The right diet during pregnancy

A balanced diet is essential to fitness and good health, and assumes vital importance during pregnancy, the most nutritionally demanding time in a woman’s life. Your body needs adequate nutrients to help keep you in good health and also support the growth of your developing baby. Poor maternal nutrition is one of several factors which may result in growth restriction of the baby during uterine life.

Growth retarded babies suffer from both short- and long-term disadvantages. There is an increased risk of fetal, neonatal and infant death. Childhood growth, immunity and intellectual development may all suffer. Poor fetal nutrition has also been shown to result in a higher risk of chronic disease in adult life, notably heart disease and diabetes. This is believed to be an outcome of irreversible changes in tissues during early development.

A variety of foods is what you need in pregnancy so that all your nutrient needs are met. Morning sickness in the early months of pregnancy, with associated heartburn, loss of appetite and food cravings, may restrict your intake of food. Smaller and more frequent meals are often an easier option during this period, while healthy snacks may help provide the additional calories needed.

Dietary requirements in pregnancy
Three hundred calories a day, over and above a daily requirement of 1500–2000 calories, is what pregnant women additionally require from the beginning of the second trimester up to delivery. Your diet must include proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Protein is essential for the buildup of tissues, and pregnant women need around 60 grams of protein per day. Low protein intake may result in smaller-than-average weight babies who may suffer health problems.

Here is a list of things to incorporate in your diet:

Dairy products (Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese): 3 cups a day, preferably low fat

Bread/Chapatti/Cereal/Rice: 6 ounce equivalent

Vegetables: 2.5 cups

Fruit: 2 cups

Meat/Poultry/Fish/Dry Beans/Eggs/Nuts: 5.5 ounce equivalent

Oils and Fats: Use sparingly

Nutrients: Vitamins and minerals

A few important nutrients require special mention in pregnancy:

Folate and folic acid: Folate belongs to the B group of vitamins, and its synthetic form, present in supplements, is called folic acid. It helps prevent abnormalities of the brain as well as the spinal cord. Preterm delivery, low birth weight and poor fetal growth have also been shown to be related to a deficiency of this vitamin.

600 micrograms of folate or folic acid is required per day before conception and during pregnancy.

Naturally occurring folate is present in leafy green vegetables, dried beans and peas, and citrus fruits. Remember to take folic acid supplements too, generally prescribed in tablet form by your doctor.

Calcium: Your circulatory, muscular and nervous systems depend on an adequate intake of calcium for their normal functioning. Both you and your developing baby require calcium for strong bones and teeth. 1000 mg of calcium a day is needed during pregnancy, and is best obtained from dairy products. Your baby’s needs during this period will be met by drawing on calcium reserves in your bones if your dietary calcium is found wanting.

Iron: Iron is required for the production of hemoglobin. This protein is contained in red blood cells and transports oxygen to your tissues. A deficiency of iron results in anemia, with loss of energy and fatigue. Premature delivery and low birth weight are often a consequence.

Iron requirements double during pregnancy (27 milligrams a day) and can be derived from poultry, lean red meat, and fish. Iron-fortified foods, dried fruit and nuts are other important sources. Dietary iron can rarely meet all your requirements and supplements are often required.

Zinc: 11 milligrams of zinc is required per day during pregnancy, an adequate intake of which is considered essential for normal growth and development. A deficiency of this mineral may result in prolonged labor and growth retarded babies.

What you must avoid

Healthy eating also implies avoiding harmful substances. Avoid alcohol altogether during pregnancy, as alcohol intake is clearly harmful to the developing fetus. Smoking during pregnancy will adversely affect your health as well as your baby’s, both during pregnancy and thereafter. Substances like nicotine (the addictive substance in cigarettes) and carbon monoxide inhaled while smoking are carried through your bloodstream to your developing baby.

Fetal growth may suffer as a result of maternal caffeine intake. Eight or more cups of coffee a day are associated with a higher risk of stillbirth. So restrict the coffee breaks during pregnancy.

A well planned diet will go a long way in contributing to both maternal and fetal well being. If you are contemplating a pregnancy, begin on a healthy diet with supplements like folic acid even prior to conception. During pregnancy:
· Consume adequate calories.
· Eat a variety of foods, while limiting your fat intake.
· Eat regularly; resort to smaller, frequent meals if necessary.
· Ensure intake of adequate dietary fiber and fluids.
· Avoid alcohol and excessive caffeine.
· Remember your supplements, as prescribed by your doctor.

Image: Flickr Creativecommons Rick McCharles