Written by Lucy Jones MRES BSC Hons RD MBDA
We all know that it’s important to eat healthily, but the stakes are raised when you are pregnant. Here, your diet has the potential to not just affect your health but that of your unborn child, with research showing the potential of nutrients in pregnancy to positively protect your baby their whole lives and even influence their intelligence.
The nutrition we receive and food we eat during this time acts as the critical building blocks for the growth of our bodies, the development of our brains and the health of our immune systems. Quite simply, there is no period in someone’s life when nutrition matters more.
Whilst all aspects of diet are important in pregnancy, there are some particular nutrients worthy of extra special attention. So what are these ‘key’ nutrients and how can we make sure we are having enough?
Folic acid significantly reduces the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida. Women take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid while they are trying to conceive, and should continue for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when the baby's spine is developing. Dietary sources of folic acid include green, leafy vegetables, brown rice, granary bread, and fortified breakfast cereals but it would be almost impossible to get enough folic acid just from food – the only way to be sure you are getting the right amount is by taking a supplement.
Omega 3 DHA and EPA
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients for health. They not only maintain our normal brain function but contribute to babies’ brain and eye development. Researchers have found that infants born to mothers with higher blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) at delivery had advanced levels of attention spans well into their second year of life. During the first six months of life, these infants were two months ahead of those babies whose mothers had lower DHA levels. Unfortunately, food sources of long chain omega 3 fatty acids are also pretty restricted, only really being found in oily fish like salmon, fresh tuna, mackerel, sardines, trout, herring and sprats and other marine sources like algae. Supplements can be a very useful bridge for people who choose to avoid oily fish to ensure adequate intakes in pregnancy. Otherwise women should aim for 1-2 portions per week.
In addition to supporting normal blood formation and the normal function of the immune system, iron is a key nutrient for brain development. Women need extra iron in pregnancy so adequate dietary sources are really important, such as red meat, dried fruit, beans, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.
Proteins are found in every cell of the body, making up skin, muscles, hair, fingernails and all other tissues. They provide structure to cells and help them function properly, as well as helping cells repair themselves. During pregnancy, the protein you eat helps your baby grow normally as well as making antibodies for their immune system and transporting oxygen through their blood. Your own need for protein increases during pregnancy too, with a healthy intake needed to support the various changes your body is going through. Aim for a good protein source at each meal such as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, legumes (beans), nuts, seeds, soy (including tofu) and quorn.
Necessary to build your baby’s bones; calcium also helps maintain healthy blood pressure. If you don’t eat enough in pregnancy, you are likely to lose some of your bone mass in order to grow your baby’ skeleton, which could increase your risk of osteoporosis later on. Aim for 3 portions of calcium rich foods daily including milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified foods like dairy alternatives and green leafy vegetables.
Choline is usually grouped within the B-complex vitamins and has been shown to play an important role in foetal and infant brain development, affecting the areas of the brain responsible for memory and life-long learning ability. Choline also helps prevent neural tube defects. Compared with women who get sufficient choline in their diets, women with diets low in choline have four times greater risk of having babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida. You can top up by eating egg yolks in addition to meats, fish and dairy.
Iodine contributes to our normal cognitive function, and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy it contributes to babies’ brain development. This means that inadequate intakes and stores could stop your babies’ brain developing as well as it could. During pregnancy, the amount of iodine you need increases. This is because you have to make enough thyroid hormones to transfer to your baby to help its brain develop correctly. You also have to supply all the iodine that the baby needs.
The main source of iodine in our diets is often milk and other dairy foods although it is found in higher amounts in fish (especially white fish like cod and haddock), sea food and sea plants. A large UK study has shown that two thirds of pregnant women are iodine deficient with low levels in pregnancy reducing their children’s IQ and reading ability aged 8-9.
Vitamin D supports a child’s bone development by helping the body absorb calcium and phosphorus. But it also goes beyond this…. Vitamin D has an increasingly recognised repertoire of other actions, such as promoting insulin action and secretion, immune modulation and lung development. It therefore has the potential to influence many factors in the developing foetus. In fact, low vitamin D levels in pregnancy are linked to pre-eclampsia, low birth weight, glucose intolerance, foetal bone development, and even potentially childhood asthma.
Everyone in pregnancy should take a supplement of 10 mcg vitamin D, to ensure their levels are adequate with people who are ‘at risk’ or have a deficiency needing much higher doses.
Vitamin C is needed to make collagen, one of the fibres that builds your baby’s body. So it’s no surprise that your need increases during pregnancy. Fortunately, it’s easy to get an adequate supply from a diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables….eat a rainbow!
Constipation is a common pregnancy complaint but is less likely if you eat a diet rich in fibre. It happens in part, because of your increased levels of progesterone during pregnancy. A natural muscle relaxant, it makes the bowel muscles less effective, so waste stays in the large intestine for longer. The body then reabsorbs water from the stools, making them firmer and harder to pass.
The best way to minimise constipation is to include several sources of fibre in your diet each day, drink plenty of fluids and stay active. Go for wholegrains, nuts, seeds, beans, fruits and vegetables.
Lucy Jones is supporting the nutrimum new-recipe, new-look cereal bar with key vitamins and minerals to support mums during pregnancy and breastfeeding tailored for mums. nutrimum bars are available exclusively in over 170 Boots stores across the country and online from Ocado at £2.99 for a pack of five bars. To find out more, visit www.boots.com/nutrimum
Tagged in Pregnant