Pregnancy Nutrition Tips to Support You and Your Baby
One of the first things pregnant women hear is that they should now eat for two. That statement could not be more wrong. While pregnant, women should focus on eating healthily and what their body needs, which is not as simple as “eating for two. “
Good nutrition during pregnancy is essential for the reduction of genetic disability risk, good brain development of the baby, average birth weight, etc. It can also help reduce morning sickness, fatigue, or anemia.
Simply put, nutrition is a process in which substances from our food are transformed into all the needed energy for physical and mental activities. Poor nutrition represents a threat to human life. So, it is vital during pregnancy. Women should even make dietary changes before conception. But the first several weeks of pregnancy – in which many women don't know they are pregnant - are crucial in fetal development.
So what should you be careful about, and what must you avoid? How do you find the right balance, and what is the ideal food during pregnancy? Let's find out!
1. Eat twice as good
If your food calories intake before pregnancy was between 2000-2300, this is how much more you should eat:
- During the first trimester, you should have the same amount of calories, 2000-2300
- In the second trimester, you need around 300 extra calories, 2300-2600
- During the third trimester, you may need between 300-450 extra calories daily, 2300-2750
The first weeks of pregnancy are a period when the basis for developing the child's organs is created. Even if you suffer from morning sickness and the mere thought of food makes you feel sick, you should still eat and, most importantly, eat diverse foods. One important tip for healthy nutrition is not to skip breakfast.
An optimal diet during pregnancy includes five meals: breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, and dinner. Throughout the pregnancy, you should focus on consuming carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Carbohydrates provide energy, proteins are cells' building material, and fats are essential for babies' brain development.
Special nutrition needs include nutrients from:
Calcium intake during pregnancy reduces the risk of preeclampsia, a sudden increase in blood pressure. It is also vital for the baby's bone and teeth development. Pregnant women should take 1000mg of calcium daily. Calcium can be found in dairy products, dark green vegetables, sesame, amaranth, whey protein, white beans, almond, etc. Increased calcium intake is essential to avoid dental issues like teeth falling out and bone diseases after pregnancy.
- Folic acid
Vitamin B9, or folic acid, is the most helpful during the first four weeks of pregnancy, which is when neural tubes are formed. Since most women don't know they are pregnant at that early stage, they should begin folic acid intake before conception. It reduces the risk of damage to the child's spinal cord and brain. Some neural tube defects are spina bifida, tethered spinal cord syndrome, meningocele, anencephaly, etc.
The recommended folic acid intake during pregnancy is 0,4mg daily. Since getting that amount from food alone is hard, you might need folic acid supplements.
You can find vitamin B9 in poultry, beans, leafy green vegetables, wheat germ, yeast, vetch, citrus juice, most berries, etc.
- Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for the baby's neurological development; they support eye and brain development. Research shows they might also help decrease symptoms of perinatal depression. Pregnant women should take 1,4g of omega-3 acids daily. You can get most of this amount from food, so your supplements should only have around 300 mg. Make sure you take mercury-free DHA supplements.
The most beneficial Omega-3 acids are EPA and DHA. EPA is good for the immune system; it slows the inflammatory process and supports the heart. DHA supports the nervous system; it is good for the brain and eyes.
Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids are eggs, flaxseed oil, fish (salmon, anchovies, mackerel, sardines), chia seeds, krill oil, walnuts, tofu, seaweed, etc. When you choose to eat a fish, make sure it is low-mercury and freshly made.
While pregnant, you are at greater risk of developing anemia (iron deficiency). During pregnancy, the volume of your blood increases because you need to supply your baby with oxygen. The amount of iron you need increases with the increase in blood volume. So if you don't have enough iron stored, you can develop anemia.
Iron is vital for your baby's brain development and growth. The recommended daily intake of iron is 27mg. Iron-rich foods include eggs, red meat, leafy green vegetables, red berries, beans, and peas. You can add food or drinks rich in vitamin C for better iron absorption.
In some cases, iron intake from food is insufficient. So, you might need to take iron supplements. Luckily, most prenatal vitamins already contain iron.
- Vitamin D
Vitamin D plays a vital role in your baby's bones' development since it helps the absorption of calcium and phosphorus. It also aids the immune system and blood sugar regulation. Research has proved that adequate vitamin D levels might decrease the risk of preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.
The body produces vitamin D when exposed to the sun. Although it is not found in food in extensive amounts, some of the best vitamin D-rich foods are sardines, cod liver oil, eggs, fortified milk, salmon, herring, shrimp, etc.
The recommended daily dose of vitamin D is 400-600IU. Most prenatal supplements already contain a sufficient dose.
2. Maintain a healthy weight.
Weight gain during pregnancy is perfectly normal and expected. It depends on the BMI (Body Mass Index) before pregnancy. In general, the expected weight gain is between 11-16kg. Weight gain, no matter the amount, is usually inevitable. So, you should focus on gradually gaining weight and remember that the most you will gain will be during the last trimester.
If you have metabolic disorders like gestational diabetes, talk to your doctor about diet and weight gain recommendations.
3. Preparing food
You should follow health guidelines when preparing food. Ensure that all the surfaces where you prepare your food are clean. To avoid contamination, you should thoroughly wash your hands and all the food you are preparing. Wash thoroughly all the food you are preparing under running water.
Safely preparing food is especially important during summer to avoid salmonella contamination. Put all perishable food in the fridge right after purchase. Keep track of the expiry date of the food you are preparing.
All the meat you use should be adequately thermally processed. Ensure that all cheese, milk, and juice you consume are pasteurized.
