A healthy pregnancy and great birth have their foundations in your health and diet during pregnancy. Any improvement you can make to your diet and lifestyle in pregnancy, no matter how far through you are will benefit you and your baby, now and in the longer-term. The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide great advice on how to achieve this. Some foods are not recommended during pregnancy due to their potential to cause infection. The risk of infection increases in pregnancy as a result of temporary changes to the immune system. Dietary supplements should not be necessary for healthy women eating a balanced diet, with the exception of Folic Acid for the first two months of pregnancy or if you are expecting more than one baby.
What you eat and drink during pregnancy will have a significant impact upon not only your health, but your baby’s health and development and can impact their growth in early childhood and beyond. ANY improvement you can make to your diet during pregnancy will benefit both you and your baby.
Even if you are far into your pregnancy, there is still a lot to gain from reviewing and improving your diet. This is because the nutritional requirements of your pregnancy increase significantly during the second and third trimesters due to the baby’s rapid growth. Nutritional deficiencies could still be avoided or their impact lessened even at this late stage.
A well balanced diet during pregnancy is also good preparation for successful breastfeeding. Changes made to eating patterns late in pregnancy will place you in an even stronger position to meet the physical demands of breastfeeding and life with your newborn baby.
What is a balanced diet?
A balanced diet includes a variety of foods from all 5 food groups described in the Food Pyramid, which also describes the recommended number of daily servings. It should provide enough calories to ensure healthy weight gain and should include all the necessary daily nutrients.
You can eat well by:
- Enjoying a variety of fruits and vegetables of different types and colours.
- Increasing your grain consumption to 8–8½ serves a day – mostly wholegrain – in preference to discretionary choices.
- Choosing foods high in iron, such as lean red meat or tofu, which are important for pregnant women.
- Making a habit of drinking milk, eating hard cheese and yoghurt, or calcium enriched alternatives. Reduced fat varieties are best.
- Enjoying a wide variety of vegetables, legumes, fruit and wholegrains and drinking plenty of water every day can assist with constipation – a common occurrence during pregnancy.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines (2013) provide up-to-date advice about the amount and kinds of foods that are important to eat to maintain health and wellbeing during pregnancy and they are based on scientific evidence and research.
To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs.
Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five food groups every day:
- Plenty of vegetables of different types and colours, and legumes/beans;
- Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley;
- Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans;
- Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat.
And drink plenty of water.
Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol.
a. Limit intake of foods high in saturated fat such as many biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks.
- Replace high fat foods which contain predominately saturated fats such as butter, cream, cooking margarine, coconut and palm oil with foods which contain predominately polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as oils, spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado.
b. Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added salt.
- Read labels to choose lower sodium options among similar foods.
- Do not add salt to foods in cooking or at the table.
c. Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars such as confectionary, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks.
d. For women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is the safest option.
Encourage, support and promote breastfeeding.
Care for your food; prepare and store it safely.
Do pregnant women have to avoid some foods?
Yes, during pregnancy women are at greater risk of food poisoning and so taking extra care in the preparation and storage of food is important.
Foods pregnant women should avoid:
- Foods which may contain listeria bacteria like soft cheeses (brie, camembert, ricotta, feta and blue cheese), sandwich meats, bean sprouts, pre-prepared salads and pâté.
- Raw eggs as they may contain salmonella.
- Alcohol – because we do not know what the safe alcohol limit is during pregnancy, it is safest not to drink alcohol at all.
- Fish that may contain high levels of mercury – consume no more than one serve (100g cooked) per fortnight of shark/flake, marlin or broadbill/ swordfish, and no other fish that fortnight, or one serve (100g cooked) per week of orange roughy (deep sea perch) or catfish and no other fish that week.
- Foods such as nuts during pregnancy only if they are allergic to the foods themselves – avoiding these foods has no impact on the infant’s risk of developing allergy symptoms.
Do I need to take food supplements during pregnancy?
On a balanced diet, supplements are not required. However it is advisable to consider increasing your intake of folate a month prior to conception and for the first 2 months after conception as this can reduce the risk of the baby developing neural tube defects.
The neural tube is that part of the embryo from which the skull, brain and spine develop. Neural tube defects include spina bifida, anenchephally and encephalocoele. A daily folic acid supplement of 0.5mg for the first two months of pregnancy (or the first month only if the date of conception is known) will ensure that the baby’s nutritional requirements during this critical period are met.
Dietary supplements may also be required if you:
- have a pre-existing dietary deficiency,
- are expecting more than one baby,
- are a heavy smoker,
- regularly use drugs or alcohol.
You can consult your pregnancy health care provider for advice.
How to get the nutrients your body needs during pregnancy
The Australian Dietary Guidelines outline the number of foods from each group which make up a balanced diet during pregnancy:
5 X Serves of vegetables and legumes/beans
2 X Serves of fruit
8.5 X Serves of grains (cereal) foods, mostely wholegrain and/ or high fibre cereal varieties
3.5 X Serves of lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
2.5 X Serves of milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives, mostly reduced fat
0 - 2.5 X Approximate serves from the five food groups of unsaturated spreads and oils or discretionary choices
Focusing more upon healthy lifestyle which includes eating well and getting some exercise, than upon controlling weight gain in pregnancy delivers better outcomes for women and babies.
Foods to avoid
There is a greater risk of infection during pregnancy, and so it is recommended that women avoid any foods which carry a higher than average risk of causing infection e.g. unpasturised products, raw egg etc.
We do not know what the safe limit for alcohol is during pregnancy, therefore avoiding alcohol completely is the safest course of action.