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Nutrition for making babies and healthy pregnancy

Pregnancy is a pretty amazing physiological phenomenon. You’re literally growing a human being inside your body. THAT’S AWESOME!!

The more researchers investigate the impact of maternal health and nutrition on a child’s health and development, the more we’re realising how important maternal nutrition is, both before and during pregnancy.

It’s never too early

If you are considering having a baby at any time in the future, you can start supporting the health and wellbeing of your family by building healthy habits now. Preconception nutrition is mostly about healthy eating and living, and the better established these habits are, the easier they will be to maintain during pregnancy and as your child grows.

A whole food diet is key

The key to healthy eating is to ensure that your diet is full of the vitamins and minerals needed for healthy growth of the baby. The best sources of these vitamins and minerals are whole foods.

Whole foods are foods that have changed very little between the farmer and you, and include:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Whole nuts and seeds
  • Wholegrains
  • Legumes
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Dairy

Important nutrients

Preconception nutrition, and nutrition during pregnancy, also focusses on a number of key nutrients that help to build new tissue, which is what growing a baby is all about. These are the key nutrients to be aware of:

Folate is a B vitamin that is very important in the early stages of pregnancy. It’s needed for the building of new DNA which is vital during the rapid growth that occurs in the first few weeks of pregnancy. Sufficient folate intake in the months prior to pregnancy will reduce the risk of neural tube defects.

The richest sources of folate are:

  • Legumes
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Avocado
  • Oranges

Pre pregnancy, the folate requirement is 400 micrograms a day and during pregnancy this increases to 600 micrograms a day. Across a day, 600 micrograms would look like:

  • 2 cups of spinach
  • 1 cup chickpeas
  • ½ avocado
  • 1 cup broccoli
  • 1 cup peas
  • 2 oranges

As you can see that’s quite a lot of whole foods to get through to reach the folate requirements during pregnancy.  The benefit of using whole foods to reach folate requirements is the added benefits of the other nutrients coming along with these foods, which can help with other pregnancy nutrient requirements.

Vitamin B12
A inadequate intake of vitamin B12 may also increase the risk of neural tube defects. Vitamin B12 is present in animal products (meat and dairy) and as such most women have sufficient intake of vitamin B12. If you are vegetarian or vegan, it may be necessary to supplement your diet with B12.

During pregnancy, a woman’s blood volume increases and her body needs the building blocks to support oxygen for her own body as well as the baby. As a result, a woman’s iron needs are much higher during pregnancy and the risk of iron deficiency is also higher.

The richest sources of dietary iron are:

  • Red meat (beef, lamb, pork, goat, kangaroo)
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Kidney beans
  • Fortified cereals and drinks

Zinc is an important mineral for DNA replication and cell division, and a zinc deficiency can lead to birth defects and spontaneous abortion. Zinc is found in:

  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans

Vitamin D
A lack of vitamin D during pregnancy can lead to a softening of bones in mum and a risk of rickets in bub. Unless you have a deficiency or have difficulty getting adequate sunlight, 10–15 minutes of sun exposure on the arms and face each day is enough meet your daily Vitamin D requirements.

Essential Fatty Acids
Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are essential building blocks of the brain and nervous system of the baby. Including a source of plant fats or oily fish on a daily basis can help to meet the requirements of a growing bub.

Not sure where to start?

Clearly there’s quite a number of nutrients to be considering, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. If you’re considering becoming pregnant, the best place to start is with your GP to rule out any deficiencies. If you are starting from a point where you have no deficiencies in these nutrients, there is often no need to supplement and your requirements of these things can be met through including a variety of whole foods, with lots of fruits and vegetables.

Pregnancy and food safety

Once you have fallen pregnant, your body goes through a range of adaptations to allow a baby (which is a foreign entity) to grow inside you. One of these adaptations is to suppress the immune system, which leaves pregnant women at a greater risk of infections, including those from contaminated food.

This is the reason for many recommendations to avoid foods that have a higher risk of contamination and food poisoning. These foods include:

  • Uncooked meat and seafood
  • Soft cheeses
  • Unpasteurised products
  • Deli meats
  • Prechopped salads

It’s not that these foods are inherently bad for pregnancy, it’s that they come with the increased risk of food poisoning from salmonella and listeria. These bacteria can have devastating impacts on a developing baby.

To find out more about how best to prepare and store food safely during pregnancy, or to determine if you’re meeting your nutrient needs for pregnancy, speak to an Accredited Practising Dietitian at The Healthy Eating Clinic.

If you’d like to hear more about other hot topics in nutrition, be sure to subscribe to Kate Freeman’s podcast, The Daily Dollop. She’s a registered nutritionist and the founder and managing director of The Healthy Eating Clinic and hopes to inspire you with sensible, easy to understand nutrition advice in a 15 minute daily podcast!