Advice Column, Health, Lifestyle, Nutrition, Pregnancy, Pregnancy & Baby

Nutrition in pregnancy: Giving your baby the healthiest possible start

  • Paarl Dietitians
  • Category Advice Column, Health, Lifestyle, Nutrition, Pregnancy, Pregnancy & Baby

With so many myths out there about diet and pregnancy, no wonder new mothers-to-be feel confused about the do’s and don’ts of their own diets. To eat appropriately is the one thing a mother have a lot of control over, and wants to get 100% right, but is so afraid of getting it wrong. We are regularly told that our weight, nutritional status and health during pregnancy and breastfeeding have effect on a baby’s risk of developing disease in future, birth risks, the baby’s health and growth both in the uterus and after birth. Scary as it may sound, with the right dietary advice and support it can actually be quite easy to get your diet right with a few easy tips. Keep reading.

Will my pregnancy cravings influence my child’s eating habits? 

Want your child to love veggies? Start early. Very early! New research shows that WHAT a woman eats during pregnancy not only nourishes her baby in the womb, but can influence a baby’s palate and food memories before he/she is born. The study found that a mother’s diet shapes her baby’s food preferences and acceptance later in life.

Flavour perception develops as early as in the unborn infant and taste and smell continues to develop once they are born.

In the womb, a fetus is surrounded and nourished on amniotic fluids, which is filled with the flavours of what the mom has eaten in the last few hours. The fetus starts to swallow large amounts of amniotic fluid from about 12 week’s gestation. By the time a women reaches her third trimester the fetus’s brain starts to communicate with the taste and smell receptors – for the baby to start to associate with certain flavours and odours in the amniotic fluid. A baby therefore already starts to build a memory bank of tastes and flavours during pregnancy.

Amniotic fluid is therefore the first food for the baby to feast on and contains protein, sugars, fat and different flavours of the food that the mother eats. The fetus can detect these tastes and flavours – forming memories of these flavours and will prefer flavours that were previously experienced in the amniotic fluid. It was shown that if mothers who consumed carrot, anise or garlic flavoured food during pregnancy, their infants would be more accepting to flavours later in life.

The flavour learning continues when infants experience the flavours of mother’s diet transmitted in breast milk, especially flavours such as anise, garlic, carrot, mint, vanilla. When babies start solids they showed greater liking for and acceptance of flavours to which they had early exposure. This means you can teach your baby to like broccoli from an early age!

This varied experiences with food flavours increase food acceptance and may help explain why children who are breastfed are less picky during childhood.

Formula tastes the same day-in and day-out. If you plan to formula feed your infant, and worry about the lack of variants in flavours just make sure you introduce your baby to the largest variety of solid  food and flavours early on in the weaning period.

To conclude, if you want your children to eat a healthy diet (e.g. their broccoli) or more adventurous diet, you should expose them to all the right, healthy flavours early on.

Will WHAT I eat during pregnancy affect what diseases my child may have in later life?

There are some studies that show that the mother’s diet may affect whether children have the risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, obesity or high blood pressure later in life. During the war, when pregnant women were exposed to very little food, especially in the first trimester, their children were more likely to be born heavier, taller and develop heart disease in adulthood. Some studies suggest that when an expectant mother has too little protein and too many carbohydrates in her diet, the child may have a risk of high blood pressure later in life.

This also applies to when you do not supplement your diet with the recommended vitamin and mineral supplements e.g. folic acid, iron calcium and vitamin D.

“Over nutrition” during pregnancy also has detrimental effects and may cause the fetus to grow faster than the fetus’s organs and can lead to liver, heart and kidney disease in adulthood.

There is also a suggestion in research that if your diet is rich in omega 3 fatty acids (mainly available in oily fish and seeds) during pregnancy it can protect the baby against ailments such as high blood pressure and heart disease in adult life.

Should I avoid certain foods during pregnancy to prevent my child from having food allergies?

Many scientific studies have been done to investigate whether mothers who avoid certain foods in the diet during pregnancy can control the presence of allergies and eczema in their babies once they are born. They all concluded that babies might or might not present with food allergies and eczema, regardless of the mother’s diet, especially when there is a strong family history of food allergies.

