Pregnancy is experienced in many different ways. Some women talk about the magic of it all with dreamy eyes and glowing skin, while others roll around uncomfortably making silent wishes that this baby would just get out already. No matter how you experience pregnancy, it really is a miracle. A little human is growing inside of you, which will one day emerge and go on to live its own life (maybe create its own offspring one day). How do we give our child the best start? What can we do to ensure that our child lives a long and happy life? More and more research is suggesting that the very earliest of life stages are of upmost importance for future wellbeing. In utero nutrition is often underestimated by doctors and mothers. Let’s have a look at how seriously you should take your diet while pregnant.
Eating for Two
A common misnomer is that pregnant women need to ‘eat for two’. It’s really not necessary to double your energy intake while pregnant. After all, you’re not feeding another fully-grown woman, you’re only feeding a tiny life, who doesn’t need anywhere near as much energy as you do. In fact, during the first trimester there is no need to increase caloric consumption at all. In the second trimester, increase daily caloric consumption by 350cal. In the third, up it again by 425cal/day. This is enough to supply the extra energy required for growth and development of the foetus, without supplying excessive amounts that promote fat deposition. Too much weight gain during pregnancy can cause complications such as diabetes and hypertension. On the other hand, too little energy results in epigenetic changes to the foetus metabolism that increase the risk of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and obesity later in life. This is exampled by The Dutch Famine. A 20% increase strikes a happy medium.
Here’s the kicker, while increasing overall calorie intake by 20%, we recommend increasing nutrient intake by 50%. This is due to the markedly increased nutrient requirements of a pregnant woman. The only way to achieve this is to eat an extremely nutrient dense diet. Nutrient density means consuming foods that have high amounts of nutrients per calorie. In other words, you need to make your calories count! This can be achieved by consuming lots of vegetables, nuts, legumes, lean meats and lean dairy.
I like my coffee, I like it strong and I like it every day. However, after some research into the negative effects of caffeine in unborn children, I’m going to avoid it when I fall pregnant (one day far into the future!). The safest option is complete avoidance of caffeine. However, some research suggests that 3 cups of weak tea or coffee per day is okay. Exceeding this can result in birth defects, lower birth weight (predictive of obesity later in life) and decreased blood flow to the placenta (where your baby picks up all its oxygen and nutrients). Furthermore, the polyphenols in caffeine and tea inhibits the absorption of iron, which you baby needs for normal growth and development. It should be noted that alternative sources of caffeine such as soft drinks (e.g. coke) and dark chocolate offer additional caffeine that needs to be considered when calculating your daily consumption. For example, if you have a can of coke one day, you might want to rethink a cup of coffee that day.
Another thing I’m going to miss during pregnancy. Nine months is a long time to abstain from alcohol, but complete avoidance is really the best option for your baby. Your unborn baby has an underdeveloped liver, in fact, there are special blood vessels in place that direct blood away from the liver, bypassing it almost completely. Therefore, your baby cannot process alcohol like you can. Any alcohol that makes its way into the baby’s blood has severely detrimental effects on its’ little brain. At the brain, alcohol blocks the movement of all important neurotransmitters and disrupts blood flow through the placenta. Therefore, alcohol consumption during pregnancy can result in foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS is characterised by abnormal growth, physical deformities in the facial features and a twisted pinkie finger, mental retardation, learning disabilities, vision and hearing issues and an irritable, hyperactive, personality with a short attention span.
Now that we’ve got the two big no no’s out of the way, let’s start to talk about the specific nutrients that are important to pregnancy and how to optimise your diet for creating new life. First our agenda, is protein. Protein requirements are higher than usual during first and second trimesters. The recommendation is 1g/kg/day. If you are a 65kg woman, then you should consume about 65g of protein per day. This is higher than the 46g (.75g/kg/d) otherwise recommended by the NRV’s for non-pregnant women. The increased requirements are a result of the foetus needing protein to build tissues and grow. It is important to provide adequate protein in conjunction with sufficient caloric intake in order to avoid the degradation of muscles for protein building blocks.
Folate, is probably the most well-known pregnancy nutrient with supplements being marketed heavily in the media. Folate is a B vitamin important to cell division, maintenance and proliferation. Since folate is so important to growth, it is no surprise that it’s important in pregnancy and at peri-conception (extending 2-3months before and after conception). Folate deficiency results in spinda bifida, a birth defect where the neural tube doesn’t close properly. This condition is a threat to life and often requires dangerous surgery.
Vitamin C deficiency results in scurvy in adults and in foetus’s whose mothers are not consuming the nutrient in adequacy. Foetal scurvy is a dangerous condition and results in birth defects. Vitamin C requirements are higher during pregnancy due to its role in collagen synthesis in the developing baby.
Iron deficiency in the mother (sometimes caused by high coffee and tea consumption), causes anaemia in the baby. It can also result in delayed psychomotor and immune development as well as, in devastative cases, spontaneous abortion.
In developing countries where salt is iodised, in utero iodine deficiency is impacting the population in very serious ways. Especially in the first trimester, iodine is crucial to normal thyroid function and development. Without adequate consumption, the child is born with cretinism that is carried throughout life. Sufferers of cretinism have a very low IQ, dwarfism, facial deformities and an overall poor quality of life.
Calcium requirements increase during pregnancy. However, this does not necessarily mean we need to consume more. Luckily, during pregnancy the body becomes better at absorbing calcium from the food we eat. Therefore, if you already consume adequate calcium, you do not need to add more to your diet. The upper limit for safe consumption during pregnancy is 2500mg of calcium day. If you are taking supplements, please use as directed by a professional.
Fat requirements are as per normal during pregnancy, however it is even more important to make sure you are consuming plenty of the healthy omega 3 and other essential fatty acids. These are crucial to normal growth as well as brain and eye development.
B12 requirements are increased during pregnancy due to high foetal demands. It is important to ensure you are achieving an adequate consumption in order to prevent neurological and haematological defects in your child.
Zinc is important in DNA synthesis and function as well as protein metabolism, growth and immunity. Since these functions pertain to development, it is particularly important that this mineral is consumed adequately during pregnancy.
Food safety is of upmost importance during pregnancy. Avoiding ham, salad bars, some fish and cheese is common practice for many pregnant women. This is because these types of foods are more likely to contain harmful bacteria that cause food poisoning, harming the baby.
There are some nutrients that are more important during pregnancy and there are some types of food it is more important to avoid. All any mother wants is it give her child the best possible chance at a long and healthy life. Make the changes in your diet during pregnancy to get a jump start on your child’s health before they enter this world.