Healthy eating is important for everyone, but it is particularly important as you are trying to grow a healthy baby. During pregnancy, you can fuel baby’s optimal growth and development, lower your baby’s risk of disease later in life and keep yourself well by eating enough of the right foods.
Your diet should include a wide variety of foods, low in fat, sugar and salt, and rich in whole grains, fruit, vegetables and calcium. The food pyramid is a guide to getting a good balance of each food group in your diet.
Iron is important for healthy blood and you need extra iron during pregnancy. If you don’t have enough iron in your diet you can get anaemia or low levels of iron in your blood. If you are anaemic, you may feel tired, short of breath and have no energy. Your baby could also be anaemic at birth. You can improve your levels of iron by eating foods high in iron every day. Eating a diet that has lots of iron rich foods, such as red meat, fortified breakfast cereals, eggs, green vegetables and beans or pulses should be enough for most women.
If your iron level is still low after eating more iron rich foods, then your doctor may prescribe iron supplements for you. It is best to take these without food or milk. Iron supplements can stop some blood pressure medications or thyroid medications from working properly. Take your iron tablet and any medications you have been prescribed at least two hours apart.
You should include one serving of these a few times per week:
You should include one or more of these good iron sources with each meal:
Vitamin C helps you absorb iron in vegetables. Take good vitamin C sources daily:
Wait 30 to 60 minutes after a meal to drink tea, as tea can reduce the amount of iron you can absorb.
Calcium is the key to building healthy bones and teeth – both for you and your baby. Foods that have a lot of calcium are milk, cheese, yoghurt, fortified soya milks and fortified orange juice. Take three portions of these foods every day. If you are having twins or more, take up to 5 portions daily.
You also need vitamin D to absorb the calcium from your diet. Vitamin D may also help support your immune system and general health. The best sources of vitamin D are oily fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel, vitamin D fortified milk, fortified margarines and some breakfast cereals. If you do not take vitamin D-rich foods, ask the dietitian if you need a supplement.
Folic acid helps to prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects in your baby. The baby’s spine develops very early in pregnancy, even before you may realise you are pregnant, so it is important to start taking folic acid before you become pregnant – ideally at least three months before each pregnancy. If you didn’t take folic acid before your pregnancy, you should start to take it straight away and continue to take it until you are 12 weeks pregnant. Include folate rich foods in your diet every day, like green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, beans and citrus fruits.
You can buy folic acid tablets over the counter from your pharmacist. If you are on medication for a condition such as epilepsy, it is important to talk to your GP about how much folic acid to take. Some types of medication work against folic acid and you might need to take a higher amount. Tell your doctor or midwife about all medicines and supplements you are taking to be sure they are safe for pregnant women.
Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, are important for your heart health and for baby’s brain, eyes and nervous system development. You can meet your needs for these essential fats by taking oil-rich fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines or herring twice weekly. Fish and seafood also provide protein and iodine for baby’s development and are important for a balanced diet. Aim to take a variety of fish and seafood a few times a week. If you do not eat fish, take a complete vitamin and mineral supplement made for pregnancy that contains iodine and omega-3s.
Some types of fish contain too much mercury or other toxins that may be harmful to your baby. Do not eat shark, marlin, ray or swordfish. Only eat one tuna steak or two cans (each of 140 g drained weight) of tuna in a week. This also applies if you are breastfeeding.
If you are vegetarian and your diet is varied and balanced, you will get enough nutrients for you and your baby during your pregnancy. However, it can be hard to get enough iron, iodine, vitamin D and vitamin B12 from a vegetarian or vegan diet. Take a complete vitamin and mineral supplement that is made for pregnancy to ensure you are meeting your needs for these essential vitamins and minerals.
If you follow another type of restricted diet, such as gluten free, because of food intolerance (for example, coeliac disease) or for religious reasons, talk to your doctor or midwife. Ask them to refer you to a dietitian for advice on how to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need for yourself and your baby.
Caffeine in large amounts may be harmful. Caffeine is found naturally in coffee and tea and cola drinks. It is also added to other soft drinks, ‘energy’ drinks and some cold and flu remedies. You should only drink a total of four cups of regular coffee, tea and cola drinks a day. Try drinking decaffeinated tea and coffee or water instead. Only take cold remedies if advised by your doctor.
Pregnant women do not need to avoid any foods such as nuts, peanuts, eggs or milk products to prevent baby from forming an allergy. It is best to eat a varied diet but avoid foods if you have an allergy to them yourself.
General good food hygiene practices
The hormones of pregnancy can change the way your digestive system works. These are the most common problems and what you can change in your diet to cope:
This is the nausea and often vomiting that affects many women in the first 12 to 15 weeks of pregnancy. Many women can cope with morning sickness by snacking little and often on bland, easy-to-digest foods such as plain toast, crackers, cereal or plain biscuits. Listen to cravings and eat whatever you feel like you can. When symptoms improve, increase the variety of foods as tolerated. Aim for a healthy, varied diet and drink plenty of fluids. Talk to your doctor if you are unable to hold down any food or fluids or are losing weight.
This is the burning or acid feeling in the chest or throat that affects many women, usually later in the pregnancy. Eat small, frequent meals and avoid eating meals before bed time. Stay upright for at least one hour after each meal and eat slowly at meal times. Avoid very spicy and fried or oily foods, fizzy drinks, caffeine and chocolate if they cause a problem for you. Milk may help soothe the burn. Wear loose, comfortable clothes to reduce pressure on your tummy. Raise the head of your bed or use extra pillows to minimize acid reflux during the night.
This is reduced bowel motions or hard, difficult to pass stools. It can be relieved with high fibre foods, plenty of fluids and regular exercise. Eat foods such as wholemeal bread, beans, pulses, fruit and vegetables, wholemeal pasta and brown rice instead of the white, processed types. Take a minimum of 2 litres of water every day. Try to get 30 to 45 minutes of gentle exercise daily such as walking or swimming. Do not take laxatives unless they are prescribed by your doctor.
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