They also concluded that avoiding certain food in the pregnant mother’s diet have shown to affect the mother and the baby’s nutritional status. Both may run the risk of missing out on essential vitamin and minerals contributing to an inadequate nutritional intake and is therefore not recommended. You can actually do more harm than good by avoiding anything in the diet for instance nuts, fish, eggs, milk, citrus fruits to prevent allergies in your baby. If you as expectant mother do suffer from food allergies and need to avoid certain foods it would be of benefit to consult a dietitian who would be able to provide you with a nutritionally balanced diet and ensure both you and your baby get all the nutrients you require.

Super foods for pregnancy

  • Eggs: It contains choline that helps to reduce the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. In addition, studies suggest that choline is key to the proper development of the hippocampus (the brain’s memory centre) during pregnancy and nursing. Other studies suggest that choline can boost your brainpower during pregnancy, too.
    • Salmon: Contains omega 3 fatty acids. Two servings per week will help baby’s neurological development.
    • Bananas: Suffer from swollen ankles? Bananas is a great source of potassium which helps fight against fluid retention and keeps fluid balance.
    • Beans
    • Mixed seeds: Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids for baby’s brain development. We stock the ultimate seedmix at the practice which is a great to put in cereal, yoghurt and over salads.
    • Sweet potatoes: Contains calcium for baby’s bone formation, as well as betacarotine (vitamin A) for skin and eyes.
    • Whole grains
    • Yoghurt: good source of calcium for those who don’t like drinking milk
    • Dark green, leafy vegetables e.g. spinach, broccoli. Contains calcium, magnesium for bone development and folic acid. Can reduce risk of spina bifida. Best to have it raw or steamed.
    • Lean meats (avoid fat, skin and bone – remove before cooking). Provides the building blocks for forming and division of cells.
    • Colourful fruits and veggies: Source of essential anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Do I really need a pregnancy supplement?

In an ideal world, free of morning sickness or food aversions, a balanced diet would be all you’d ever need to meet your and your baby’s nutritional requirements. Even if you eat a super healthy diet, a prenatal vitamin-mineral supplement may be good insurance to make sure you’re getting the right nutrients. Remember it takes a lot of nutrients to grow a baby!

Make sure you take the supplements recommended for pregnant women in the correct FORM, DOSAGE and at the RIGHT TIME. I usually tell pregnant mommies to take their supplements at night before bed, to reduce the risk of nausea.

  • Folic acid: It’s recommended that you take 400 micrograms (µg) folic acid a day, especially for the first 12 weeks to prevent neural tube defects. Folic acid should ideally be taken in the ‘active form’ called 5-Methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF) – so do check your supplement.
  • Omega-3- fatty acids are essential fatty acids and aren’t synthesized by the body. Omega-3 fats are required for brain and eye development. Consequently, fetal and infant development is associated with a high fatty acid requirement, the supply of which is dependent on the availability from the mother’s diet. Even with a well-balanced diet, pregnant and lactating women cannot guarantee they are consuming the relevant fatty acids in sufficient quantities for their own and their developing baby’s requirements.
  • Vitamin D: Many experts also recommend taking a vitamin D supplement throughout pregnancy. It plays an important role in a baby’s skeletal development as well as general growth and development. Vitamin D may give your baby protection against developing diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, immune-based disease e.g. arthritis, type 1 diabetes and some types of cancer. Studies showed that babies born to mothers with higher Vitamin D blood levels have a stronger grip & greater muscle mass. Vitamin D levels can be checked with a blood test. If the level is too low, you will be advised to take a vitamin D supplement. Your Dietitian would be able to arrange the necessary blood test.

Caution: Don’t take any supplements which contain retinol, the animal form of vitamin A. In large quantities, this can be toxic to unborn babies. Large doses of vitamin A are stored by the body in the liver and have been linked with birth defects. However, the plant-based carotene type of vitamin A is safe in pregnancy. Also don’t take megadoses of vitamins and minerals, as this could be harmful to your baby.

Strict vegetarians and women with medical conditions such as pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy), diabetes, gestational diabetes, or anemia, as well as those who’ve previously delivered low-birth-weight babies, should talk with their healthcare provider or Dietitian about supplements they might need.

To all our pregnant mother’s out there, happy eating for a healthy baby!

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