Nutrition and a healthy diet during pregnancy
Many women once pregnant, turn their attention to what they are eating to ensure they are getting enough of the nutrients their future bundle of joy needs, without eating any of the foods on the seemingly never-ending list of foods to avoid when pregnant .
We will walk you through your nutritional requirements during pregnancy, the best foods to eat while pregnant, where to find them and in which trimester they are most important, to help support a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.
Am I really eating for two during pregnancy?
You may have been told by well-meaning loved ones to double up on dinner to ensure you are eating for two during your pregnancy.
Turns out, you do not actually need any additional energy (or calories) in your first trimester of pregnancy. This comes as a surprise for many pregnant women! There may be certain exceptions to this case, so take the advice of your healthcare professional or dietitian.
Once you’ve reached your second trimester, your energy requirements increase by 1400 kilojoules (or about 330 calories) per day, which is roughly the equivalent of an extra peanut butter sandwich made with wholegrain bread, during the day.
In the third trimester, your energy needs increase by 1900 kilojoules (or about 450 calories) per day. This could involve adding 2 hard-boiled eggs on wholegrain toast with half an avocado and an extra piece of fruit to your regular meal to help you reach your daily pregnancy energy needs. It is certainly a lot less than doubling your total energy intake for the day.
These recommendations are to help you ensure you gain the right amount of weight during your pregnancy and help support the growth of your own maternal tissues throughout pregnancy, as well as support the development of your baby. Speak to your healthcare professional, midwife or dietitian about your individual weight gain recommendations during pregnancy, as this depends on your pre-pregnancy weight.
So, tune out the well-intended message of “eating for two” and focus instead on making trimester by trimester adjustments to your diet to help support you and your growing baby!
What are my nutritional requirements during pregnancy?
Folic acid is known to be an important vitamin for women before and during early pregnancy to help support the healthy development of your baby’s neural tube. The neural tube forms the basis for your baby’s central nervous system, which includes your baby’s spinal cord and brain. Folic acid is one of the key nutrients that a woman’s body requires more of before and during pregnancy.
Research has shown that getting enough folic acid or folate (being the naturally occurring form of this vitamin in food) is critical for avoiding neural tube defects such as spina bifida, which currently affects approximately 1 in 500 births in Australia.
By the time you are 7 weeks pregnant, your baby’s neural tube has already fully developed, which is often before some women are even aware that they are in fact pregnant. After all, around half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned or unexpected!
This is why it is best to start taking a pre-pregnancy nutritional supplement such as a2 Nutrition™ for mothers that contains folic acid at least 1-3 months before you conceive to ensure you are meeting your requirements and filling in any nutritional gaps before pregnancy. Folic acid should be continued for at least the first 3 months of your pregnancy too.
Besides pre-pregnancy and pregnancy supplements or vitamins, you can also find folic acid in all breads (except organic varieties) in Australia and New Zealand, as well as many breakfast cereals. Folate, being the natural form of folic acid, can be found in green leafy vegetables, fruit such as citrus, berries and bananas, and legumes such as lentils and avocado. Try incorporating these foods into your diet daily, alongside your pregnancy supplement to ensure you are meeting your body’s increased demands for folic acid and folate during pregnancy.
Iodine is another key nutrient that pregnant women need more of when planning a pregnancy, during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding.
Iodine is a mineral which is stored in your thyroid gland. It is used to produce thyroid hormones which play an important role in many bodily functions including how hot or cold you feel, your body weight and even your digestive function!
Part of the reason for an increased need for iodine during pregnancy is because your growing baby will not develop its own thyroid until about week 12 of your pregnancy and will not make enough thyroid hormones for itself until weeks 18 to 20! Meaning, baby is relying on you to get enough iodine to not only maintain your own health but also theirs!
Iodine is recommended to be supplemented from a specially formulated pre-pregnancy, pregnancy and breastfeeding supplement before, during and after pregnancy when breastfeeding.
Alongside a pregnancy supplement containing iodine, other valuable sources of iodine include iodised salt, bread (except organic varieties), seaweed such as wakame and nori, fish and seafood such as cod and shrimp.
Many women struggle to get enough iron in their diet even before pregnancy. This nutritional challenge only increases during pregnancy when the recommended dietary intake of iron for women increases from 18 mg (milligrams) per day to 27 mg per day!
The increased need for iron is because of an increase in blood volume in your body to support your baby which begins in the second trimester and extends and peaks well into the third trimester of pregnancy.
Pregnant women that follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are particularly at risk of iron deficiency. This is because vegetarian sources of iron such as beans, lentils, breakfast cereals, tofu, green vegetables and dried apricots are not as well-absorbed as non-vegetarian sources, and in fact vegetarian women require nearly double the amount of iron each day to meet their needs in order to make up for this.
Be on the lookout for symptoms of iron deficiency. These can include fatigue, restless legs, dizziness and poor concentration. If you are experiencing these, please speak with your healthcare professional.
A common challenge pregnant women face is an aversion to red meat during the early part of pregnancy when nausea dominates. As red meat is one of the richest and most easily absorbed sources of iron, it can make it additionally challenging to build up iron stores for the later parts of your pregnancy when iron needs steeply increase.
A pregnancy supplement containing iron may help to bridge this gap. Ensure you consult with your healthcare professional about your specific iron needs based on your individual requirements.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fats are a key healthy fat found in their most active form in oily fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, and anchovies. The demand for omega-3 does increase during pregnancy, particularly for one kind of omega-3 fat known as DHA.
Research has shown that omega-3 fats are critically important during pregnancy to help build your baby’s brain and eyes!
To reach your needs, opt for well-cooked oily fish such as salmon or tinned sardines twice per week. If you’re a vegetarian, speak to a dietitian to help ensure your needs are being met and consider an algae-based supplement, as plant-based sources such as chia seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds are not well absorbed and converted into the active versions of omega-3s.
Be mindful that some fish oil supplements also contain vitamin A in the form of retinol, which should be avoided during pregnancy. You should also ensure that the fish oil is sourced from fish that are low in mercury (typically smaller-sized fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring or sardines). Speak to your healthcare professional for more recommendations.
Choline is a vitamin-like nutrient which was only relatively recently acknowledged by the Institute of Medicine to be an essential nutrient. Further research in the past few years has uncovered its potential role in supporting folate metabolism in the body amongst other functions such as placenta development during pregnancy. Your body’s demand for choline increases during pregnancy.
Choline is not yet found in many standard pre-pregnancy and pregnancy nutrition supplements because of how new the research is into the importance of choline during pregnancy.
You can find choline in eggs, beef, soybeans, fish, potatoes and mushrooms. If you are vegetarian or vegan, careful planning of your diet alongside a dietitian can help you reach your choline targets. Scarily, it was recently found that 90% of Australians are not meeting the daily recommended intake amount for choline. You can find choline inside a2 Nutrition for Mothers™ to help get you towards your daily targets!
Whilst there is a lot to consider when it comes to pregnancy nutrition, a well-balanced diet alongside a pregnancy nutrition supplement to meet increased nutrient demands during pregnancy is key to laying a great foundation for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby! Working with a pregnancy dietitian and your healthcare professional can help you ensure you reach your targets each day and personalise recommendations to your lifestyle. For more information visit Dietitians Australia.
Article written by fertility & prenatal dietitian & nutritionist, Stefanie Valakas, The Dietologist.