Most people recognise that eating a healthy balanced diet when pregnant is very important. I know that both times I was pregnant, I was more motivated than ever to eat a healthy pregnancy diet. I wanted to give my body the nutrients it needed to help my babies to develop and grow and be healthy.
I also believe a healthy diet has a huge bearing on our recovery too. I found my recovery after I had our son humbling to say the least. Even though I had read accounts of other mothers experiences in those first few weeks, the reality still took me by surprise.
Every time I walked across the room I was dizzy and needed to hold on to something until my head cleared. Turns out, I needed a blood transfusion as my iron levels had dropped so low. Let's just say I was very thankful for the support of my other half during those first few weeks and I was still able to enjoy all the newborn snuggles while he looked after (fed) me.
In between my pregnancies, I completed my Precision Nutrition certification and began Nutrition Coaching. So along with my Burrell Education Prenatal Certification, I feel much more confident in my food choices this time around. I intend on having great iron levels going into the labour ward so I will be home much sooner.
I want this post to encourage you to make healthy choices when eating to ensure you and your baby are healthy. A well-balanced diet will keep up your energy levels, build up your body’s stores of nutrients, and reach and maintain a healthy weight. That means you will feel more comfortable, move easier and lose your "baby weight" faster.
No single pregnancy is the same and what applies to another woman may not apply to you. Consult with your health care provider before making any big lifestyle changes during pregnancy.
'Eating for Two' is not True
What other phrase is so associated with pregnancy other than eating for two? I often hear it used like "oh go on and have it, you're eating for two now". When you hear it, try to think of it as "nutrients for two" rather than just more of any food for two.
I did wonder, just how much extra food should I be eating? Our calories needs actually only increase by 300-500 kcals in the second and third trimesters. Closer to 500 kcals if we are exercising regularly. While this represents a respectable increase in food intake, simply adding two healthy snacks to our regular breakfast, lunch, and dinner schedule can easily help us meet these extra caloric needs.
Some examples of 300 calorie snacks are: 1 medium apple and 2 tbsp. peanut butter, 1/2 cup plain hummus and 20 baby carrots, 340g Greek yogurt and 2 tbsp. honey, 3 hard boiled eggs and 1 slice whole wheat toast.
Just think, if these extra calories come from sound food choices, you and your developing baby will really benefit from the increase in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients – all amazing for our health.
How much Weight Should we Gain?
Weight gain is a critical part of a healthy pregnancy. This is due to the growth of your uterus, the placenta and of course, your baby. If you are underweight, you may need to gain more weight. If you are overweight, you may need to gain less. Your doctor or midwife will guide you.
Here are some guidelines for healthy weight gain during pregnancy:
- Women starting out normal weight should gain between 11 and 16 kg (25 and 35 lb)
- Women starting out underweight should gain between 13 and 18 kg (30 and 40 lb)
- Women starting out overweight should gain between 7 and 11 kg (15 and 25 lb)
- Women 5’2” or shorter should gain between 7 and 11 kg (15 and 25 lb)
One of the first things I checked when I knew I was pregnant was how much weight I should gain. I was a little worried that I would gain more weight than I could lose afterwards. So I understand if this is a concern of yours too.
Just remember, it is not advised to attempt weight loss during pregnancy; as a gain of at least 7kg (15 pounds) is required to allow the growth of the baby. Studies show that not gaining enough weight when pregnant often results in infants with low birth weights, who may experience delayed development.
If you are overweight, you have a greater risk of developing gestational diabetes and high blood pressure during pregnancy. There are also some risks to your baby. These include excessive birth weight. Your baby may be born with low blood sugars or breathing problems.
For most healthy pregnancies, a combination of exercising and eating a healthy balanced diet can help eliminate excess weight gain, promoting just the right amount. The average weight gain during pregnancy is 11.5 to 12.5 kg (25 to 28 lbs). Most of this weight gain will happen in the second half of your pregnancy.
