Eating a heart-healthy diet is important throughout our lives, but doubly so during pregnancy. Pregnancy is one of the most nutritionally demanding stages of life for a woman. Upon finding out they’re pregnant, most women feel a strong desire to produce a healthy baby. At the same time, they may be worried about how their own body will fair during and after the pregnancy.
Decisions about health and nutrition at this point can significantly affect the lifelong health of both the mother and their baby. In the end, the goal of good pregnancy nutrition is to provide adequate nutrients that will promote optimum health in both. Essentially, this means that good pregnancy nutrition should help:
- deliver a healthy, full-term baby,
- achieve a healthy weight gain during pregnancy, and
- achieve optimum nutrient stores to support breastfeeding and future pregnancies, should the mother choose to pursue these.
Pregnancy increases the body’s need for almost every vitamin and mineral. In contrast, the body’s need for extra kilojoules (energy) is very small and only really occurs in the final trimester of pregnancy, if at all.
This means that to meet your body’s nutritional needs without consuming excess kilojoules, you need to choose nutrient-dense foods as much as possible. Nutrient-dense foods are ones that contain lots of vitamins and minerals for a low amount of energy. These foods are generally minimally processed or whole foods.
Pregnant women don’t have an instinctive drive to consume more nutrients, nor are ‘cravings’ reflective of what you need to be eating. Pregnancy hormones can do strange things to your body, so it’s best to be sensible in how you manage your cravings and choose whole, fresh, unprocessed food whenever possible.
The importance of nutrient-dense foods
The extra kilojoules required by the average woman in the final trimester of pregnancy is approximately 1800kJ (400 calories).
You could easily meet this with two chocolate bars or a large slice of chocolate cake. But this extra food would not provide you with the extra nutrition, such as folate, iron, iodine, calcium, vitamins A, B, C and E, that is needed to grow and nourish a healthy baby.
A banana smoothie, a bowl of spinach salad and a handful of fresh strawberries also equals 1800kJ – yet also offers folate, calcium, vitamin C and other important nutrients.
Pregnancy is NOT the time for weight loss
If you’re currently carrying extra weight, pregnancy is not the time to lose it. Restricting your energy intake through dieting or skipping meals can seriously compromise the health of both you and your baby.
Your goal should be a healthy weight gain of approximately 5 to 15kg, or as directed by your doctor. Regardless of your pre-pregnancy weight, you need to be mindful of excessive weight gain during your pregnancy.
Maximise nutrition and achieve healthy weight gain
To maximise your nutrition and achieve a healthy weight gain, choose from the following food groups daily.
5 serves of vegetables
Your baby needs folate, antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals to grow and develop. Vegetables are the primary source of these health-promoting elements and should be the cornerstone of your diet.
Tip: 1 serve equals approximately 1 cup of vegetables.
2 serves of fruit
Fruit is a fantastic source of vitamin C, antioxidants and dietary fibre. It makes a great snack, shake, smoothie or breakfast cereal topping and is fantastic added to salads and mains.
Tip: 1 serve equals approximately 1 piece of large fruit (mango, apple etc.), 2 pieces of small fruit (apricot, plum etc.) or 100g of berries, grapes or melon.
1 to 2 serves of legumes
Legumes are a wonderful source of low Glycaemic Index (GI) carbohydrate, dietary fibre, antioxidants, calcium, phosphorous, zinc, iron, folate and other B-group vitamins. GI is a measurement of how particular carbohydrate-rich foods affect our blood sugar levels. Food with a low GI takes a little longer to digest and is absorbed more slowly into the blood stream. Choosing low GI foods whenever possible helps keep your blood sugar levels more stable throughout the day and are a healthier choice.
Tip: 1 serve equals approximately ½ cup of legumes or beans.
1 serve of nuts/seeds
Nuts and seeds are a great source of healthy unsaturated fat. In particular, linseeds, chia seeds and walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are an essential part of our diet. They are also a great source of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Tip: 1 serve equals approximately 30g or a small handful.
1 to 3 serves whole grains
Healthy carbohydrates are products or foods that contain the whole cereal grain rather than refined, processed products that only use a portion of the cereal grain.
Tip: 1 serve of whole grain is equal to 2 slices of bread or 1 cup of cooked pasta, rice or couscous.
1 to 2 serves of meat, poultry, eggs or fish
Fresh, unprocessed meat is a great source of complete protein, B vitamins (particularly vitamin B12), iron and zinc.
Tip: 1 serve equals 100–150g or is approximately the size of your palm.
2 serves of dairy
Dairy is by far the best source of calcium in your diet. It’s also a great source of magnesium, B vitamins and many other nutrients in smaller amounts.
Tip: 1 serve of dairy equals approximately 1 cup of milk, 200g of yoghurt or 2 slices of cheese.
About the author
The Healthy Eating Hub
This article was written by an Accredited Practicing Dietitian from The Healthy Eating Hub. The Healthy Eating Hub is a team of university-qualified nutritionists and dietitians who are passionate about helping people develop long term healthy eating habits through offering evidence-based and practical nutrition advice that people can put into practice straight away.