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A healthy pregnancy diet – which foods to eat and avoid

The guidelines around what you should and shouldn’t eat during pregnancy may seem overwhelming to navigate. And it can feel especially difficult to stick to them at this time of year, with the many summer parties, picnics and BBQs that are happening. A healthy diet during pregnancy is vital to give your baby the right type and amount of nutrients needed for its development. Some vitamins and minerals (e.g. iron, folate, iodine) are needed in higher amounts than usual during pregnancy, which you need to factor into your diet. There are also certain foods that you should avoid while you are pregnant, because they can be harmful to your developing baby.

Maintaining a healthy diet during pregnancy will also help you meet your nutritional needs and manage your weight gain.

Eat a variety of healthy foods

To give you and your baby the right amount of energy and nutrients, it is best to eat a varied diet full of healthy foods. Although you should not ‘diet’ (i.e. restrict your energy intake) while you are pregnant, I do recommend keeping your intake of foods that are high in sugar or carbohydrates to a minimum, and instead eating more protein and healthy fats. This diet established by researchers at the CSIRO is an example of a low-carb diet that you can follow before and during pregnancy.

Try to base your diet during pregnancy around the following types of food:

  • Vegetables: eat plenty of fresh vegetables while you are pregnant as they are a great source of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Try to eat vegetables that are low in carbs and sugars, such as broccoli, cauliflower, tomato, cucumber and celery, and keep your intake of starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes) to a minimum.
  • Protein: eat a mix of protein-rich foods. Choose from red meats, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans. These foods are an important source of iron and other nutrients. Don’t be too worried about the fat content.
  • Healthy fats: to get enough calcium and vitamin D for your developing baby, make sure to eat multiple serves of dairy foods each day (i.e. milk, cheese, yoghurt or dairy alternatives), but stick to those that are low in sugar or sugar-free. Also include foods containing healthy oils in your diet (e.g. olive oil, avocado, nuts).

Many established guidelines for a healthy diet during pregnancy also recommend eating several serves of grains (e.g. bread, pasta, noodles, oats, cereals) each day. However, these foods are high in carbohydrates and may lead to weight gain, which is not good for you or your baby. Try to avoid eating these types of food and if you are eating grain foods, choose wholegrain and/or high-fibre varieties where possible because these are the healthiest options. Also keep fruit intake to a minimum because fruits are high in sugar.

Supplements can help you get the right nutrients for pregnancy

Some pregnant women struggle to get the necessary amounts of vitamins and minerals through their diet alone – specific dietary requirements (e.g. vegetarian, gluten-free, lactose-free) and busy lifestyles can make it even harder to achieve. Fortunately, there are supplements available that can help bridge this gap. All pregnant women should take folate and iodine supplements throughout the pregnancy, but other requirements will depend on personal diet and lifestyle factors.

Though vitamins are good for you, they can become toxic if taken in large amounts. This could happen if you take a specific vitamin as well as a multivitamin that contains it, or if your diet is already providing sufficient levels of a vitamin and you also take a supplement. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before starting any kind of supplement if you are pregnant.

Avoid foods that can harm a developing baby

You’ve probably heard that you should not eat raw fish or soft cheeses while you are pregnant. The reason for this is that certain bacteria are found in unpasteurised and raw foods. Bacteria can also start to grow on food that has been sitting around for a while, making pre-prepared foods risky as well.

The main culprit is called Listeria monocytogenes, which causes listeria infection. If a healthy adult is infected with this bug they will be fine and won’t show any symptoms. However, if a developing baby is exposed to listeria it can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or premature labour.

Salmonella is another type of bacteria that can cause food poisoning, generally from raw eggs or undercooked poultry. If a pregnant woman is infected with salmonella, it can trigger miscarriage.

For these reasons, it’s recommended that pregnant women avoid eating the following foods:

  • Soft cheeses (e.g. brie, feta, ricotta), unless they are cooked and served hot
  • Raw meat or seafood (including sushi)
  • Cold meats and deli foods (e.g. salami, ham, pate)
  • Unpasteurised dairy products
  • Pre-cut and packaged fruit and vegetables or pre-prepared salads
  • Raw eggs (e.g. in home-made mayo, aioli, mousse, cake batter).

Use my handy guide for an extensive list of foods to eat and avoid during pregnancy.

Do not drink alcohol while you are pregnant

We know that heavy drinking can be harmful to a growing baby. The effect that low-to-moderate alcohol intake has on a foetus is less clear, but many studies suggest that these amounts may also be harmful. For the safety of your baby, it’s best to avoid drinking altogether while you’re pregnant.

Moderate your caffeine intake

Studies suggest that small amounts of caffeine are safe for a developing baby, however large amounts (more than 4 cups per day) can lead to an increase in miscarriage. It is best to limit your caffeine intake to one cup of coffee per day while you are pregnant. Avoid energy drinks (e.g. V or Red Bull) because they contain high levels of caffeine.

Watch what types of fish you eat

It’s safe and healthy to include cooked fish in your diet during pregnancy as it gives your baby essential fatty acids needed for development. However, some fish species have high levels of mercury, which can be harmful to a developing baby. While you’re pregnant, the best fish to eat are salmon, sardines, tuna, herring and mackerel. Avoid eating (or eat no more than once per fortnight) flake, broadbill, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy and catfish.

Limit vitamin A intake

Too much vitamin A can cause harm to a foetus by interfering with developmental processes. Liver is a rich source of vitamin A, so pregnant women should only eat small amounts of liver during pregnancy. There is no risk of excessive intake of vitamin A for other foods, but you should check with your pharmacist or doctor if you are taking supplements to make sure you are not having too much vitamin A.

Are you finding it tricky to navigate the pregnancy diet?

If you need guidance on what foods you should eat during your pregnancy, or if you would like advice about taking pregnancy supplements, don’t hesitate to raise these topics at your next antenatal appointment. This includes if you need a special diet during pregnancy because of specific dietary requirements. Between appointments, you are always welcome to call my rooms for advice on (03) 9418 8299.

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