I weighed myself once a month or so to see if I was staying within my range. Just eating more of the healthy meals and snacks that I usually did, not going overboard with any cravings and staying active was enough. When pregnant with my first, I was 11 kg heavier and after his birth I had gained 1 kg overall but had much less muscle mass than before and more body fat. So I was looking forward to working out again to build my strength back up.
If you are worried about your weight during pregnancy, do discuss it with your doctor or midwife so they can advise you.
I know that food aversions and food cravings both come into play when pregnant. My cravings shifted with each trimester. However, it’s important to remember that you’re still in control. It is your choice as to what you eat, how much of it you eat and what you don’t eat. Choose high-quality foods as often as possible, and avoid using cravings to justify poor food choices.
There is no harm in satisfying most cravings. Be mindful that consuming too much of any one food may displace necessary nutrients from other foods. And poor-quality processed foods or drinks which are high in fat, salt and sugar, like sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks, crisps, biscuits, muffins or cakes etc. do no favours for mother or baby. So when indulging a craving for these, do so in moderation.
Consult your GP if you are experiencing cravings for a non-food item.
Nutrients you need in pregnancy
Protein is essential in the development of a healthy baby as it forms the structural basis for all new cells and tissues in both mother and baby. Approximately 1 kg of protein is incorporated into the development of your baby and the placenta.
Most women will meet their protein requirements with two servings of quality protein rich foods a day such as eggs, fish, poultry and meat. You can also include dairy products such as Greek yogurt, cottage cheese etc
Vegan sources of protein are buckwheat, quinoa, beans, lentils, chick peas, peas or tofu. Have a good variety to ensure that you get optimal intake of essential amino acids and important nutrients, such as iron, zinc and magnesium.
Avoid processed protein foods such as sausages, chicken nuggets, luncheon meats etc.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s) particularly Omega-3-alpha-linolenic acid and Omega-6-alpha-linoleic acid are important for baby’s brain and eye development. It is important to eat more Omega 3 fats to Omega 6 fats.
Good sources of Omega-3 fatty acid include oily fish such as Herring, Mackerel, Pilchards, Salmon, Sardines, Sprats, Trout and Fresh Tuna. However, oily fish can contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in the body and can harm your baby's developing nervous system. For this reason, pregnant and breastfeeding women should eat no more than 2 portions of oily fish a week.
Pregnant women should not eat shark, swordfish or marlin, because they contain more mercury than other fish. Many shark and marlin species are endangered, so we should avoid eating these fish anyway to help stop these species becoming extinct.
Other sources of Omega 3 include chia seeds, flax seeds, rapeseed oil, Brussels sprouts, hemp seeds and walnuts.
Good sources of Omega-6 fatty acid include walnuts, tofu, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds.
Supplementation with omega-3 fish oil rich in EPA and DHA has also been shown to be beneficial for both mother and child. Supplementation improves infant brain development during pregnancy, helps to prevent preterm birth, and may reduce the incidence of postpartum depression in the mother after giving birth.
It's important, though, to avoid oil that comes from the liver of the fish, such as cod liver oil, as it can provide potentially toxic levels of vitamins A and D. Also avoid eating liver itself, liver paté or liver sausage.
Folic acid (Vitamin B9)
Folic Acid is needed for the healthy development of a baby’s brain and spine. All women of child bearing age are advised to take folic acid supplements whether they are planning pregnancy or not. Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. A neural tube defect is when the baby’s spinal cord doesn't form normally.
Do eat plenty of food rich in folate (the natural form of folic acid), such as legumes including beans, peas and lentils, green leafy vegetables, including spinach and kale, beetroot, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, nuts and seeds.
Aim for at least 400 micrograms of folic acid a day while you're trying to get pregnant, and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. If you get pregnant unexpectedly and weren't taking folic acid supplements. Start taking them as soon as you find out, until you're past the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Folic acid supplements are widely available from pharmacies, or you can talk to your GP about getting a prescription. If you have certain medical conditions, you may need to take a higher dose.
