With a recent surge in faddy diets and a heightened awareness of health and nutrition in general, it is no wonder that women are becoming increasingly concerned about their health and nutrition levels prior to and during pregnancy. This issue is probably exacerbated by the fact that pharmaceutical companies use extremely effective advertising on their supplement products. So, are nutrient supplements a necessity during pregnancy or is it all a marketing ploy?
While it is true that women require higher levels of nutrients during pregnancy to provide for their growing baby, it is important to note that most, if not all of these nutrients can be easily acquired from a well balanced and healthy diet. Eating a richly nutritious diet is simply a matter of eating a diverse selection of foods from each food group and only a very small amount of foods high in sugar and/or processed food which contain very little nutrition. Choosing healthy varieties of each food group will ensure that your diet contains optimum nutrition. The 4 main food groups are:
- Meat, Fish and Alternatives
- Bread, Other Cereals and Potatoes
- Fruit and Vegetables
- Milk and Dairy Products
Meat, Fish and Alternatives
In the meat and fish group - your main source of protein, you may want to choose lean cuts of meat and avoid reformed products. Plenty of oily fish will provide a good source of vitamin D and omega 3, and white fish is a good low-calorie, low-fat source of vitamins and minerals.
Bread, Other Cereals and Potatoes
Wholemeal breads that contain seeds and grains are by far the healthiest types of bread as they are less refined and the additional seeds and grains contain high levels of essential fats and vitamins. This type of bread is also beneficial in reducing the risk of diabetes as the body takes longer to break it down and there is no sudden increase in blood glucose levels. For this reason, cereals are also best in their unrefined state. Potatoes have a higher glycaemic index and can raise blood sugar faster so these should be eaten in moderation for good health.
Fruit and Vegetables
To get the most out of your fruit and vegetable selection try to keep your intake diverse, rather than eating the same fruit and vegetables every day. This will ensure that your body is getting different vitamins and minerals in adequate quantities.
Milk and Dairy Products
This food group is important for delivering nutrients such as calcium and vitamin A. For best results, opt for low-sugar and medium-fat varieties. Where possible, avoid margarines that contain hydrogenated fat, even if they profess to be healthy. Butter is actually a healthier alternative to low-fat spreads and margarines, in moderation.
As stated, a well-balanced and varied diet can provide all the nutrients required for pregnancy, however there are two exceptions where some women may struggle to achieve the additional requirements - folic acid and vitamin D.
Folic Acid (or folate)
The first nutrient that comes to the fore when planning a pregnancy - or if you are in the first trimester - is folic acid. Folic acid belongs to the group of B vitamins and plays an important role in manufacturing new cells in the body. This vitamin is especially crucial in the first few weeks of pregnancy and with an insufficient supply, there is an increased risk of neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida and other complications including the baby being born with a cleft palate.
In everyday life, the body requires around 400 micrograms of folic acid and this is easily achieved with a basic, healthy diet. During the first 3 months of pregnancy, this requirement increases to 800 micrograms per day. Some women find that taking a daily 400 microgram folic acid supplement for the first 3 months of pregnancy helps them achieve their requirements. It is also worth noting that taking folic acid supplements before becoming pregnant is also beneficial to build stores in the body. If you are unsure about your daily intake of folic acid from food, some of the richest sources are:
- Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
- Brown rice
- Fortified spreads and cereals
During pregnancy, vitamin D is also required in higher doses than usual and because this vitamin is extremely elusive, found only in a select few foods, supplementation can be beneficial during pregnancy. We get most of our vitamin D from sunlight during the summer, (around 15 minutes of sun per day), so those who do not get much sunlight or those who use a high sunscreen factor may need to take a supplement of 10 micrograms every day. If necessary, this supplement should also be taken during breast-feeding. Food sources of vitamin D are oily fish - one portion of oily fish contains a full day's requirement. Lesser sources include dairy and soya products, fortified breakfast cereals, powdered milk and a very small amount in margarine and other fat spreads.
Iron is a mineral that is often a little low in women due to causes such as menstruation and/or a poor diet. This deficiency of iron in the body, known as anaemia, can lead to tiredness/lethargy, a pale complexion and breathlessness. Good sources of iron include red meat, other meat types, green leafy vegetables, pulses and dried fruit. You would not require this mineral in supplement form during pregnancy unless you were confirmed to be anaemic.
Calorie Intake During Pregnancy
Contrary to the popular myth, the actual energy required during pregnancy does not increase much at all in the first trimester. The common adage of “eating for two” can be very misleading as calorie intake in this trimester should be similar to non-pregnancy intake. Excess calorie intake will lead to weight gain and increase the risk of other health issues such as gestational diabetes. During the second and third trimester there is only a slight increase of energy required at around 300 calories extra per day.
Pregnancy Supplements and Multi-Vitamins
There has been some research to suggest that multi-vitamins are not particularly bio-available, meaning that the body cannot absorb them all at once effectively, in their pill form. While this is also the case for singular supplements, where absorption is reduced compared to that of vitamins from food, they are still more effectively absorbed than in multi-vitamin form. For this reason, however, it is always best to try where possible, to get your nutritional requirements from diet alone. This can be done by increasing (if necessary) your fruit and vegetable intake to around 5-7 portions per day. Removing processed, sugary and “junk food” from you diet in the months leading up to and during pregnancy, will expel all the nutrition-less calories and make room for the healthy foods. By opting for food in its natural form rather than refined form, you will increase your nutritional levels considerably.