4. What to avoid
Certain foods are better to avoid while pregnant:
- Raw and undercooked meat
- Unpasteurized milk
- Soft cheese
- Raw fish
- Raw eggs
- Meat spreads
- Smoked seafood
- Raw sprouts
- Ready-to-eat salads
- Energetic drinks
Some foods are not forbidden, yet it is best to reduce the amount you consume:
- Fast food
- Processed food
- Caffeine, you can have less than 200mg per day
- Saturated fat
- Bakery products
Besides the food, you should also avoid or prevent the following:
- Consuming drugs and opioids
- Stress and mental fatigue
- Heavy physical activity, like moving the furniture
- Taking medications that the doctor does not prescribe
Alcohol consumption is linked to many developing baby problems. Any consumed alcohol enters the baby's bloodstream and can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). It is a lifelong condition that can not be cured. FAS can cause abnormalities in the central nervous system, abnormal facial features, small head size, low body weight, sleep difficulties, short height, etc. Later in life, people with FAS may have learning and speech problems, hyperactivity, low IQ, poor concentration, poor short-term memory, etc. The only way to prevent FAS is to avoid drinking alcohol while pregnant.
Smoking is linked to many pregnancy complications, like ectopic pregnancy, preterm delivery, vaginal bleeding, miscarriage, etc. Tobacco smoke harms babies before and after they are born. Cigarettes contain many chemicals and can restrict oxygen supply to your baby. Smokers’ babies are at risk of being born too early and facing breathing and feeding problems. They also tend to have low birth weight, are more likely to get infections, and are at a greater risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). The best is to quit smoking when you are planning a pregnancy.
5. The most optimal diet during pregnancy
To sort out the diet a little more and ensure a better selection of food, the food should be divided into three main groups: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and include:
- Starchy foods: bread and cereals: whole grains, brown rice, and whole grain bread have great nutritional value.
- Fruits and vegetables: try eating more vegetables since fruit has more sugar. Eating carrots, pumpkins, spinach, bananas, apricots, tomatoes, prunes, mangoes, sweet potatoes, sweet peppers, grapefruit, etc., is beneficial.
- Milk and milk products: skim milk, low-fat yogurt
- Meat and fish: lamb, pork, salmon, herring, sardines, lean beef, etc.
Staying hydrated is vital to maintaining amniotic fluids; it helps baby growth and helps the placenta transport more nutrients to the fetus. Dehydration leads to constipation, slower digestion, low blood pressure, premature contractions, decreased placental blood flow, etc. Drinking plenty of fluids during pregnancy, approximately two liters daily, is essential. Water is best, but you can have carbonated or flavored water if you struggle to drink plain water. Avoid sugary beverages and too much caffeine. Milk, fresh juices, smoothies, and hot drinks are good choices; remember that green tea has caffeine. Talk to your midwife about herbal teas you can consume.
If you don't have a special diet, this is an example of a one-day menu suggestion:
- Breakfast: whole grains with low-fat milk or yogurt, fresh fruit (banana or apple)
- Snack: a handful of nuts with yogurt or fruit smoothie
- Lunch: roasted chicken with potatoes and a green salad or salmon steak with orange sauce and mixed green salad
- Snack: banana and dark chocolate or crackers with fresh cheese
- Dinner: egg and spinach omelet or lamb with peas and broccoli
How to handle nausea, morning sickness, and other common issues?
During the first trimester, women often experience stomach pain and morning sickness. Some of the best foods to control nausea are salty crackers, ginger, bananas, applesauce, broth, watermelon, lemon, peppermint tea, fortified cereals, etc.
You can talk to your doctor to prescribe vitamin B6 supplements to reduce morning sickness.
Another common problem during pregnancy is heartburn. It occurs when stomach acid moves from your stomach up to your esophagus. You can experience a burning feeling in your chest and a bitter or sour taste in your throat. More than half of pregnant women have heartburn, especially during the third trimester.
Heartburn can be relieved by changing diet habits and lifestyle:
- Eat five smaller meals during the day
- Avoid chocolate, coffee, spicy food, sour juices, fatty and greasy food, alcohol, and tobacco.
- Don't drink after dinner
- Eat slowly
- Sleep with your head and upper body raised
- Try to sleep on your left side
- Avoid going to sleep at least one hour after a meal; go for a walk instead
- Have a glass of milk or eat a yogurt
If these don't work, you can take over-the-counter antacids. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best and safest during pregnancy.
Is exercise during pregnancy safe?
Exercise during pregnancy is considered safe. It can help you stay in shape and prepare you for delivery. Regular exercise can improve sleep, reduce anxiety and depression, help reduce the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, prevent excessive weight gain, boost mood, etc. The list is endless.
However, before you start exercising, you should talk to your doctor. He might advise you not to exercise if you have cervical or placenta problems, persistent vaginal bleeding, heart or lung disease, anemia, or were inactive before pregnancy.
Walking is a great way to start since it provides minimal stress on your joints and can reduce stress levels. Other good choices are yoga, pilates, swimming, dancing, cycling, etc. Avoid contact sports and scuba diving. Most importantly: while exercising, don't forget to stay hydrated, warm up, and stretch.
The Bottom line
All the lifestyle changes you make during pregnancy affect you and your baby. Both inadequate and excessive nutrition can contribute to complications during pregnancy.
Healthy nutrition during pregnancy should include all the nutrients necessary for the baby's growth and development and the mother's body and health. Please be aware that taking supplements can not replace a healthy diet.
Sources: Hopkins medicine, Earth's best, Healthline, Science Direct, Medline Plus, Bestmade natural products, Mayo Clinic
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