Consultant Obstetrician & Gynaecologist Mr Christopher C.T Lee, from BMI The Sloane Hospital and BMI Chelsfield Park Hospital, shares his advice on what to eat – and what not to eat – when you’re pregnant.
Pregnancy can be one of the most exciting times of your life, but it can also be one of the most daunting. It is important to understand how significant healthy eating is both before and during your pregnancy.
A healthy diet supplemented with vitamins, coupled with physical activity, will benefit both you and your baby during pregnancy. It will also help you to maintain a healthy weight after you have had your baby.1
What vitamins should I be taking?
If you’re trying to get pregnant it’s a good idea to take folic acid (400mcg per day). You should continue this until you reach the 13th week of pregnancy.
Folic acid reduces the risk of your baby having a potentially serious condition called spina bifida, which affects the development of the nervous system.
Vitamin D deficiency is very common in the UK and all pregnant women are advised to take a daily supplement (10 mcg) when pregnant and also when breastfeeding.
Vitamin D helps with bone strength and with your baby’s growth during their first year of life.2
How much should I be eating?
It is a myth that you need to ‘eat for two’. When you’re pregnant, your body can adapt to absorb more energy from the same amount of food.
In fact, advice from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) is that women do not need extra calories for the first two-thirds of pregnancy. It is only in the last 12 weeks that women need an extra 200 calories per day.
Eating enough calories is especially important if you are overweight, as it is not advisable to try to lose weight during pregnancy, even if you are obese. It is therefore best to try to achieve a healthy weight prior to falling pregnant.
If you are concerned about your weight, speak to your midwife or consultant who will be able to advise further.3
What should I be eating?
In order to maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy, build your meals around starchy foods such as potatoes, bread, rice or pasta, choosing wholegrains if possible.
Try to eat some protein every day, including at least two portions of fish a week. Lean meat, lentils, beans and tofu are also good sources of protein.
Always eat breakfast, even if this is not your usual routine when you aren’t pregnant.
Caffeine should be limited to 200mg per day (e.g. two cups of instant coffee) because high doses of caffeine have been linked with pregnancy loss and risk of low birth-weight babies.
Make sure to eat some dairy foods for their calcium content but choose low-fat and pasteurised varieties such as skimmed milk or low-fat yoghurt.
It’s best to have a low-fat diet in general, eating as little fried food as possible, avoiding sweets, cakes and biscuits as well as drinks that are high in added sugar.
Try to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day.3
- What counts as a portion of fruit or veg?
There can be some confusion around what counts as a portion when it comes to getting your 5 A Day.
Foods that count as a portion are:
- 80g of fruit or vegetables (fresh, canned and frozen all count)
- 30g of dried fruit
- 150ml fruit or vegetable juice
- 80g beans or pulses
You should limit fruit or vegetable juice to one 150ml portion a day due to the high sugar content. Beans and pulses only count as one portion a day however many you eat, because they are lower in nutrients than other fruits and vegetables.4
What shouldn’t I eat?
There are certain foods that should be avoided if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, as they may contain substances which could be harmful to your unborn baby.
It’s advisable to eat no more than two portions of oily fish (such as mackerel or salmon) per week. Oily fish contains a substance called mercury, which can be harmful to an unborn baby’s development.
Pregnant women should avoid eating shark, swordfish and marlin and limit tuna to two portions per week.
Liver contains high levels of vitamin A, and too much of this can harm the development of an unborn baby’s nervous system. Vitamin A deficiency is rare in the UK, so it’s best to avoid eating liver and liver products such as pâté altogether.
Certain foods are more likely to be contaminated with infections such as listeria, salmonella and toxoplasmosis, which can be harmful to your unborn baby. To reduce the risk, you should avoid unpasteurised milk or soft cheeses such as Camembert, Brie or blue cheeses. Hard, pasteurised cheeses such as cheddar are fine.
- Tips on food storage and preparation
These are handy tips for any time of life, but especially important when you’re pregnant:
- Wash fruit, vegetables and salads thoroughly to remove all traces of soil
- After preparing raw foods, wash your hands and wash all surfaces and utensils. This applies for meat and poultry, fish, eggs, shellfish and raw vegetables.
- It’s important to store raw foods separately from ready-to-eat foods to avoid contamination
- If you’re chopping meat, poultry, fish or shellfish, use a separate knife and chopping board to the one used for your other foods
- If you’re heating or reheating food, make sure they’re piping hot throughout1
During pregnancy, you should avoid eating undercooked or very rare food. Foods you might not cook thoroughly at other times – such as cuts of meat, burgers or eggs – should be cooked very thoroughly while you’re pregnant.
- Can I eat runny eggs?
Raw or partially cooked eggs should be avoided as they can potentially carry salmonella.
Raw eggs are used in some products where it might not be immediately obvious, such as fresh mayonnaise, souffles or mousses, so do keep this in mind.
One exception is British Lion Eggs. These come from hens that have been vaccinated against salmonella and are safe for pregnant women to eat raw or partially cooked.
These eggs are identifiable by a red lion logo stamped on their shell.
If you are unsure about whether your eggs are British Lion certified, cook them until the white and the yolk are both set. It’s better to be safe than sorry.1
Finally, remember that with these few pointers it’s easy to enjoy your food, safe in the knowledge you are looking after yourself and your baby.
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