Nutrition During Pregnancy: Your Questions Answered

Qualified public health nutritionist and university lecturer Yvonne Wake addresses your questions on how to maintain proper nutrition before and during pregnancy.

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Nutrition for pregnant women is a very important aspect of ante natal care, Yvonne covers some FAQs on what to eat during pregnancy.

Which foods are high in iron?  I don’t want to take a supplement as I’ve heard they can cause constipation.

OK, so yes, pregnant woman do need extra Iron at this time in their lives, but there is no real need to start looking at ways of increasing your intake if your diet is already well balanced and contains enough. Remember, too much Iron is dangerous and toxic and it is also known to slow down the whole digestive system i.e. constipation. If you already eat a good balanced diet with enough Iron included, you won’t need to take supplements. However, if you are not sure and just want to play it safe, make sure that your diet includes a small daily amount of animal produce; for example; steak, lamb, chicken, turkey. Fish comes with a few challenges (i.e. Tuna contains excess mercury, so avoid too much of it), and also we are conscious of the ‘over-fishing’ reports, so I would suggest sardines, pilchards, mackerel and even Salmon.

Also if you are a vegetarian you can find Iron in dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, legumes (lentils, chick peas, peanuts) and all types of beans. A spoonful of Blackstrap Molasses is what my grandmother used to give us if we looked ‘peaky’ i.e. lacking in Iron! So do add this to soups, stews, and even hot drinks. Plant based Iron is not as absorbable as animal products, so make sure that your vitamin C intake is always good (vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron – that’s why we squeeze lemon on fish!) also, drinking coffee with your dinner is not a good idea as this is known to inhibit iron absorption. But back to the question; if a complete meal is hard to keep down through nausea, nibble on dried apricots throughout the day (50g = 1.6mg of Iron), also eat a handful of Cashew nuts and Almonds every day, only eat Wholegrain bread (one slice = 1.6mg of iron), and you will find that your Iron intake is absolutely adequate.

Of course the best source of Iron is found in Liver and Kidney products, but not a good idea during pregnancy because they are also high in vitamin A – which can harm unborn babies.

I don’t eat meat or fish – how can I make sure I get enough protein during pregnancy?

During pregnancy (and especially when you are lactating) your protein needs will increase. It is thought that 60 grams of protein per day will be sufficient (unless you are having twins, then its double). Good sources of protein for someone who does not eat fish or meat could be found in dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt) and nuts. The question does not say if you are a vegetarian or not, but if you just don’t like to eat meat or fish, but can eat dairy, then this is your best bet for protein intake. Also, all types of pulses (lentils, beans) will be good sources of protein. For example, half a cup of beans contains about the same amount of protein as 3 ounces of Steak. Eggs are good sources, but only the yolk contains the protein, so an egg a day will also be a good source.

Why is it so important to take folic acid when pregnant?

Actually it’s more important to take Folic Acid BEFORE you get pregnant, but it’s not always known that you have become pregnant if the pregnancy is unplanned. So the rule is; if you are planning to become pregnant, you should take folic acid supplements even if you have a good diet and are a healthy person. Once pregnant, continue to take the supplements for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Why do you need them? As it helps to reduce the risks of having a child with defects of the spinal cord i.e. spinal bifid, known as Neural Tube Defect (NTD). Folic acid (folate) is a much needed vitamin to make new cells in the body and the early development of the baby’s spinal cord requires regular and a good continued supply of folic acid. There is also some evidence to suggest that folic acid reduces the risk of cleft lip and palate. The body is not good at storing folic acid so a regular supply is important. It is during the early stages of pregnancy that folic acid is most needed, thus the importance of having a good supply when you actually fall pregnant. Help yourself though by making sure that your diet is rich in green vegetables such as broccoli, green beans, spinach, and potatoes as these are all high in folic acid. The daily requirement is only 400 micrograms (0.4mg) a day, so if you check what that entails you should have no problems fitting it into your diet.

To speak with Yvonne for individual expert advice on nutrition for pregnant women view her profile.

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Written by

Yvonne Wake
Public Health Nutritionist

Yvonne is a Registered Public Health Nutritionist and university lecturer in nutrition, health, wellbeing and lifestyle. With over 35 years professional experience, she specialises in helping people obtain a healthy and well-balanced life.