While growing a baby, your body is going through a time of immense physical change while your baby is developing bones, organs and brain matter it will have for the rest of its life. Did you know that what you feed your baby now in-utero will affect its taste preferences and food choices once it’s born into the real world?
There are a number of environmental factors that can influence your baby’s health, however the good news is that nutrition is certainly an environmental factor that you can influence positively to help your baby (and you!) be as healthy as possible.
There is a growing body of evidence that shows good nutrition helps to maximise development and growth in early life as well as helping to reduce the risk of diseases such as obesity, asthma and diabetes later in life. What this means is that a pregnant mum should be aiming to nourish herself and her growing baby with as many nutrients as possible. A mum-to-be can do this by:
Avoiding alcohol for its risk associated with miscarriage, low birth weight and foetal alcohol syndrome
Maintaining a healthy body weight for the health of both you and your baby – gaining weight steadily over the course of your pregnancy is absolutely normal and important for the health of your wee bundle. I think of my belly getting bigger each week in terms of the baby growing and getting stronger!
Taking the recommended 800mcg of folic acid throughout the first trimester of your pregnancy (as well as at least a month prior to conception). This is important for central nervous system function and reducing the risk of spina bifida.
Taking 150mcg of iodine daily throughout pregnancy to support mental development and thyroid function
Eating iron-and zinc-rich foods to support the baby’s optimal brain development and to support your ever-increasing blood volume. Low iron has been linked to poor mental processing and motor development and behavioural issues in children. Whereas, poor zinc status can lead to problems with immune function and abnormal growth. The best sources of zinc and absorbable iron are beef, lamb and organ meats (as well as mussels and oysters but mums-to-be need to careful of these food sources whilst pregnant to ensure they are safe to consume). Iron that is less well absorbed is found in leafy greens, nuts, seeds and wholegrains breads and cereals. Consuming vitamin-C rich foods such as kiwifruit, oranges and carrots, etc…can help the body to absorb iron more efficiently.
Ensuring you’re getting adequate Vitamin B12. B12 is important for healthy cell and central nervous system function. Poor Vitamin B12 levels in early pregnancy have been linked to children having higher levels of insulin resistance later in life. Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods such as eggs, meat, poultry, milk and milk products.
Making sure you get adequate Vitamin D. Inadequate Vitamin D can lead to poor foetal growth and can increase the risk of rickets. Rickets is an early childhood bone disease that is completely preventable. Along with inadequate calcium, low levels of vitamin D can lead to inadequate bone mineralisation, meaning children to do not reach their peak bone mass which increases their risk of bone disease later in life. Ensure adequate Vitamin D by enjoying regular sun exposure (for about 15-20minutes per day) on bare hands/arms/face without sunscreen before 11am and after 4pm. Oily fish also provides valuable Vitamin D. However, Vitamin D supplementation may be required if you have a diagnosed deficiency, but it’s important to talk to your GP about this.
Enjoying foods providing prebiotics, probiotics and antioxidants. All of these ensure a healthy balance of bacteria in the mother’s gut which is important for your baby’s later health, including a healthy immune system, metabolism and a reduced risk of allergic diseases such as eczema. Eating a variety of colourful fresh fruits and vegetables along with wholegrains, nuts, seeds and Greek yoghurt will help you to achieve this whilst providing an array of other nutrients for optimal health and energy.
Lastly enjoy oily fish regularly throughout your pregnancy. We all know that a regular intake of fish and in particular oily fish is important for consuming adequate omega-3 fatty acids but do you know why it’s so important if you’re pregnant and growing a baby? Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for foetal development, especially brain development. Omega-3 fatty acids from food also provide anti-inflammatory benefits than can reduce the risk of a child developing allergic diseases and cardiovascular problems later in life.
So while this may sound overwhelming, remember it’s really all about eating healthy wholefoods that provide nutrients! This means eating nourishing foods daily such as:
Lean beef, lamb, chicken, pork and fish
Milk and milk products like yoghurt and cheese
Nuts and seeds
Wholegrain oats, wholegrain breads, quinoa, brown rice
Legumes such as chickpeas and lentils
Healthy fats in foods such as olive oil and avocado
I know it can be really hard for an expectant mum to eat well, especially in the first few months when you feel like absolute rubbish but trust me when I say it’s important that you try to eat as well as you can. Not just for the health of your baby but for you too! And I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but just because you are pregnant doesn’t mean you are eating for two! It certainly doesn’t mean that you should get your extra energy in the second and third trimesters from processed foods such as chocolate, crisps or cake. Just think about what those foods are providing your baby with. They aren’t providing valuable nutrients, they are just empty energy. However, what growing a baby does mean is that you should try to eat really nourishing foods most of the time, day-in and day-out, by forming some great habits such as eating a nutritious breakfast every day, eating little and often, carrying healthy snacks and including plenty of vegetables and good quality protein foods in your main meals. By doing that, enjoying a wee treat here and there won’t be a problem. I try to eat well most of the time but I also enjoy a small treat each day IF I feel like one. This might be a small homemade slice or biscuit, a few squares of dark chocolate or even handful of fries if I’m out. It’s just something small but it’s certainly not going to rock the boat if you’re eating well majority of the time! It's important to remember that balance between nutrition and enjoying your food, but you do need to be honest with yourself as to how well you're nourishing both your body and that of your growing baby.
