To say it’s a confusing world for newbie or even not-so-newbie mums is an understatement. With Dr. Googling making everyone feel like they’re giving their child cancer, and with every well-intentioned mummy blog chiming in with their 2c, it can be overwhelming even to those who are fairly well-educated in maternal nutrition.
So if you’re struggling with the plethora of information out there, let’s break it down to some basics. Most importantly, you are allowed to trust your instincts, and if you want to do something slightly different from the norm then by all means seek the professional who will help guide you.
These are my top nutrition and lifestyle tips for those who are sick of reading confusing statements and who just want something simple, yet scientifically accurate to follow throughout their pre-conception to post-natal journey. With the eye-opening lessons on the stages of labour, the complex lists of what to pack for the hospital and with all the family fussing, take some solace that when it comes to your body and nutrition, you’ve actually got this.
1. Understand your health issues and nutritional status before getting pregnant.
If you are about to embark on the journey of conception then it’s great to know basics before you start. See your GP and get bloods done for micronutrient status and understand that if you have pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, hormonal issues, asthma and kidney issues that you will need a little extra advice and care.
2. Maintain a healthy weight
For some this means losing a few extra muffins from the diet, for others, it might be adequate body fat attainment. For many, it’s nothing required at all. To set baby up for a healthy life you must try and achieve a ‘regular’ weight pre-conception and a health care practitioner can help you figure yours out. I don’t like the use of BMI (see Richie McCaw and Val Adams being considered obese and unhealthy when they’re not) but for fertility treatment in the publicly funded system you must be between 18-32, although for most getting below 30 would be advised.
Men, your sperm health depends on your own healthy weight with less fat around your middle. Your weight will determine the overall health status of your children – so yes, you matter and you should lay off the beers and chips. It takes 3 months to make a perfect little sperm to do the best job and 100 days for your egg to mature ladies so use these as your pre-conception health timeline where possible.
3. Include folic acid, iodine and vitamin D
All three of these nutrients are crucial for brain development and a healthy growing foetus. In NZ we advise 400-800mcg of folic acid be supplemented from 1 month prior to conception until week 14. With the growing number of women who have tested positive for gene mutations like MTHFR which affect folic acid metabolism and conversion, activated forms are now available though qualified practitioners. Iodine is not found in our soil and many NZers are deficient, so 150mcg is suggested daily throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. This is a cheap supplement you can buy from your pharmacy, or is included in most pre-natal supplements. If you have been diagnosed with thyroid disorders then be sure to seek your LMC or GP’s advice. Vitamin D is becoming one of the most crucial supplements as our growing concern around skin cancer increases, and especially in areas like Wellington and south of Marlborough throughout winter months. If you can’t get outside at least 10-15 minutes during the middle of the day or are having a winter baby, then supplementation is cheap, easy and well worth it.
4. Avoid alcohol at all times and medications where possible in pregnancy
The case against paracetamol during pregnancy is rising with more valid researching showing adverse effects later on in life of babies who were exposed often during pregnancy. Now, I’m not saying avoid necessary medications, but simply seek qualified medical advice if you need to take anything at all. Alcohol goes without saying – don’t think about it, don’t touch it, it’s not worth the risk.
5. Avoid foods that put your pregnancy at risk.
There are in-depth lists available on the MOH website and if you work with me, I give you a specific handout when you get pregnant on everything from food to herbs – which are safe and which to avoid. For the sake of this article, the most important ones to leave alone are soft cheeses like brie, deli meats, tahini and hummus, store-prepared salads, raw dairy, raw eggs, raw fish, and large predatory fish with higher levels of mercury. Seek professional advice in regards to foods you’re not sure of.
6. Boost omega 3 fatty acids
Good quality fish oil (from a practitioner, not the pharmacy sale stand or supermarket) or regular servings of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines when cooked boost baby’s brain development, reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and have anti-inflammatory benefits throughout pregnancy.
7. Boost iron and B12
Both are required to make blood cells and deliver oxygen which is crucial during pregnancy. Most women in NZ are already iron deficient and then when pregnant are required to make up to 30% more blood for the growing foetus. While iron rich foods like green vegetables combined with red meat and vitamin C foods are great, if you have difficulty absorbing iron, are plant-based or avoid red meat then consider safe supplementation through your LMC or practitioner.
8. Consume plenty of calcium rich foods
The growing bones of your baby require plenty of calcium but your own bone mass and prevention of osteoporosis is also important. If you don’t eat dairy then you need to boost almonds, broccoli, kale, sesame seeds and potentially a supplement. If you don’t get enough vitamin D (see point 3) then you won’t absorb as much calcium and you’ll need to work with your practitioner in this regard also.
9. Eat good quality fats, rather than processed
I’m an advocate for removing processed oils from anyone’s diet but throughout pregnancy, even more so. Eat plenty of nuts, seeds, nut butters, olive oil, avocado, olives and olive oil, full fat dairy if tolerated, and eggs. Prior to pregnancy these are your fertility boosting foods, and throughout pregnancy these will help brain development, healthy satiety, and sleep.
10. Don’t avoid allergenic foods
If you are not allergic to anything then don’t avoid the foods that others are. Peanuts, shellfish and eggs when prepared properly should be included in a mother’s diet if she is not allergic. When baby starts solids and has shown no adverse reactions up until that point then introducing allergenic foods earlier rather than later under the guidance of your plunket nurse or qualified nutritionist.
11. Probiotics are important
I will write an entire article on this topic at some stage but for now I’ll keep it brief. A healthy balance of micro-flora in your own body is crucial for baby’s health and future well-being. Be aware of getting plenty of probiotic foods and supplements from your practitioner throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding and if you have a c-section, have been administered antibiotics for you or your baby, or your newborn has any gut upsets don’t be afraid to seek infant probiotics from your qualified practitioner.
12. Breast feed as long as you can, but don’t stress yourself if you cannot do it
If you can breastfeed then I strongly suggest breastfeeding exclusively for 4-6 months and complementary feeding for at least a year. If you go longer than that then amazing work! If you struggle with breastfeeding, your baby isn’t growing adequately or you’re not producing enough milk then there are so many options from traditional formula right through to controversial bone broths and breast milk donation. Do what is right for you and for your baby! Do not panic, and surround yourself with people who will support what ever your decision is, safely and with sound care and advice.
13. Eat often and varied when breastfeeding
It takes a huge amount of extra energy to produce and release milk and if you’re worried about how starving you are but want to lose the pregnancy weight, then don’t worry! Eat healthy and regular snacks and you’ll get there. Breastfeeding can definitely be compared to running a marathon. If you have the inclination to bake and prep food and the freezer space while pregnant, then I suggest bulking up on easy to heat meals, breastfeeding cookies packed full of fennel seed, flaxseed and some dark chocolate and power balls so you’ve got plenty to snack on in those first few weeks.
There are so many conflicting articles so always remember you have the right to listen to your body and seek the right person and people for you, to help you through your pregnancy journey. This is a pretty basic overview of some of the most crucial components to nutrition and lifestyle, but you’re welcome to book in with me to develop a tailored and more in-depth plan suited to just you.
A special thanks to my gorgeous mama-to-be Emma for being my feature model for this article!