We are what we eat: important nutrients in pregnancy

It can be a very exciting time when you find out you are having a baby. If this is your first pregnancy, you may be busy making future plans, designing the nursery, renovating, moving into a bigger house, buying clothes, having a baby shower and… the list goes on. If this is your second or subsequent pregnancy, you are already a busy mum, juggling another child or children, work and a partner, all whilst eating on the fly. Regardless of where you are on your motherhood journey, it is important to remember that you are not only having a baby, you are building a baby.

It takes a lot of energy to build another human being, this is one of the reasons you feel so exhausted, particularly in the first trimester. Whilst your baby is being created inside of your body, their brain, organs, bones, muscles, systems (endocrine, immune, nervous), DNA, microbiome, tissues and skin are all developing.

It was initially thought that the colonisation of the newborns microbiome began with factors relating to labour and vaginal birth. However, recent research suggests that it actually begins whilst they are intrauterine from oral, gastrointestinal and vaginal areas. This is a good reason to focus on your own microbiome and maintain healthy gut flora with both prebiotics and probiotics during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

So now you’re wondering… “what is this microbiome that everyone is talking about?” Well without launching into a science class, I’ll try to write it as succinctly as possible… Essentially a microbiome is a colony of bacteria, protozoa, fungi and viruses mixed with your genetic material that lives in and on your body, your gut being the main place of residence. In fact, there are more genes in your microbes than there are in your human genome (DNA)! Your microbiome helps you digest your food, regulates your immune system, produces vitamins, protects you from disease causing bacteria, helps brain function and improves your mood. So it’s kind of important, to say the least.

Now that you’ve had the microbiome lowdown, we’re moving right along…

With many mixed messages in society, via marketing, to produce sales it is easy to forget why we actually eat food. The purpose of food is to give our bodies energy, nutrition and prevent illness, for yourself and your baby. Unfortunately, mass produced food not only holds little nutritional value but is also detrimental to your health, regardless of how it is marketed. This is why it remains important that we all are conscious of what we eat.

Your body and your baby’s body are built by both micronutrients and macronutrients. Micronutrients include, vitamins and minerals; derived from the healthy food you ingest. Macronutrients include healthy fats, protein and carbohydrates. Most of us freak out about fats of any kind, believing all fats to be bad. However, good fats are essential to our wellbeing.

There are many do’s and don’ts when it comes to pregnancy and you may have noticed by now, that people are more than happy to give you their opinion on what you should or should not be doing.

That being said, I encourage you to listen to your own body’s needs.

 

Here’s a guide to help put you in “the know” when it comes to nutrients in your foods…

Essential Micronutrient Enriching Foods

Vitamins…

Top 10 Vitamin A enriching foods – sweet potato, cayenne pepper, butternut pumpkin, rockmelon (cantaloupe), kale, lettuce, carrots, apricots, peaches and tomatoes.

There is a lot of bad press out there regarding Vitamin A in pregnancy and rightly so. However, caution only needs to be taken when doses are greater than 3000mg/day. Vitamin A is essential for your baby’s liver and eye development. In the very beginning of pregnancy it assists with gene expression, cell differentiation and embryonic development. It also nourishes you and your baby’s skin preventing any skin ailments.

Top 10 Vitamin B6 enriching foods – asparagus, garlic, bananas, avocado, peanut butter, salmon and tuna, sunflower and sesame seeds, nuts including hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews & pistachios, as well as chickpeas, lentils and lima beans

Vitamin B6 not only helps to balance hormonal moods but also plays a vital role in implantation, the early stages of placental development and progesterone function. This vitamin is especially helpful for morning sickness. Although you may not be able to tolerate some of these foods when you are experiencing morning sickness, in this instance you could try a vitamin B6 supplement instead.

Top 10 Folate (Vitamin B9) enriching foods – lentils, leafy greens (spinach, kale), oranges, asparagus, kidney beans, broccoli, sunflower seeds, avocado, amaranth and tomato juice.

Folate is the natural food source of folic acid and is essential for cell division. To be most beneficial it is required pre-conception and in the early weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant. This is when most of the work requiring folate is performed. Folate deficiency can cause Neural Tube Defects, Spina Bifida being the most common. One cup of lentils will give you most of your daily requirement of folate, though be sure to include other folate containing foods from the list. Folate will also be needed during your second and third trimesters and for breastfeeding.

 Top 10 Vitamin D enriching foods – salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, cod liver oil, mushrooms (button and shiitake), eggs, tofu and soy milk.

SUNSHINE! I know sunshine is not a food but it is the most valuable source of Vitamin D. With all the current fears regarding the sun and skin cancer we are finding more vitamin D deficiencies. Vitamin D deficiencies can increase the chances of poor bone growth and deformities, rickets, delayed physical growth and impaired immunity. Pregnant women low in vitamin D may require a supplement of 1000 units daily. In a hot Australian climate, this equates to 10 minutes of sunshine in winter and 7 minutes in summer. It is most effective when received on areas that are not exposed to sun, for example, the tops of your legs, abdomen and tops of arms. You can contact your local osteoporosis council to find how much sun is required in your part of the world.

Top 10 Vitamin K enriching foods – kale, spinach, broccoli, okra, sprouts (alfalfa and mung), herbs including basil, sage, thyme, avocado, brussel sprouts, cucumber, asparagus and prunes.

Vitamin K plays a main role in helping blood to clot and prevents excessive bleeding. It also plays an important role in newborns too; hence the reason vitamin K is given at birth either by injection or orally. If a baby bleeds internally it can be fatal, however, this is extremely rare. Consider increasing vitamin K in your diet in your last trimester and during breastfeeding.

 

 Minerals…

Top 10 Calcium enriching foods – green leafy vegetables, tofu, tahini (sesame paste), chia and flax seeds, broccoli ,almond and brazil nuts, nori, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, figs and amaranth.

