Achieving Optimum Nutrition throughout Pregnancy
The wealth of research and expert information regarding nutrition during pregnancy can often seem overwhelming, confusing and even contradictory. For years now advice has been conflicting, for example about so-called ‘safe’ levels of alcohol consumption, and precisely how much and what type of fats to include during the gestation period. These are just a couple of examples of the minefield that is the pregnancy diet.
Whilst there may be differing ideas about recommended intake of certain vitamins and minerals, what we do know is that actually, eating whilst pregnant is not that different to the general recommendations for the entire population – it is just that the consumption of certain nutrients increase in importance. For example, it is widely known that folic acid is incredibly important in the developing baby. Perhaps less publicised is the importance of zinc – essential for growth and repair in the body. Both are just as beneficial for mum’s body as they are for baby’s development.
Pregnant women should ideally eat little and often – commonly referred to as “grazing”- as well as eating plenty of carbohydrates low on the glycaemic index. This ensures a slow, continuous release of energy as these foods do not cause “spikes” in blood glucose levels. This is important for a number of reasons – not least for mum as the consequent “dips” can lead to fatigue and even fainting episodes, but also for baby as this helps ensure a constant supply of essential nutrients and the energy it takes for these nutrients to reach where they are needed. Good sources of low-GI carbohydrates include most vegetables, whole-wheat pasta, lentils and soya products such as tofu. Eating little and often also makes sense for those in the latter stages of pregnancy, and should help with feelings of indigestion and discomfort after eating.
Also important to eat are the correct type of fats, essential for baby’s eye and brain development. If healthy fats such as omega 3 from fish (mackerel and salmon, for example) are not in ample supply, the more unhealthy, saturated fats will be used in the development of the brain and this is not at all desirable. The best way to avoid this is to eat fish at least twice a week during pregnancy, along with seeds such as flax and chia – these can be easily incorporated by sprinkling onto cereal or porridge, or whizzing up in a smoothie.
Supplementation is a bone of contention amongst many individuals, and indeed many nutritionists would argue that taking vitamins or omega-3 oils in tablet or capsule form is not necessary if attention is paid to maintaining a healthy, balanced diet. However, for the thousands of women who suffer severe nausea and sickness, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy, it may be a case of having to supplement the diet – and it can equally be argued that ‘something is better than nothing’! Furthermore for women with food intolerances, achieving an optimum diet may be difficult or impossible. In such cases, always seek the advice of your GP or a registered dietician.
For women concerned with consuming the best possible diet during pregnancy, the following notes should give you some basic guidance:
- Eat plenty of wholegrains, choose brown rice over white, wholemeal or granary bread and whole-wheat pasta
- Include as many vegetables and salad as you can – eating a colourful mix each day is a good way to get the full spectrum of nutrients
- Fruit is nutritious but also full of sugar, so if weight is an issue substitute for more fruit and veg instead
- Include beans and lentils in the diet – currently there is a great variety of ready to eat and easy-cook packets and pouches on the market, making it even easier to add these to soups, stews and other dishes
- Eat 2-3 portions of different fish each week – tinned mackerel or sardines on toast, salmon flaked into scrambled egg, homemade fish cakes with trout…also look out for Omega-3 enriched eggs
- Get folic acid from vegetables such as leeks, mushrooms, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. Parsnips also contain useful amounts, however it should be noted that they are high on the glycaemic index.
- Get zinc from any lean meat but particularly chicken (dark meat from legs/thighs/drumsticks contains almost double the amount than in breast-meat) and turkey. Turkey is a great source and lower in fat, a much underrated meat!
- Drink plenty of fluids – water is essential but you can add pure fruit juice which will also boost the vitamin count. Research is ongoing on the effects of caffeine, so it is best to drink caffeine-free tea and coffee, and of course avoid alcohol or abstain altogether. In any case, caffeine and alcohol both interfere with sleep patterns and sleep is crucial for a healthy pregnancy and stress-free mum.
By following the above guidelines you and your baby will enjoy the full spectrum of nutrients, hopefully giving you an enjoyable pregnancy but most importantly giving baby the best possible start in life.
Below is a great, balanced recipe providing good proportions of folate, zinc and low-GI carbohydrates as useful amounts of vitamin C and other vitamins.
Moroccan Chicken and Squash Couscous
1 large chicken breast
½ butternut squash
1 red onion
1 tbsp. harissa paste
1 tsp each cumin and coriander
1 can chopped tomatoes
Handful cherry tomatoes, halved
Zest from one lemon
Heat a large pan and spray with low-fat cooking spray, or add a little olive oil. Fry the onions, spices and harissa paste for five minutes.
Chop the chicken and squash into bite-sized pieces (do not peel the squash). Add chicken and cook over medium-high heat for five minutes before adding the squash.
Cook for five minutes more, then add the tomatoes. Half-fill the can with water and add to the pan. Simmer for twenty minutes
Add the lemon zest, cherry tomatoes and couscous.
Turn off the heat and cover the pan. Leave for ten minutes.
Stir through the coriander and serve with a green salad and a wholemeal seeded pitta or wrap for stuffing.
Do not be afraid of eating a little spice during pregnancy – many have desirable attributes such as digestive, cleansing and antibacterial properties.
Feel free to change up or add to the above ingredients. Throw in some chopped carrots with the squash, or replace it with sweet potato.
For an even easier recipe, instead of using couscous try adding a ready cooked packet of quinoa/bulgur wheat mix (or similar)