They say “you are what you eat”, so what happens to you and baby when you’re pregnant? Dietitian Melanie McGrice shows you how the right nutrition will give your little one a head-start in life.
Finding out that you’re pregnant is an exciting time, but trying for a baby can often be a source of stress for some. We all know that eating a balanced and healthy diet during pregnancy is important — but the latest research tells us it’s even more important than we thought. What you eat before conception matters too!
The first 1000 days
There’s a critical time window labelled the ‘first 1000 days’, which runs from before conception until after birth. This is when nutrition can really impact the ‘epigenetics’ of your baby — that is, the way the genes you pass on to your child are expressed (without altering the underlying DNA).
But what to eat during the lead-up to conception, during pregnancy and after birth can be confusing, especially when you’re facing hormone fluctuations, morning sickness and an array of conflicting advice from various friends and family members.
New research has clarified some of the most important dietary changes you can make during those very important first 1000 days.
Trying to fall pregnant
If you’re planning to start a family, or have been trying for some time, the simplest thing you can do is set out to improve your diet and lifestyle.
The earlier you make healthy changes, the better — but in reality, 6–12 months prior to conception is usually ideal. The following four steps will help prepare your body for having a baby.
1. Get on top of your health
Several dietary-related health conditions may impact your ability to conceive, including polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), hypothyroidism, Crohn’s disease, endometriosis and coeliac disease. Luckily these can be significantly improved with diet.
2. Maintain a healthy weight
For every point over a body mass index (BMI) of 29, your chance of becoming pregnant decreases by 4 per cent . So a woman with a BMI of 45 has 60 per cent less chance than if she slimmed to a BMI of 25.
Regardless of BMI, too much body fat can also reduce the health of your eggs, your ability to ovulate and even the likelihood of your embryo implanting. Too little body fat can have similar consequences.
3. Eat a more nutritious diet
Research by Harvard Medical School found that women who adopted five healthy dietary changes recorded a 69 per cent reduced infertility rate compared to women who adopted none.
Try to eat plenty of good fats, raise your plant-based protein intake, reduce your consumption of refined sugar and include adequate amounts of dairy products. For a free seven-day pregnancy meal plan, you can visit melaniemcgrice.com/pregnancy.
4. Boost your micronutrient intake
Most women should take an additional 400µg folic acid and 150µg iodine at least one month prior to trying to conceive. It’s also wise to get a blood test to check whether any other micronutrients need to be supplemented.
Baby on board
You need to maintain a nutritious diet throughout your pregnancy, but what about the well-worn theory that you have to eat for two? And how much weight gain is considered too much?
Eating for two
Contrary to popular belief, being pregnant does not mean literally ‘eating for two’. In fact, unless you’re underweight before falling pregnant or will have a multiple birth, it’s recommended you don’t gain more than 2kg throughout the first trimester.
By week 12 your baby is only the size of a plum, so he or she certainly doesn’t need a whole extra bowl of pasta! In the first trimester, however, your requirements for many vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fats will increase right from the start — so focus on eating quality, nutrient-rich food. During the second and third trimesters, increase your dietary intake slightly with an extra daily serve of meat and of grains.
Healthy weight gain
Women's pregnancy weight gain goals will vary depending upon their BMI at conception and how many babies they are having. However, if you have a healthy BMI at conception (18.5–25 points), you should aim for 11.5–16kg total weight gain during pregnancy — or approximately 300 grams per week throughout the second and third trimesters.
Too much weight gain during pregnancy can raise your risk of gestational diabetes, miscarriage or tearing during birthing, as well as increasing your baby’s risk of childhood obesity. So focus on eating a nutritious diet and watching your portion sizes.
Nausea is usually one of the first hurdles that a woman encounters when she becomes pregnant. While some get away with feeling a bit nauseous now and again, others find they have to endure morning sickness throughout their pregnancy.
Unfortunately, many women find that eating is one of the easiest ways to reduce their nausea. If you're battling nausea, try halving your meals and grazing on small, regular portions during the day. Make an effort to eat light meals and snacks like fresh fruit, wholegrain toast with avocado, nuts, cereal and milk, and vegetable soup — and always drink plenty of water.