Do get plenty of iron because some women can develop low iron levels during pregnancy. Iron supplementation is not routinely required for all pregnant women. A diet rich in iron is sufficient unless your iron level runs low. Your doctor or midwife will monitor your iron levels during your pregnancy and if needed iron supplements will be recommended. You should eat foods rich in iron at least twice a day while pregnant.
There are two types of dietary iron in food — heme iron and non-heme iron. The body absorbs them at different rates. Our body absorbs heme iron more easily. Try and eat a variety of haem and non-haem sources of iron. If you don't eat meat, you may be at risk of having low iron levels. You may have to supplement.
Animal foods contain both heme and non-heme iron. Rich sources are red meats like beef, lamb, mutton and pork and also eggs. Fruits and vegetables have non-heme iron. It is in Jerusalem artichoke, lentils, mushrooms, beans, peas, tofu.
Increase Vitamin C Intake
It's very important that you take these iron-rich foods with iron helpers so your body absorbs the iron rather than flushing it away. Vitamin C is a great "helper" in iron absorption, especially non-haem iron.
It also supports your bodies collagen production which may help prevent stretch marks.
Watch out for These Foods
Tea and coffee contain tannins which can reduce the amount of iron your body absorbs. Avoid drinking them with meals. Calcium also decreases the absorption of iron and so calcium rich foods shouldn't be consumed at the same time as your iron rich foods.
Grains, legumes, and nuts contain substances known as phytates. Phytates may interfere with the absorption of iron and other nutrients. Soaking or fermenting phytate-rich foods before eating them may help increase iron absorption. This is why I always buy tinned beans and lentils as they are presoaked.
Foods rich in Vitamin C and low in calcium are Jerusalem-artichoke, navy/haricot beans, lentils, chickpeas, red bell peppers, corn, blueberry, mushrooms, pineapple, tomatoes, bananas, plums, apples.
Calcium needs are increased during pregnancy. Calcium is important for healthy bones and teeth. Calcium intake can be important for the prevention of a condition known as pre-eclampsia. Pre-eclampsia leads to hypertension and protein in the urine of pregnant women.
Eat 3-5 servings of calcium rich foods each day when pregnant and breastfeeding. Good sources of calcium include dairy, dark green leafy vegetables including kale, cabbage, pak choi, broccoli, soybeans, sesame seeds, kidney beans and more.
Vitamin D is 'the sunshine vitamin' because your body makes it when strong sunlight falls on your skin. The amount of time you need in the sun to make enough vitamin D varies from person to person. If you have dark skin or always protect your skin, you may be at particular risk of vitamin D deficiency. People living in Ireland often have low vitamin D levels.
Vitamin D helps our body to use the calcium from food. Vitamin D promotes bone growth in the baby’s first year of life and decreases the risk of developing rickets. It is important to ensure that you maintain adequate Vitamin D stores during pregnancy. A deficiency in vitamin D can lead to minimal calcium absorption and a low infant birth weight.
Foods rich in Vitamin D include eggs, oily fish (see above), Shitake mushrooms, mushrooms.
If you're not getting enough vitamin D, you should take a suitable supplement.
If you need a multivitamin or a supplement, make sure you take one designed for pregnant women.
My favourite brand of supplements is Sona. I took PregnaPlan Complete throughout my pregnancies and while I was breastfeeding. It was only one capsule per day and also contained Omega 3.
About 80% of women will experience nausea and vomiting during the first four months of pregnancy. This feeling of sickness can happen at any time of the day. Hormonal changes in the body during pregnancy can influence gastric motlity contributing to nausea. It usually settles after the first 12 weeks.
The following may help alleviate symptoms:
- Long gaps without food will make nausea worse. Nibble foods you can tolerate every 2 hours - Bland starchy foods such as dry toast, crackers, plain pasta and rice.
