The Better Pregnancy Diet

Myths abound about the perfect diet for pregnancy yet the bottom line is that at no other time does the quality (and quantity) of food eaten have a greater impact on health.

1. Craving or desperate?

One myth is that a woman craves what they need. Most cravings are for stimulants like tea and coffee, or chocolate and biscuits, bread and other high sugar foods. These foods aren’t ‘needed’ as such – in fact, high coffee consumption increases risk of miscarriage – it’s just that the mum to be is so tired and craves stimulants or sugar that provide a short term pick-me-up but lead to even more exhaustion in the long run. Man is a knackered ape, said one schoolboy in an exam howler and never is this truer than in pregnancy. The ‘cure’ is to graze not gorge, eating little and often, choosing foods that release their energy giving carbohydrate slowly – this means fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrains like oat flakes, oat cakes, wholewheat pasta or Japanese ‘soba’ noodles, beans, lentils and tofu. Gone is the pain au chocolate and expresso – in fact breakfast is better eaten at home. These foods, on the other hand, are readily available in Thai, Chinese or Indian food.

2. Mummy I Shrank Your Brain
Indian food, however, often has too much of the wrong fats and nothing is more important during pregnancy than getting the right kind of fats. The brain of the baby to be is no less than 60 per cent fat, and during pregnancy the ‘hard-wiring’ of intelligence is being laid down. Each brain cell literally grows roots which connect to around 10,000 other brain cells. These brain cells need essential ‘omega-3’ fats found in fish and also in flax seeds. That’s why fish is genuinely good for the brain. In fact, research by Professor Michael Crawford at the Institute of Brain Chemistry in Holloway has shown that the omega-3 fat levels of a new born infant correlates with their intellectual performance as children. This may also explain the recent finding by researchers at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London that found that women’s brains shrink in pregnancy. The most likely explanation is that the foetus robs the mother of every ounce of essential fats, which means that pregnant women should definitely avoid very low-fat diets.

3. Eat Fish with Teeth
The classic ‘junk-food’ diet of fast food, hamburgers and processed meats and fried food such as French fries provides all the wrong fats. If deficient in essential fats these damaged and saturated fats get used instead for building the brain, but they don’t work as well – the result is slow development, learning difficulties and poor mental and physical coordination. The remedy is eating fish, especially fish with teeth. Fish that eat fish (tuna, mackerel, herring, salmon) have the highest omega-3 fats so head for the sushi bar, or order a swordfish or salmon steak in your favourite local restaurant. Ideally, fish should be eaten two to three times a week during pregnancy. The squeamish can take an omega-3 fish oil capsule such as Seven Seas, and hardened vegetarians can have a tablespoon of flax seeds on their morning cereal (flax seeds are small, slippery customers and are best ground in your now redundant coffee grinder.)

Talking about squeamish, many pregnant women, especially during the first three months, can suffer from pregnancy sickness. When feeling nauseous herrings are much appreciated. However, pregnancy sickness is largely to do with changing hormones which tend to settle down after three months. B vitamins help the body to adapt and for this, and other reasons, a pregnant woman is wise to take a high strength multivitamin containing all the B vitamins, including 400mcg of folic acid which is known to prevent spina bifida.

4. The Value of Supplements
Optimum nutrition can greatly improve your chances of having a healthy pregnancy. Even the slightest deficiencies during pregnancy can have serious effects on the health of the offspring, and the idea that birth defects are often caused by nutritional imbalances in the mother is rapidly gaining wider acceptance. So far, slight deficiencies of vitamin B1, B2, B6, folic acid, zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium have all been linked to birth abnormalities. Naturally, a healthy pregnancy will depend on a greater supply than normal of all these nutrients. A survey of 23,000 women found that those who supplemented their diet during the first six weeks of pregnancy had a 75 per cent lower incidence of birth defects than those who didn’t. The only precaution for supplements is to check they don’t contain more than 7,500iu of retinol, the animal form of vitamin A which, in very large amounts is less desirable. Beta-carotene, the vegetable equivalent carries no such caution so pregnant women can and should munch on carrots, tomatoes, melons, apricots and any other red/orange food. The best foods for these important antioxidant nutrients are peas, broccoli, sweet potatoes and carrots.

5. Think Zinc
The mineral zinc is at least as important as folic acid. Nothing grows without it and the average person in Britain achieves 7.6mg a day, a third of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 20mg in pregnancy. The best dietary sources of zinc are ‘seed’ foods such as peas, beans, seeds, nuts and lentils. (Plants can’t grow without it either). A heaped tablespoon of ground seeds such as sesame, sunflower and flax seeds, not only gives the essential fats and zinc, but also is rich in bone-building minerals calcium and magnesium. Contrary to popular opinion you don’t need milk during pregnancy if you are eating a healthy diet which includes seeds, nuts and fresh vegetables. Our ancestors, after all, weren’t milking buffaloes. How do you think they survived without it? Infants can’t deal with milk until about 6 months. That’s why so many become allergic and get colic, ear infections and excessive mucus. Women who don’t drink milk in pregnancy, breast-feed and don’t introduce their child to milk before six months are less likely to have children with milk allergy.

6. Drinking and Smoking – How Much is Safe?
The best thing to do with alcohol and cigarettes is to avoid them as much as possible. According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists there is little danger below 10 units a week, or a drink a day. However, not all authorities agree. Professor Derek Bryce-Smith, who identified the importance of zinc in pregnancy, as well as the dangers of lead, believes “it is absurd to think there is a cut-off point.” The most critical time for purism is a few days either side of conception and the first month of pregnancy. That means making changes before you get pregnant. The news on cigarettes is no different. Leading edge laboratories can now detect increased DNA damage in passive smokers. Since DNA is the blueprint of every new cell from the point of view of health of the baby, it is essential to quit smoking during pregnancy and preferable to avoid frequent exposure to other people’s cigarettes.

For more information on an ideal diet, read the Optimum Nutrition Before, During and After Pregnancy.