By Fungisai Hove
Obstetrician/Gynecologist

Pregnancy is a dynamic period in a woman’s life. It is time of significant changes as a woman’s body adapts to the growing foetus and to the time after delivery. One of the changes that occur is the way a pregnant woman processes food. The dietary requirements of a pregnant woman also change during pregnancy. The old adage “eating for two” may not necessarily be true but the mum to be will definitely be eating more during this period. Her caloric intake will increase by 300-500 calories per day in the second and third trimesters. Maintaining a healthy diet with appropriate nutrition is a vital part of pregnancy as it allows for the future mum to take care of her body’s new demands and her growing baby.

During pregnancy there is a greater demand for folic acid, iron, calcium and protein by the body and the growing foetus. Folic acid otherwise known as folate when found in food is a vitamin that protects the baby from defects in the brain and spinal cord. These defects are known as neural tube defects, the most common example being spina bifida. A pregnant woman needs about 600 to 800 micrograms of folate per day. Sources of folate include dark green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, eggs and nuts just to name a few. Unfortunately, diet alone is not adequate to meet the required amount of folate. It is advised that all women take a folic acid supplement for at least 1 month before pregnancy and to continue until the end of the first trimester. There are small subsets of women who are at greater risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect and these women will need a supplement with a higher dose of folate. All women who are planning to be pregnant or who are pregnant should visit a doctor at the earliest time to get the adequate prenatal supplement.

Iron is an essential mineral used by the body for the increase in blood and transport of oxygen. Due to the physiological changes of pregnancy and the demands of the baby, there is an increased demand for iron during pregnancy. The soon to be mum will need 27 milligrams of iron per day .This is double the amount required by a non-pregnant woman. Good sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and eggs but the best source is lean meat such as beef. To increase the body’s absorption of iron, one should take vitamin C with their meal. A good source is citrus fruits either in the form of orange juice or a glass of Mazoe orange crush. Pregnant woman who have anaemia or low blood levels should be supplemented with iron during their pregnancy. All pregnant women should visit a doctor or healthcare centre as soon as possible to find out if they require supplementary iron or not. Low iron levels can affect the growth of a baby and result in a low birth weight baby. Calcium is another essential mineral used to build the baby’s teeth and bones. It is acquired from the consumption of dairy products such as milk and yoghurt. It is not a mineral that is routinely supplemented unless the pregnant woman has hypertension or is at risk of having severe hypertension in pregnancy. This risk is determined by the doctor at the first antenatal visit.

The goal in pregnancy is to eat nutritious food most of the time. The diet should consist of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and dairy products. A plate should be half fruits and vegetables, a quarter starch and a quarter a protein. Sugar and unhealthy starches should be limited as a woman is at increased risk of getting diabetes whilst pregnant. A pregnant woman should aim to have 5 portions of fruits and vegetables per day; this includes the vegetables she will consume with her meals. Fruit juice even freshly squeezed should be limited as this has an alarming amount of sugar. Good protein should be eaten with each meal. This protein can come from beef, chicken, fish, eggs, beans and nuts. Three to four servings of diary are recommended as they’re a good source of vitamin D and calcium as well as protein.

Caffeine and fish with high mercury content should be limited. Alcohol should be avoided in pregnancy as it can pass through the placenta affect the growing baby. Foetal alcohol syndrome is a spectrum of diseases that include physical abnormalities, learning difficulties and abnormal behaviour. Unpasteurised milk or deli meats such as polony and ham should be avoided as the can cause listeriosis. Listeriosis is associated with miscarriage, preterm birth, stillbirth or neonatal infections.

Pregnancy is a period of great change for the body. A healthy nutritious diet helps the body adapt to these changes and promotes the development of a healthy baby. Providing yourself nutritious foods can keep you feeling healthy during pregnancy, and pave the way for an easier labour.If in doubt about any food consult your nearest healthcare facility. Always seek the advice of a doctor before taking any over the counter supplements. Certain vitamins taken in excess can be toxic to the baby including vitamin A. The food we eat on a daily basis affects how our bodies work; it also determines the basic nutritional health that our children will be born with.


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