The aim of Pregnancy Awareness Week this month is to help moms access the information they need to support a healthy pregnancy and safe motherhood. The Department of Health urges pregnant South African women to access antenatal care as early as possible in their pregnancies.
Nazeeia Sayed, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa), points out that good nutrition is vital as it supports a healthier pregnancy and a healthier baby. “Pregnancy is a great opportunity to get yourself and the family into the habit of healthy eating before the new baby arrives,” she says.
“You don’t need special or expensive foods. A healthy diet during pregnancy is made up of foods that we commonly encounter when grocery shopping. A variety of fruit and veg, whole grains, legumes and lentils, dairy, plant fats and lean meats, fish and eggs can all be enjoyed while you are pregnant and will provide the nutrients you need.”
What nutrients should moms-to-be focus on?
Following a balanced diet according to the accepted healthy eating guidelines is the optimum nutritional route to support a healthy pregnancy. Pregnancy is definitely not the time for weight loss or fad diets that focus on particular nutrients at the expense of others.
Registered dietitian and ADSA spokesperson, Cath Day says, “Energy (kilojoule) restriction during pregnancy is not recommended! High protein diets which increase ketone production are also not recommended as the foetus has a limited ability to metabolize ketones. It is much healthier for you to adopt a balanced diet with a good variety.”
Nutrients such as folic acid, calcium, iron, and protein are all important to the developing baby; however, a balanced diet will, in most cases, meet these needs.
Women enrolled in the government’s antenatal care programme will receive supplements of the essential micronutrients, and many women choose to supplement with folic acid to prevent the risks of Spina Bifida and cleft palate.
Day points out that meeting protein requirements during pregnancy is as simple as ensuring that you eat roughly six servings or between 180 g- 210 g of protein each day (size of two palms or two decks of cards). One serving equates to 30 g lean meat or fish, 1/2 cup of legumes, 15 g nuts or one egg. “These are also the best sources of iron which is needed to prevent anemia,” she says. “By eating fruit and vegetables high in vitamin C at the same time as eggs, nuts, and pulses, you can enhance iron absorption from these foods.”
Focusing on a variety of healthy foods for each meal or snack, rather than the particular nutrients, is what helps to ensure you and baby get what you need. Sayed says, “Some examples of this are choosing nutrient-dense meals or snacks like an omelet with veg, a fruit and yogurt smoothie, a salad with raw veg, nuts or lean meat; or a cooked lentil dish with green leafy veg and rice.”
What should moms-to-be avoid?
Smoking tops the list of what shouldn’t be going into a pregnant body. While there’s a debate about whether drinking one glass of wine is safe for a growing baby, many experts and governments around the world advise a complete avoidance of alcohol during pregnancy.
Pregnant women should avoid foods with a greater risk for contamination with Listeria or other bacteria or parasites, including under-cooked meat and eggs, raw fish, processed meats and unpasteurized dairy and soft cheeses. Dietitians also advise avoiding fish that may contain high levels of mercury such as swordfish, shark, tuna steaks and canned fish brands that are not tested.
Caffeine intake should be limited, and rather swopped out for decaf options, with water as your best beverage of choice. Foods that are high in salt, sugar and other refined carbohydrates should be limited as they crowd out the opportunity for you to eat healthy foods which provide for your vitamin, mineral and fiber needs. They can also lead to excessive weight gain which increases your risks of developing high blood pressure issues and gestational diabetes.
Reach out and get help when you need it
Healthy eating during pregnancy does not have to be complicated or a minefield. It might be more challenging for moms-to-be who need to make big changes; or who are overweight or managing other health conditions. A registered dietitian can be an important ally to come up with a healthy eating plan that suits your food preferences, your budget, and your lifestyle.
“The big advantage of using your pregnancy as the inspiration to eat well is that you can go on to become a healthy eating role model for your precious child, instilling healthy eating habits that can last them a lifetime,” Sayed concludes.