Joanna is a registered nutritionist and dietician with a PhD in nutritional science from the University of Sydney. She is the resident nutrition expert for Channel 9’s Today Show, contributor to magazines including Life Etc and Slimming & Health and author of numerous books including Inner Health Outer Beauty, Star Foods and the Low GI Diet.
If you are planning a pregnancy giving some thought to your food and nutrient intake is important. First of all assess your weight. If you are underweight falling pregnant may prove more difficult. Women need some fat stores to assist in falling, supporting a pregnancy and breast-feeding a newborn. Gaining some weight might just help. At the other end of the scale being very overweight can also reduce fertility. Losing some weight can help, but be careful not to follow too restrictive a diet. In the very early stages of pregnancy it’s crucial that there are sufficient nutrients around to support the embryonic development. Being on a low calorie diet is not a good idea. Instead try to think about eating as healthily as possible and your weight will fall more gently and naturally.
All women planning a pregnancy should take a quality supplement of the vitamin folate. This has been shown in clinical studies to reduce the risk of neural tube defects including spina bifida. All of the leading pregnancy and conception nutrient formulations in Australia will provide this. Start them now and continue with the supplement throughout any pregnancy. Many of these combination supplements will also provide omega-3 fats (from fish oil) and other essential nutrients for the development of a healthy baby. Nevertheless I still like to recommend a good quality omega-3 supplement to take daily — in fact this is the only supplement I recommend to almost everyone.
When you are pregnant you needn’t worry overly about nutrition. So long as you are following a varied diet including plenty of fresh natural foods, you and your baby will almost certainly be getting the nutrients you both need. It is worth continuing with a good quality supplement specific for this stage as this will ensure a good intake of all major nutrients and will also provide minerals such as iron, zinc and iodine that can be low. Your doctor will check your iron levels regularly but, particularly if you are vegetarian, it is worthwhile ensuring you eat iron-rich foods every day. There is an extra requirement for iron during pregnancy and it’s easy to slip into deficiency if your stores were low to start with. Leafy greens, beans and lentils, broccoli, nuts and houmous are all good plant sources of iron. If you consume a source of vitamin C at the same time you’ll dramatically improve the absorption. For non-vegetarians there is no doubt that consuming more red meat is the way to go for iron. You may even find yourself craving it. I rarely ate red meat before my first pregnancy and my husband was highly amused at my regular desire for fillet steak once pregnant!
Fluid intake tends to receive less attention during pregnancy as there are so many other things to focus on. However it is crucial that you keep your fluids up. Not only do you have a greater requirement for fluids, you are also more easily affected by even mild dehydration. Don’t be tempted into thinking that keeping down your fluids will reduce water retention – in fact quite the opposite is normally true. Water is by far the best drink to regularly consume throughout the day. It will keep your gut contents moving, helping to prevent constipation common in pregnancy, it will keep your blood volume up, the kidneys and bladder flushed helping to prevent urinary tract infections, and provide adequate hydration without any kilojoules, additives or caffeine.
Most women worry about how much weight they will gain during pregnancy. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on this but it is not a good idea to restrict your intake of food. You will only risk the long-term health of your baby or of depriving yourself of nutrients. Mother Nature favours the unborn child and will almost always get the required nutrients to him/her, but will pull nutrients from you. Instead think about eating the healthiest foods possible during your pregnancy, keeping as active as you can and listen to your body. Eat when you are hungry and go for several small regular meals to keep your intake steady. If you’re eating the right foods this will keep you in the healthy range for weight gain. And be aware that your body is designed to lay down fat at this time to support breast-feeding – you can’t avoid it so don’t stress over it. Let your body do what it is supposed to do and you will get your body back in the end!
Women tend to think of eating more while they are pregnant, but in fact the extra energy required for breast-feeding is greater than at any stage of pregnancy. That is what the fat stores laid down during pregnancy are there for. This means you needn’t consciously think about eating more, although you may well find yourself ravenously hungry. Follow your body’s cues and so long as you are not giving in to cravings for poor food choices like chips and fast food, you can trust yourself to eat the right amount. Make some time to stock the kitchen with fresh, healthy, natural foods so that the preparation of quick nutritious meals is a cinch. If getting to the shops with the baby is tough explore internet shopping services in your area and make use of it.
Theoretically breast-feeding should help you to lose any weight gained during pregnancy, but it doesn’t always work that way. Some women find their weight naturally falls while others, in fact most of us, have to work a little to get our bodies back. Nevertheless whether breast-feeding helps or not with weight control, there is no doubt that nutritionally it is the absolute best you can offer your baby. Don’t worry too much about what you need to eat while breast feeding – the same healthy foods that have supported your pregnancy will continue to support you now. What you will find is that you need to drink more. Your fluid requirements are obviously increased with producing milk and so you need to up your water intake. Steer clear of fruit juices, soft drinks and other kilojoule laden drinks as these will not help you to chip away at your fat stores. Water is all you need.
Finally keep going with your omega-3 supplement. Very few of us eat enough fish to provide these long chain essential fats and they are especially important for the brain development of your baby.