- Bring some dry crackers to bed with you to eat when you wake. Wait about 15-20 minutes before slowly getting up after eating the crackers.
- Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day – between meals rather than with meals.
- Get fresh air and avoid the smell of food cooking.
- Small meals at regular intervals may be easier to eat than 3 large meals a day.
- Suck something sour, such as a slice of lemon. Or sip on lemon infused water.
- Vitamin supplementation (especially vitamin B6). Keep in mind that certain prenatal supplement formulations may actually trigger nausea. Sona have a Morning Nausea PregnaPlan formulation available which has added ginger.
When I was really feeling nauseous I used this BetterYou Oral Vitamin Spray at a reduced dose (as it's not pregnancy specific). An option for when you can't keep anything down as this is absorbed directly in your mouth.
- Ginger tea is safe to drink during pregnancy, and can help reduce morning sickness.
- Acupressure (not acupuncture). The ideal location is at the Neiguan point (located three finger breadths above the wrist on the volar surface).
Many women don't need to resort to anti-nausea medications after making lifestyle adjustments. Still, it nausea/vomiting become extreme and there is a reduction in food intake, other causes should be ruled out with your doctor.
Foods to Avoid when Pregnant
When you drink, alcohol reaches your baby through the placenta. Too much exposure to alcohol can seriously affect your baby's development. If you are pregnant, it is advised that you should avoid drinking alcohol.
It's known that drinking heavily throughout pregnancy can result in Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Children with this syndrome have restricted growth, facial abnormalities and learning and behavioural disorders. When a woman drinks while pregnant, the alcohol passes into the baby's bloodstream.
The safest approach is to not drink alcohol at all.
You don't need to cut out caffeine completely, but don't have more than 200mg a day as high levels can result in babies having a low birth weight, which can increase the risk of health problems in later life. Too much caffeine can also cause miscarriage. I just have one cup of coffee in the morning while pregnant.
There's caffeine in chocolate, cola and 'energy' drinks, as well as tea and coffee. Some medications also contain caffeine – this will be shown on the label.
Food safety is always important. During pregnancy it is particularly important as bacterial infections such as listeriosis, salmonella and toxoplasmosis can be dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies. The bacteria can harm the unborn baby and interfere with their normal development.
I didn't know about many of these until I read through the material I was given at my booking appointment. Although many are healthy foods, they have occasionally been linked with causing serious illness.
Taking the following the steps can help you to avoid harmful bacteria:
- Do make sure that all meats are cooked thoroughly. This is especially important with poultry (such as chicken and turkey) and food made from minced meat (such as burgers). Make sure that they're very hot all the way through, and there's no trace of blood or pink meat.
- Do cook eggs thoroughly until the whites and yolks are solid. Avoid any foods that contain raw or lightly cooked eggs, such as home-made mayonnaise, sauces and puddings.
- Don't eat unpasteurised milk and mould-ripened soft cheese, such as Brie and Camembert, or blue cheese, such as Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton or Danish blue. You can eat hard cheeses (e.g. cheddar, Parmesan), cottage cheese and mozzarella.
- Meat and fish that are ‘smoked’ or ‘cured’ are also unsuitable unless they are fully cooked before eating. These include salami, parma ham, chorizo and pepperoni.
- Do thoroughly wash your hands, utensils and work surfaces after handling raw meat.
- Do wash fruit, vegetables and salads to remove all traces of soil.
- Don't eat any kind of paté, including vegetable paté, because it can contain listeria.
- Don't eat raw shellfish, as they can contain bacteria and viruses that can cause food poisoning.
- Do heat leftovers and ready meals until they are steaming hot throughout.
- Wear gloves when gardening or handling cat litter.
I love helping women feel confident and good about themselves, especially during pregnancy. It is such a vulnerable time in our lives. That is why I also have a Pinterest Board full of Pregnancy Workouts and Nutrition Tips, make sure to Follow them so you can get all the info.
I hope this post helps you feel more confident in your food choices while pregnant.