Pregnancy and Nutrition

10 preg and nutrition

Health and well-being during early pregnancy is an important time for both mother and baby. It’s vital that mum-to-be takes in a well-balanced diet, rich in nutrients for both her and her growing baby.

This section is designed to offer practical advice and important information to help all mums to be make informed choices for a happy and healthy pregnancy.

The majority of foods are safe to eat in pregnancy and, for most women, the risks associated with eating or drinking are very small indeed (apart from the possible effects of frequent heavy drinking – see below).

Nutrition and diet for mums-to-be

Some women may need to take extra care to meet all their nutritional needs during pregnancy, including

  • those who don’t eat many foods from animals, or who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet
  • others with restricted or limited diets

However, all women should consider the following essential nutritional needs:

  • folic acid – it is recommended that women who are planning to conceive should take 400 microgram folic acid tablet every day until the twelfth week of pregnancy. It’s also recommended that she increases her intake of foods containing folic acid such as green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread and brown rice
  • vitamin D – it is also advisable that pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding take vitamin D supplements. Most of our vitamin D is made in the skin when we’re out in the sunshine. However, in the UK the sunshine is only strong enough in the summer between about 11am to 3pm. This is when we often cover up or apply sun block, so many of us do not have enough vitamin D in our bodies. Vitamin D is naturally found in oily fish and eggs, with small amounts in butter and margarine. It is also found in liver, but pregnant women are recommended not to eat liver as it can contain too much vitamin A.
  • iron levels – some women start pregnancy with low iron stores or they may be slightly anaemic. Blood is usually tested at a women’s first ante-natal appointment, when she will be advised to take iron supplements, if needed. Increasing the amount of iron in her diet may help her to avoid having supplements, which can cause constipation and interfere with the absorption of other nutrients. Good sources of iron include red meat, kidneys, fortified breakfast cereals, bread, pulses such as baked beans and kidney beans, eggs and green vegetables.
  • calcium – it is vital for a woman to have the correct calcium intake during pregnancy, especially if she doesn’t usually eat dairy products. Calcium can be found in:
    • green vegetables
    • tofu made with calcium
    • tahini
    • molasses
    • fortified soya milk
  •  Vitamin B12 – taken either as a supplement or via fortified foods is important for any pregnant women who doesn’t eat animal products

 When to be cautious

Cheese

green tick Most cheese is fine in pregnancy including hard cheeses and soft processed cheeses made from pasteurised milk, such as cottage cheese, feta, ricotta, mascarpone, cream cheese. Processed cheese is also fine.
pink cross Soft cheeses which are mould-ripened, such as brie, camembert and chevre, and soft, blue veined cheese, such as Danish blue, gorgonzola and roquefort, may contain the listeria bacterium. In rare cases, this can cause listeriosis, which can be harmful a pregnant women or her unborn baby.
blue exclamation However, these cheeses are OK to eat if they are cooked all the way through though, such as cheeses in a fondue, deep fried or baked.

Eggs

Eggs are nutritious and a cheap source of protein.

 green tick Eggs cooked until the white and yolk are solid, or in cooked dishes such as pancakes and Yorkshire pudding, are fine.
 pink cross It is recommended that pregnant women shouldn’t eat raw or runny eggs because of the small risk of salmonella poisoning. The egg industry says that 90% of egg-laying hens are now vaccinated so the risk is much lower than it used to be.

Meat

 green tick Meat contains protein which is important for growth and it is safe to eat most types of meat including chicken and other poultry during pregnancy.
 blue exclamation Take care to prepare meat hygienically though and make sure it is thoroughly cooked, ie steaming hot all the way through and no longer pink. Undercooked meat, especially poultry and products made from minced meat, such as sausages and burgers, could transmit toxoplasmosis and bacteria that can cause food poisoning.
 pink cross Liver, and foods made from it, such as liver sausage and liver pate, may be high in Vitamin A; too much Vitamin A can cause birth defects.  Fresh pate, including vegetable pate, can contain listeria so it’s best to avoid it completely.

Fish

green tick Most fish is safe to eat in pregnancy. For instance, you can eat as much cod, haddock, plaice and other white, non-oily fish as you like.
blue exclamation Tuna should be limited to four cans or two tuna steaks a week because of concerns about high levels of mercury while other oily fish, such as salmon, trout, mackerel and herring, may contain pollutants and should be limited to two portions a week.  Avoid raw shellfish, such as oysters, mussels, scallops and clams, as they could be contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses or toxins – although cooking them thoroughly will make them safer.  Sushi made from shellfish should be cooked. Sushi made from other varieties should be made of fish that has been frozen beforehand.
pink cross Fish that should be avoided include shark, swordfish and marlin. This is because current guidelines express concern about mercury, which these types of fish may have ingested, and this may affect a baby’s nervous system.

 Nuts

blue exclamation There is no need to avoid nuts, or peanuts, in pregnancy, unless the woman has an allergy and is, of course, avoiding them anyway.

Alcohol

A unit is half a pint of ordinary beer/lager or one pub measure of spirits; a small (125 ml) glass of wine is 1.5 units.

pink cross There is no certain safe lower limit for alcohol, and some women choose not to drink any alcohol at all when pregnant. Alcohol can reach the bloodstream of an unborn baby and affect growth and development at all stages. Although there is no evidence that light moderate drinking has any risks, but current guidance is to avoid alcohol completely once a women knows she is pregnant.

Caffeine

blue exclamation There is now clear evidence linking high levels of caffeine to an increased chance of miscarriage or low birth weight. This is why it is recommended that any pregnant woman has no more than 200mg of caffeine a day. The amount of caffeine in food and drink will vary, check this rough guide:

  • 1 mug of instant coffee (100mg)
  • 1 mug brewed coffee (140mg)
  • 1 mug of tea (67mg)
  • 1 can of cola (40mg)
  • 1 can of energy drink (up to 80mg)
  • 50g bar of dark chocolate (up to 50mg)
  • 50g bar milk chocolate (up to 25mg)

What about cravings?

When pregnant, a woman may feel she wants to eat certain foods more than before. There are lots of theories about cravings. Some experts think it’s her body telling her she needs certain nutrients. There could be hormonal and psychological reasons for cravings – or it could just be pure indulgence.

As a rule it is OK to give in to food cravings as long as they are not harmful to the woman and her baby. It is also important to make sure she doesn’t put on excessive weight through over-eating when pregnant. A balanced diet, with a few treats, is always the best policy.

A pregnant woman can share any worries with her midwife. It’s most likely she will be able to give reassurance and understanding.

LU: 6/2/17/JAA