects their ‘host’. If the mother is not getting enough nutrition, for both herself and her baby, then she is likely to suffer signs of deficiency, both during and after pregnancy.

Here’s a simplified breakdown of some of the most vital nutrients, as well as how many servings to have in order to meet the guidelines each day:

Proteins [4 servings/day]: They aid in the production of new cells by providing amino acids, the building blocks of the baby’s body. The body also requires proteins for the placenta. Proteins contribute to formation of breast milk, and are essential for healthy blood clotting. Additionally, protein is required for a baby’s hormones, growth, metabolism, and sexual development. Inadequate intake of protein is associated with toxemia [an abnormal condition characterised by hypertension, oedema, and protein in the urine]. Meat, eggs, yogurt, cheese, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and nut butters are good sources of protein. Take care to consume only organic, free-range, and fresh meat and dairy products.

Carbohydrates [4–6 servings/day]: Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for all body functions including digestion, assimilation, and muscular activity. Therefore, good quality carbohydrates should make the bulk of the diet. A woman’s body will use protein and fat for energy if carbohydrate intake is insufficient. Before you let that sound like a good idea, remember that this can also lead to a harmful chemical residue in the body known as ‘ketones’, which if present consistently or in high amounts can be dangerous for both the mother and the baby. As a result, pregnant women should be consistent and conscious about their carbohydrate intake. Of course, not all carbs are equal. Avoid simple processed carbs for sustained energy, better digestion, and optimal nutrition. The best sources for healthy, complex carbohydrates include whole grains, unprocessed whole-wheat pastas, seeds, and a variety of starchy vegetables like potatoes, squashes, and beets.

Fats [2 servings/day]: Fats are a necessary part of the diet for any person, pregnant or not. Steer clear of trans-fats [hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils] and saturated fats Have monounsaturated fats, and watch your polyunsaturated fat intake. I approached a friend of mine, Shannan Kirchner, MD, and asked if she had any sage advice for pregnant women. Dr Kirchner spoke of a new research that indicated the incredible benefits associated with an increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy. Numerous studies, websites and researchers confirm that omega-3 fatty acids help—among other things—to develop the eyes and the brains of unborn babies.

One way to supplement the diet with healthy fats is to take one tablespoon of fat daily in the form of a pure vegetable oil [unrefined, cold-pressed oil], as well as foods rich in this nutrient. Nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils are good sources of quality fats. Alternately, both evening primrose oil and high-quality fish oil supplements help get a balance of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Calcium foods [4 servings/day]: Calcium is an important essential mineral. It aids in the baby’s skeletal development and helps with the growth of healthy nerves, muscles, and heart tissue. A deficiency of calcium in the pregnant woman’s diet may result in muscle cramps, backache, high blood pressure, intense labour, osteoporosis, tooth problems and pre-eclampsia [hypertension and fluid retention]. Also, calcium and magnesium work together. Therefore, a pregnant woman must opt for calcium supplements that include magnesium. Calcium sources include dairy products, spinach and other dark leafy greens, legumes, broccoli, enriched-soy and -rice drinks and juices. Herbal sources are alfalfa, dandelion, kelp, and dulse. Remember, the safest dairy products will be organic, and not from cows treated with hormones.

Folate/Folic Acid [400–800mcg/day]: Folic acid is a synthetic form of folate [vitamin B] essential particularly during pregnancy and infancy when there is an increase in cell division and growth. As a supplement, it prevents neural tube defects in the baby [such as anencephaly and spina bifida]. During pregnancy, it acts as a safeguard against anaemia, miscarriage, premature birth, and birth defects and hence is needed in great amounts.The sources of folate include green leafy vegetables, wheat germ, nutritional yeast, eggs, whole grains, lentils, nuts, and liver. Of course, it is  advised  to get folic acid through supplements and any good prenatal vitamin contains it.

Iron [27–60mg/day]: Iron is vital in forming blood in both the mother and child. It supplies oxygen to cells for energy and growth, and plays a part in the formation of healthy bones and teeth. It is common to have iron supplements during pregnancy, but unless blood tests indicate anaemia, there is no need to take iron tablets. Iron levels normally decrease during pregnancy as blood becomes more dilute.

Wholegrain cereals, green vegetables, dried fruits, blackstrap molasses, sea vegetables, legumes, eggs, and liver are good sources of iron. Herbal sources include nettle, dandelion, yellow dock, kelp, alfalfa, watercress, and fennel. Combine the iron source with a good vitamin C source for it to be absorbed better.

Zinc [11–20mg]: Zinc is essential for a healthy development of foetal cells, organs, nerves, skeleton and circulatory system. Unfortunately, women often have a lower intake of this essential nutrient than is recommended. Dietary sources of zinc include oysters and shellfish, herring, nuts, seeds, beef and other meats, whole grains, peas, soy products, fruits and vegetables.

Daily diet

Aviva Jill Romm, author, The Natural Pregnancy Book, suggests a guideline to include a wide variety of nutritious foods into the diet.

  • Calories: Eat plenty of healthy foods to ensure adequate calories daily—pregnancy is not a time to cut down calories.
  • Protein: 4 servings
  • Vitamin C foods: 2 servings
  • Calcium foods: 4 servings
  • Green leafy vegetables and yellow fruits and vegetables: 3 servings
  • Other veggies and fruits: 1-2 servings
  • Whole grains and other complex carbohydrates: 4-6 servings
  • Iron-rich foods: Some daily
  • High-fat foods: 2 servings
  • Salt: Daily in moderation to taste
  • Fluids: At least 6-8 glasses of purified water daily
  • Supplements: Nutritious herbs, highly concentrated food supplements such as spirulina, and, when necessary, a vitamin/mineral supplement.

This was first published in the March 2009 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Ryan Harrison
Ryan N Harrison, a holistic health educator and consultant in private practice, holds a post-graduate degree in transpersonal psychology and certifications as nutritional consultant, holistic health practitioner, spiritual counsellor, quantum-touch practitioner; and advanced practitioner of EFT [Emotional Freedom Techniques]. He also teaches and lectures in online and traditional settings. He lives in California, USA.

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