Although we are all more aware of how our diet affects our long-term health, it is still commonly underestimated how important eating well in pregnancy can be for your baby.
The Government has announced a plan to give £200 to all women to help with diet from week 29 of a pregnancy (for more see our news story here) but many studies suggest that a good diet in early pregnancy, or even before conception, can help to reduce the risk of the baby having health problems like diabetes later in life. (For more, see ‘Foresight’s colour code to healthy conception’.)
Most women know about going easy on their caffeine intake, and cutting back on alcohol. Many also know what foods to avoid like patés and some soft cheeses. However, on a more positive note, what should you be eating to help your baby get the best possible start in a healthy life?
Eating well in pregnancy – ticking the food group boxes
Any nutritionist will tell you that, whilst supplements can have their uses, eating a balanced, varied diet is the most important starting point.
- Keep up your five-a-day – eating at least five portions of fruit and veg a day ensures you’re filling yourself with enough nutrients. An apple or a serving of carrots will count as ‘one’ but a smaller fruit might only count as a half so double up on your plums and tangerines! If you drink a glass of fresh juice that will count as ‘one’ but don’t guzzle lots of juice thinking that this will fulfil your requirements – it is important to eat fruit and veg for fibre and to keep the range as varied and as colourful as possible because different sources will provide a better array of nutrients.
- Starchy foods – many women run from starchy food in fear for their slimming regime, but when you are pregnant you will be using up more energy as the fetus grows. You don’t need to slaver butter on top of everything, but try to include wholegrain varieties of bread, pasta and rice in your daily menu, and don’t underestimate the power of the potato!
- Protein – keeping up your carbs is more important than eating lots of meat, but it is important to get the right intake of protein in pregnancy. Try lean meat or well-cooked eggs, or if you are vegan or vegetarian aim to include pulses and nuts in your snacks or meals.
- Fibre – constipation and/or haemorrhoids can be quite a problem in pregnancy so keeping your system regular is important. Fibre can be derived from many of the other food sources that are nutritionally valuable for your baby, so you’ll be romping through your healthy food checklist if you eat lots of great fibre-filled fruit and veg, and keep up your starches without adding too many rich and creamy sources.
- Dairy products – it is important to keep up your calcium in pregnancy so make sure you have cereal with milk, milkshakes, yoghurts or pasteurised cheeses. There are plenty of other alternatives if you don’t like milk or if you are vegan.
- Fish – many studies have linked fish in pregnancy with healthy brain development in the fetus. However, it is also clear that too much fish can cause an excess of certain toxins like mercury, so it is advised that you have a couple of fish servings a week making sure one is an oily fish to ensure your intake of valuable omega-3. (Avoid shark and swordfish, and make sure the fish is well cooked rather than opting for things like lightly-cooked fresh tuna steaks.)
It is important for the development of the fetus, to include a supplement of folic acid, preferably for at least three months before conception but certainly in the first three months of pregnancy. Don’t worry if you haven’t taken this up until now, but if you are pregnant, start now.
Other minerals and vitamins that are important not only to top up your body’s draining supply of nutrients, but also to feed your baby include:
- Vitamin D
- B vitamins.