Growing a new life is amazing! While you’re pregnant and breastfeeding, your baby is completely dependent on you for getting the nutrients they need.
Here, accredited practising dietitian Melanie McGrice, who specialises in fertility and prenatal nutrition, sorts fact from fiction about what to eat – and what to avoid – during those vital months.
Get these into you
“While there’s a lot of talk about what to avoid during pregnancy, it’s equally important to focus on what you should be eating,” says McGrice, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. “The period in the lead up to conception, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding is actually when our baby’s genes are being programmed,” she says. “It’s called the first 1000 days.”
She explains that during that time, your baby’s future health and taste preferences are being determined, so it’s a crucial time for eating well.
Key nutrients include:
- folic acid – to reduce the risk of neural tube defects
- iodine – requirements increase during pregnancy
- iron – requirements increase by about 150% during pregnancy, McGrice says, because your blood volume increases to provide nourishment for your baby
- calcium – for baby’s bone development
- omega-3 – for baby’s brain development.
The range of nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy and baby makes eating a nutrient-rich diet crucial. And taking a pregnancy multivitamin does not compensate for eating poorly.
McGrice advises, “eat the same core food groups that are part of a healthy eating plan, including whole grains, meat and meat alternatives, dairy, fruits, vegetables and healthy oils. In your second and third trimesters, eat increased amounts of whole grains.” Your GP will be able to advise you of any specific vitamin or mineral supplements you might require.
She notes that it’s important to include all the allergens in your diet, including nuts, eggs, milk, gluten and fish. “The latest research shows that having those foods on a regular basis during pregnancy actually helps to decrease your baby’s risk of food allergies in later life,” she says. “The current stats are about 1 in 10 babies have food allergies and it’s on the increase, so it’s a really big issue.”
Another important factor is your gut microbiome (the good bacteria in your gut), which McGrice explains is passed on to your baby and sets their gut microbiome. An unhealthy gut microbiome puts your baby at higher risk of allergies. Some research suggests that wheat bran and wholegrain wheat fibre can promote gut microbiota diversity.
She adds that while some women view pregnancy as an opportunity to eat whatever they want – because they’re going to gain weight anyway – the amount of weight you gain can affect your baby’s future weight and how easily you can regain your preconception weight after delivering your baby.
Furthermore, your baby’s taste buds start growing from about 5 months gestation, so they are tasting what you eat from then on. Studies have shown that this will impact their food preferences later in life, McGrice says. “If you want your baby to eat a really healthy and well-balanced diet, then that’s another important reason for having a variety of different nutritious foods during pregnancy.”
For further information, McGrice offers a free downloadable 7-day pregnancy meal planner that includes information on portion sizes (via third-party website).
What to avoid
The most important thing to avoid during pregnancy is alcohol, McGrice says, because it crosses the placenta and can cause foetal alcohol syndrome.
Next is foods that pose a high risk for listeria. Foods to avoid include: ready-to-eat deli meats like ham and salami, patés and other meat spreads, unpasteurised or raw milk or dairy products, soft cheeses like feta and brie, raw meats, raw sprouts and soft-serve ice cream.
Listeria can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. During pregnancy your immunity is lowered, putting your baby at higher risk of listeria toxicity. McGrice notes that while listeria on foods is quite common, pregnant women are vulnerable and should avoid the high risk foods and practise good food hygiene.
Pregnant women should also avoid excess sugar and saturated fats as much as possible. And they are advised not to smoke while pregnant.
After baby is delivered
Once baby comes along, listeria is no longer an issue, but it’s still a good idea to minimise sugar, saturated fat and alcohol.
“It is recommended that mums avoid alcohol as much as possible during breastfeeding, but if you are going to breastfeed just make sure that you haven’t had any alcohol for at least two hours before breastfeeding because it does go through the breast milk,” she says. “And then only have a few sips if it’s a special occasion. We don’t want mums to be drinking on a regular basis.”
For further information, McGrice has a YouTube channel covering nutrition for preconception, pregnancy and women’s health.