We’ve all heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” While we all know it’s not true in the literal sense (no one has ever turned into a cow after a good steak!), we all know that what we eat influences our health. But did you know that what you eat, even before pregnancy, influences the health of your baby while it’s growing in your womb and after it’s born? Wondering how? Well, read on …
Trying to get pregnant? Then now is the time to improve your diet!
When a woman falls pregnant, the foetus begins growing very quickly. The first signs of pregnancy, like a baby bump or morning sickness, are not obvious at this stage so you probably wouldn’t even know you have a bun in the oven. However, the cells of the foetus (which started as a single sperm and egg) are reproducing rapidly. In order to reproduce, the cells require nutrients, which cannot be provided simply by consuming a healthy pregnancy diet or eating more during pregnancy. Nutrients used by your growing foetus are taken from your nutritional stores which take time to build up.
If you have maintained a healthy pre pregnancy diet, you will typically have enough stores of energy and micronutrients (e.g. calcium, iron) to support your growing foetus. But these important pregnancy vitamins and minerals may be insufficient if you have nutritional problems (e.g. a deficiency in iron) before you get pregnant. This can affect the development of your foetus in the womb, and also the health of your baby after birth.
Your diet should include a healthy balance from all food groups and the right amount of:
|Energy (calories) for your body size and shape and exercise levels|
|Calcium to develop sufficient stores to support the growing baby’s teeth and bones|
|Other important pregnancy vitamins and minerals. Your doctor will advise you on the correct amounts and whether or not a supplement should be taken. Bear in mind that it can be harmful to consume too much of some vitamins during pregnancy. Important pregnancy micronutrients include:|
How can my pre-pregnancy diet affect my baby?
Some of the most important aspects of a baby’s development occur before the first signs of pregnancy, when you don’t even realise you’re pregnant. For example, it is in the first four weeks of pregnancy that your baby’s neural tube develops – this is the tube that forms the spine and controls the nervous system. Abnormalities in the neural tube can significantly affect the health of your baby and cause conditions such as spina bifida and mental retardation.
Maintaining a healthy diet before and during pregnancy can help ensure the foetus gets all the nutrients it needs. It’s important to ensure that you eat the right amount of energy (calories) for your body size and shape and the amount of exercise you do. You’re eating the right amount if you have a healthy body mass index (BMI = 20-24.9kg/m2). However, it’s also necessary to add a supplement of the micronutrient folate to your pre-pregnancy diet to minimise the risk of neural tube defects. Increasing your consumption of folate in pregnancy won’t help; you must build up these stores at least 1 month before getting pregnant.
|You have taken daily folate supplements for at least four weeks|
|You have taken any other micronutrient supplements recommended by your doctor|
Pregnancy vitamins and minerals
Deficiencies in other micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (energy) can also affect your baby’s development before you realise you’re pregnant and begin thinking about your pregnancy diet. Stores of energy and micronutrients need time to build up – that’s why maintaining a good diet before getting pregnant is so important. If you are deficient in calcium it might affect your growing baby’s bones and teeth.
If you’re malnourished (energy-deficient because you do not consume enough calories) before pregnancy, your baby may not grow enough and may be born too small (weighing less than 2.5 kg). Low birth weight babies have more health problems throughout their lives, for example have a higher risk of death, their mental development is impaired and they are more likely to develop chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes mellitus in adulthood.
Pre-pregnancy foods to avoid
While it’s important to eat all the right foods in the right quantities, it’s equally important to avoid some foods which might harm your baby, even before you get pregnant. Mercury, a heavy metal found in some fish can be dangerous for you and your developing foetus. Mercury accumulates in the body over time so it’s important to limit your consumption of fish which might contain mercury for several months before you start trying to get pregnant. In general you should eat no more than 3 serves of fish per week. But beware of certain types of fish like shark (flake), billfish (broadbill, swordfish, marlin), orange roughy (sea perch) and catfish as these types are likely to contain more mercury and you may need to eat as little as one serve a fortnight in you pre-pregnancy diet.
Once you start trying to get pregnant, remember that the first signs of pregnancy won’t be obvious until a couple of weeks after you conceive. So you’ll need to eat as though you were pregnant, and it’s very important to avoid drugs like alcohol and caffeine which can harm your foetus and increase your risk of pregnancy complications such as miscarriage, particularly in these early weeks of development. You’ll need to cut them down (or out) in plenty of time for pregnancy. Don’t wait until you miss your period. Cut down on caffeine and cut out alcohol as soon as you throw out your contraceptives.
|Reduce your caffeine intake from all sources (including chocolate!) to 200mg per day|
|Cut alcohol out of your diet|
|Reduce your fish consumption to a maximum of:|
Preparing for pregnancy with healthy eating: Not always as easy as ABC
But healthy eating is not always as easy as it sounds! Vegan women have difficulty sourcing all their micronutrients from their diets because they don’t eat animal products (the key sources of protein, calcium and other micronutrients). Other women may also have trouble maintaining a healthy diet if they have allergies to certain foods or have difficulty accessing food (e.g. because they live in a remote place or don’t have enough money).
Those with additional nutritional requirements, for example adolescent girls whose bodies are still growing and those with illnesses which place additional nutritional demands on the body, as well as those who have recently given birth (within the past two years) or have substance abuse problems (e.g. related to tobacco or alcohol consumption) will also find it more difficult to consume a healthy diet for pregnancy.
So if you have special dietary requirements or additional nutritional needs (or even if you don’t) go see your doctor for advice on how to improve your diet before becoming pregnant. Doing this will not only protect your own health, but also optimise the health of your baby.
- National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Improving the health and nutrition of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and children in low-income households. 2008. (cited 2011, December 14), Available from: URL Link
- Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation in Pregnancy. 2008. (cited 2011, December 14), available from: URL Link
- World Health Organisation. Promoting Optimal Fetal Development: report of a technical consultation. 2006. (cited 2011, December 14). Available from: URL Link
- Wu, G. Bazer, F. Cudd, T. et al. Maternal Nutrition and Fetal Development. J Nutrition. 2004; 134: 2169-72. (Full Text)
- Gardiner, P. Nelson. L. Shellhaas, C. The clinical content of preconception care: nutrition and dietary supplements. AJOG. 2008; Supp: S345-56. (Abstract)
- Seres N. Nutrition throughout the lifecycle. WHO standing committee on nutrition. 2000. (cited 9 January 2012). Available at: URL Link
- Pregnancy: Fish and mercury FAQs (online). Silverwater, NSW: NSW Government Food Authority; 25 June 2009 (cited 16 January 2012). Available from: URL link
- Mercury in fish (online). Barton, ACT: Food Standards Australia New Zealand; 2010 (cited 16 January 2012). Available from: URL link
- Factsheet: Caffeine (online). NSW Health; 2 October 2007 (cited 16 January 2012). Available from: URL Link
- National Health and Medical Research Centre. Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking. 2009. (cited 16 January 2012), available from: URL Link