During the first few months when I could hardly eat anything that wasn’t a carbohydrate (homemade crumbed fish and baked kumara wedges went down a treat though!), I really struggled with food but I did make an effort to try and eat a variety of foods despite feeling like rubbish as I knew it would be important in the long-term. I ate far more bread and potatoes than I would normally but when I could I added lean meats, eggs and vegetables to meals and snacks. But now that stage has passed, I’m enjoying nutritious meals and two to three serves of oily fish each week to ensure the babes and I have a steady supply of nutrients, including EPA and DHA for that all important brain development.
For those of you that may struggle with eating oily fish and vegetables during pregnancy, I have popped a few of my favourite dishes below. I’ve found adding a delicious carbohydrate to the mix really helped, especially early on to help encourage my appetite!
Salmon and Vegetable Pizza
Use basil pesto as the base topping, grated cheddar cheese and then your favourite vegetables. I love zucchini, broccoli and tomatoes but make the most of whatever is in season. While the pizza is cooking, I bake a piece of fresh salmon until just cooked and then once the pizza is cooked, I break the salmon into large chunks over the top and add a few fresh herbs and devour (saving some for lunch the next day)!
Tuna and Avocado on Toast
Toast two slices of wholegrain, rye or sourdough bread and top with ½ an avocado and small can of drained tuna. Add fresh herbs and a drizzle of lemon juice if you so wish. This makes the best lunch or savoury breakfast.
Vegetable Frittata with Salmon
I combine leftover roast vegetables such as pumpkin, kumara, courgette and red onion with whisked eggs, a few fresh herbs, grated cheese and chunks of wood roasted salmon and then bake in the oven until cooked. A delicious lunch or dinner!
Salmon and Vegetable wrap
I simply fry a few smoked salmon slices until piping hot (so they are pregnancy safe) and then pop them into a wrap with baby spinach, grated carrot, grated cheese, sliced tomatoes and a little avocado. Such a scrumptious lunch or easy dinner when you don’t feel like cooking!
Basil Pesto Tuna Pasta
This was my husband’s signature dish when we lived in Italy. Tuna in olive oil over there was everywhere and we just loved it and still do. This is such a simple dinner that can be on the table in 15-20 minutes if you get your Jaime Oliver on! It’s also delicious re-heated until piping hot for lunch the next day.
Prepare your pasta according to packet directions (I use about 250g of dried penne or spirals for two of us).
In a deep pan, fry a sliced onion and two sliced cloves of garlic in olive oil with a little salt, black pepper and chilli flakes until softened.
Once the pasta is almost cooked, add two handfuls of cherry tomatoes and two large cans of tuna in olive oil to the pan with the onions and cook until the tomatoes just start to soften.
Once the pasta is almost cooked, add half a head of broccoli florets to the water to cook until bright green and just cooked. Drain the pasta and broccoli through a colander (reserving a little pasta water in a mug for later) and add to the pan with the tuna and tomatoes.
Stir the pasta into the onion, tuna and tomatoes and add 4 tablespoons of basil pesto and a little of the pasta water to create more of sauce.
Add a decent helping of grated parmesan cheese and taste. Add extra salt and pepper if needed. Top with fresh basil leaves if you wish, spoon into serving bowls and enjoy!
Homemade Fish and Chips
There’s nothing better than homemade fish and chips. While white fish doesn’t contain the same amount of EPA and DHA oily fish has, it’s still a wonderful source of protein for expectant mums. I make a gluten-free crumb by dusting fish fillets in rice flour, then coating in beaten egg and then dipping it in polenta or gluten-free crumbs before frying in a little olive oil.
Serve the fish with a baked potato or kumara chips and a simple green salad. I make a dressing with 3 Tbspn olive oil, juice of 1 lemon, 1 tsp honey, 1 tsp of wholegrain mustard, salt and pepper all shaken in a small jar! Add a teaspoon or two to your salad.
NB: Larger older fish have time to accumulate more mercury which isn’t good for bubs, so check out MPIs list of fish species that are safe to eat during pregnancy as well as how many serves you can enjoy each week here.
I hope all of these wee tips help the expectant mums out there but just remember to feed yourself and your growing bubs well now and the rewards will be life-long. You’re already starting to create a human that will prefer nutritious foods over those that are not! Emily xx