Calcium is essential for bones and teeth. As your baby grows inside of you they will require calcium to build their body, including bones, muscles and start the development of baby teeth buds. Calcium aids in a healthy heart, nervous system and has blood-clotting abilities. Both you and baby will require high amounts during pregnancy. It is wise to include calcium-enriching foods in your diet during pregnancy. Your baby will take calcium from you, for their growth, causing potential calcium deficiency problems later in life. Some research suggests that it may also decrease Postnatal Depression rates.

Top 10 Iodine enriching foods – kelp, nori, kombu, arame and wakame, himalayan salt, baked potato with skin, navy beans, tuna and red salmon, yoghurt, swiss cheese and eggs.

Iodine is essential for healthy thyroid function for both you and your baby. In the first half of pregnancy, when hormone levels are changing rapidly, your baby is relying on you for their supply of the thyroid hormone T4. Your baby’s thyroid function starts to develop from 18 weeks gestation. Only in the last weeks of pregnancy will they be able to make their own T4. An increase in T4 production, in pregnant women, by 50% places the thyroid gland under great pressure. Iodine rich foods for healthy thyroid function will help to ensure your baby has a healthy brain and neurological function. It is said to also help prevent intellectual impairment, learning difficulties and possibly ADHD.

Top 10 Iron enriching foods – soybeans, pumpkin seeds, kale, spinach, quinoa, lentils, cacao, nuts including cashew, pine, almond, hazelnut and peanut, artichoke, prunes and beans including lima, kidney, pinto, navy, chickpeas and black-eye.

It is important to increase your iron intake from the start of the second trimester when requirements are most needed. Research shows that low levels of iron in pregnancy may increase premature birth, postpartum haemorrhage and low birth weight babies. Many women require an iron supplement to meet their iron requirements. You’re midwife and/or doctor will routinely check your iron levels throughout pregnancy to ensure your levels are adequate.

Top 10 Magnesium enriching foods – seeds (flax, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, watermelon), nuts (brazil, almond, cashew, pine), cacao, edamame (soybean pods), dates, avocado, quinoa, buckwheat, bananas and leafy Greens such as spinach and kale.

Magnesium works in conjunction with calcium to assist muscle relaxation, in particular the uterus, and builds strong teeth and bones. Low magnesium in your diet can produce a low birth weight baby or the development of pre-eclampsia. Magnesium maintains the healthy function of the heart muscle and prevents leg cramps.

Top 10 Zinc enriching foods – roasted pumpkin seeds, dried watermelon seeds, cacao and peanuts, cashew and brazil nuts, almonds, chickpeas, green peas, sesame seeds (tahini) and kidney beans.

Zinc is often overlooked in pregnancy; however, it plays a highly important role in DNA development and functioning, also ovarian and oocyte (immature egg cell) development. It is essential for healthy immune function, helps to prevent stretch marks, can shorten labour and may reduce postnatal depression rates.

 

Essential Macronutrient Enriching Foods

Top 10 Essential Fat enriching foods – avocado, eggs, mixed nuts (macadamia, hazelnut, peanuts, almonds), olive oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, ghee, flaxseed (linseed), oily fish (salmon, trout, sardines) and green lip mussels.

You may have heard of essential fatty acids, these fats include linoleic acid (omega 3), alpha-linolenic acid (omega 6) and the less essential (our bodies can make some of it) is oleic acid (omega 9). All of these fats play an important role in energy supply whilst protecting your body’s vital organs.

Always source your fish and seafood from trusted supplier to minimise mercury levels. Eating smaller fish will help. Wild caught is best, farmed fish tend to have antibiotics present.

 

Top 10 Protein enriching foods – amaranth, quinoa, wild salmon, tofu, beans (soy, fava, lima, kidney and mung), Seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, chia) and Nuts (almonds, pecans, pine), cacao, lentils and acai.

Amino acids are the essential building blocks to protein. These building blocks will build your baby’s body, face, brain and every cell within. Not only will amino acids do this for your baby but you will also gain energy, balance blood sugar levels and maintain a healthy weight. There is also a known reduction in postnatal depression, in particular due to the amino acid L-Tryptophan.

 

Top 10 Healthy Carbohydrate enriching foods – quinoa (keen-wa), oats, yoghurt, buckwheat, sweet potato, beetroot, bananas, apples, blueberries and pulses (kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas). Simple carbs include fruit (fructose), milk (lactose) and sugar (sucrose). Complex carbs include grains, legumes & vegetables. Glucose is the sugar that fuels your body.  Look for low GI foods for sustained energy.

 

Top 10 Prebiotic Enriching Foods – chicory, artichoke, onion, garlic, leek, dandelion greens, bananas, asparagus, cocoa, apples.

Top 10 Probiotic Enriching Foods – sauerkraut, yoghurt,  kefir,  kimchi, mso, tempeh, natto, gherkins, olives in brine and A good probiotic SUPPLEMENT!!!

Healthy gut flora is essential to keeping your whole body functioning optimally, including your mental health. There is more and more research emerging about the microbiome-gut-brain axis. This information has been life changing for many. Once people heal their gut, they heal many other aspects of their life, including mental health disorders and physical ailments. Helping to provide your baby with healthy gut flora will give them a great start in life.

 

I will leave you with this to ponder… Everything that you put into your mouth goes to your baby, so ask yourself, “What is the nutritional value of this?” If it is loaded with good nutrients, then go for it… And if not… step away from the chocolate cake!

About Rachel (author) – Along with being an endorsed midwife, Rachel is currently studying herbal medicine for women; studied Nutrition and Natural Medicine in the UK (1997-1999); worked as a health food shop manager for 9 years and a vegan macrobiotic chef in Sydney.