A practical guide to eating during pregnancy

By Mater Mothers' Hospital, Mater Mothers' Hospital

Eating well when you are pregnant is important — a balanced diet, plus a supplement that contains folate and iodine is essential.

Following a healthier lifestyle is a positive change you can make at this time. You might like to start thinking about a general health overhaul as well as following a nourishing diet, getting more exercise, quitting smoking (if you smoke), and cutting back on alcohol. These are all helpful changes for you to make, both your good health, as well as for your growing baby.

What should I be eating?

Folate

Folate is needed for healthy growth and development. Taking folate reduces the chance of neural tube defects (e.g. spina bifida) in your baby. It is recommended that women trying to conceive take an extra 400 µg/day of folic acid. The best way to get this is from a supplement. It is important to take this at least one month before and three months after you become pregnant. You still need to eat foods that contain folate. Rich dietary sources of folate include green vegetables, fruit, and fortified cereals.

Iodine

Iodine is a nutrient we need in very small amounts. It is part of thyroxine, a hormone of metabolism, growth and development. We need more iodine when pregnant and breastfeeding. This is for growth and development, especially of your baby’s brain. Mild iodine deficiency can lead to subtle cognitive and neurological problems. Studies show that the Australian population is mildly iodine deficient.

How much iodine do I need?

  • Pregnant women need 220 micrograms of iodine (also written as µg)
  • Breastfeeding women need 270µg
  • All women should take a supplement with 150µg during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

How can I include iodine in my diet?

  • Regularly include fruit, vegetables, fish and iodised salt in your diet
  • These days breads and cereals are made with iodised salt, and some pregnancy and breastfeeding multivitamins – be sure to check the label

Iron

The amount of iron you need increases during pregnancy. Good dietary sources of iron include red meats, fortified breads and cereals, green leafy vegetables, legumes and some nuts. You can help your body absorb more iron from non-meat sources by including vitamin C rich foods at the same meal e.g. tomato, capsicum, citrus fruits and kiwifruit.

It can be hard to get enough iron from your diet. An iron supplement could be useful and may be recommended by your dietitian, midwife or doctor.

Fish, omega-3 and mercury

Fish is an important part of your diet. It contains an excellent source of protein and is low in saturated fat. It also has high amounts of omega 3 and is a good source of iodine. However, a small number of fish contain higher amounts of mercury. Food Standards Australia New Zealand has set the following guidelines for safe fish intake during pregnancy and women planning a pregnancy (1 serve = 150g):

  • One serve per fortnight of shark (flake) or billfish  (swordfish/broadbill and marlin) and no other fish that fortnight

OR

  • One serve per week of orange roughy (deep sea perch)  or catfish and no other fish that week

OR

  • Two to three serves per week of any other fish and seafood not listed above.

Caffeine

Limit drinks containing caffeine during pregnancy. Cola, Mountain Dew soft drink, tea, coffee, chocolate, chocolate flavoured beverages, cocoa and guarana energy drinks all contain caffeine.It is best to not have more than three serves per day of these food and drinks.

Alcohol

There is no known safe level of alcohol intake during pregnancy. Alcohol crosses the placenta and can lead to physical, growth and intellectual problems in some babies. It is recommended to avoid all alcohol during your pregnancy.

Morning sickness

Most women suffer from sickness early in their pregnancy. This is usually due to hormonal changes of pregnancy and can affect you at any time of the day. Symptoms usually disappear or become much milder by around 16 weeks. Some tips to help you manage your morning sickness include:

  • Eating small amounts every two hours as an empty stomach can cause nausea
  • Avoiding smells and foods that make you feel worse
  • Eating healthier carbohydrate foods such as dry toast, crackers, breakfast cereals or fruit
  • Eating fewer fatty and sugary foods.

Listeria

When you become pregnant, it is important to be careful with food that might be contaminated with Listeria. These bacteria move into the placenta and can cause premature birth or miscarriage.

Foods that might carry Listeria and should be avoided include:

  • Raw/ uncooked/ smoked meat and seafood, ready to eat chilled seafood
  • Deli meats, cooked cold meat, pate, meat spreads
  • Leftovers (more than 24 hours after cooking)
  • Pre-prepared salads, smorgasbords, buffets
  • Unpasteurised milk and soft serve ice cream
  • Soft cheeses (brie, camembert, ricotta, feta, blue). Hard cheeses like cheddar and tasty are safe processed cheese, plain cream cheese and plain cottage cheese are fine if purchased sealed and stored in the fridge
  • Unwashed raw fruit and vegetables
  • Raw eggs or foods containing raw or partially cooked eggs.

It is easy to make safe choices by following these tips:

  • Freshly prepared and cooked foods have low levels of bacteria. Bacteria grow over time, so avoid eating food if it has been made more than 24 hours since being prepared. Always reheat to steaming hot
  • Raw fruit and vegetables should be washed thoroughly before eating
  • Listeria is destroyed in normal cooking, so freshly cooked hot food is safe if eaten straight away
  • Even those foods listed above that are higher risk can be eaten safely if heated above 74° C for over two minutes

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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