What to avoid
There is an abundance of myths about what you can and can’t eat while you're pregnant. The main reason to avoid certain foods is to reduce the likelihood of food poisoning, which can affect your unborn baby. It’s best, therefore, to avoid:
Soft-serve ice cream
Cold processed meats
Mum’s day on a plate
Eat your way to mum-and-babe good health.
Aim for 45–90 minutes of moderate-impact exercise a day. Go for an outdoor walk, take a gentle swim or try pilates or prenatal exercise classes.
7.30amEat a satisfying breakfast
Enjoy a small bowl (1 cup) of Bircher muesli made with oats, fruit and yoghurt. Top with chopped nuts for fibre and healthy fats.
Skip sweet biscuits if you want a morning pick-me-up. Instead, try topping a piece of wholegrain toast with sliced banana. Have a big drink of water, too.
Fill a wholemeal roll with canned tuna, tomato, cucumber, mushroom and baby spinach. If you are breastfeeding, add a handful of almonds or tub of plain yoghurt.
3.00pmRefuel and refresh
Beat the afternoon energy slump with a rice cake topped with reduced-fat hoummos or avocado and sliced tomato, plus a big glass of water.
7.00pmEnjoy a dinner full of protein
Throw together a tasty stir-fry with 150g lean beef, 1 cup wholegrain noodles or brown rice, 1.5 cups of vegies and 1 teaspoon of olive oil.
8.30pmSatisfy sweet cravings
Treat your sweet tooth at night to a tub of reduced-fat plain yoghurt with mixed berries, or a small bowl of rice pudding.
The ‘fourth’ trimester
Welcome to sleepless nights and new-born cuddles! While it’s easy to focus on your new baby’s requirements ahead of your own needs, the two are inextricably linked.
Fuel for breastfeeding
After giving birth, your dietary requirements will change yet again, especially if you are breastfeeding. Your protein needs will remain higher than usual to help heal any tears or surgical scars. If you are breastfeeding, your fluid and carbohydrate needs will also increase significantly.
Compared to your usual diet, aim to have an additional tub of reduced-fat yoghurt or glass of milk, and give yourself three extra serves of grains each day. A serve of grains is equal to one slice of bread, three crispbreads or half a cup of cooked rice, pasta or noodles — and choose wholegrain options if you can.
Non-breastfeeding mums don’t need these additions to nutrition, so after your wounds have fully healed, you can go back to your usual healthy diet.
Losing baby weight… sensibly
After your baby is born, most weight loss usually occurs in the first three months. The average woman burns about 2000kJ (480cal) per day to make breast milk when breastfeeding her baby exclusively, so expect to lose 500g per week.
When you have a new baby in your arms and you’re getting very little sleep, eating a healthy diet can be incredibly challenging. Try to keep tempting foods like biscuits, chips and chocolate out of the house. Instead, fill your pantry with quick nutritious snacks like nuts, yoghurt, vegetable sticks and wholegrain crackers. Keep a jug of water on the kitchen bench and carry a water bottle with you. And try to avoid snacking during the night when you’re getting up to attend to your baby.
What about food allergies?
Current research suggests that if you include well-known allergens such as eggs, fish, nuts and wheat in your diet before, during and after pregnancy, this can also help expose your baby to these allergens in tiny amounts. This increases your baby's tolerance so they are later less likely to develop intolerances when you introduce solids.
The most important thing to remember about your diet during this important time is that you will face many challenges, so don’t be too hard on yourself, just do your best. And, if you need help, get in touch with an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Dad’s diet matters too!
Men have equal responsibility for healthy baby making. Research shows that what your man eats can impact both the likelihood of conception and your baby's health. Encourage dad-to-be to follow these dietary tips:
High-kilojoule diets contribute to a reduction in sperm quality. Encourage him to skip takeaway and avoid high-kilojoule sugary snacks.
Eat a nutrient-rich diet
Micronutrient deficiencies can impact sperm health. Prevent these with a diet rich in vegies, fruit, dairy, meat and meat alternatives, grains and healthy fats.
Alcohol can impact the health of sperm, although this can be improved by avoiding alcohol in the lead-up to conception.
Swap to healthy fats
Foods that are rich in good fats, such as oily fish, nuts and olive oil, have been found to significantly improve sperm quality and quantity.