Pregnancy is an awe inspiring time when a woman the amazing thing of growing another human being inside of her womb. The average length of a human pregnancy is about 40 weeks and slightly longer for first time mothers at 41 weeks gestation. By the time a woman realizes she is pregnant, which is usually around the time a woman has missed a period, the major body systems in the fetus have already developed. At this time the fetus is approximately 6 weeks.
This is why it is so important for every woman who could become pregnant to eat a diet rich in nutritious foods long before she even becomes pregnant. There are many things that can contribute to a healthy, full-term pregnancy but a big piece of the puzzle is nutrition. The types food a mother eats during pregnancy are very important for the health of her growing new baby. There are also many things that should be avoided during pregnancy, since some of them can be very harmful.
What Nutrients Are Important?
One of the most important nutrients a pregnant woman needs in her diet is folate. If a woman does not get enough folate the baby could have, sometimes fatal, neural tube defects. Women in countries that do not have adequate access to good nutrition in pregnancy have higher rates of carrying babies with neural tube defects (1). Neural tube defects can be so serious that they cause early miscarriage.
The most prevalent neural tube defects include spina bifida and anencephaly. Spina bifida is a defect where the spinal column of the baby does not close properly, and anencephaly is a condition where the baby is born without parts of their brain. Both lead to long-term complications for the baby for its entire life.
Women who may become pregnant, or who are already pregnant, should consume foods that are high in folate throughout the day. Sources of folate include:-
A woman’s blood volume will increase by approximately fifty percent during her pregnancy. This blood volume increase ramps up exponentially in the second trimester as the placenta grows in size and the baby begins to grow bigger. The women herself also needs more blood volume to support the growing baby and all of this extra blood volume requires extra iron. If a woman does not have enough iron in her blood at the beginning of pregnancy she can become anemic. Signs of anemia include:
To avoid becoming anemic women should include many foods in her diet throughout the day that include iron. Iron rich foods should be eaten along with foods that contain Vitamin C because the two work synergistically for optimal absorption. Foods that are high in iron include:
Babies born to mothers who are anemic can be born at a low birth weight. Low birth weight babies are more susceptible to other complications after birth. Iron deficiency can also cause postpartum depression (2). So it is important for pregnant mothers to make sure to include these foods in their diet before, during and after pregnancy during the postpartum period where she is still experiencing heavy bleeding. Once postpartum bleeding has stopped and the woman isn’t experiencing a regular menstrual period her need for iron decreases.
Protein is essential for a pregnant woman to eat during her pregnancy. Her need for protein increases during pregnancy because the developing fetus needs it to properly form. Getting adequate protein is fairly easy since many of the foods we eat contain protein; even some vegetables contain lots of protein! Foods that are high in protein include:
Other nutrients that are important for a healthy pregnancy are zinc, iodine, and calcium and these can be found easily in the foods eaten.
What Things Should Be Avoided?
Pregnant women should avoid smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and using street drugs while pregnant. These things are associated with adverse outcomes for the babies they are carrying. Even many over the counter medications should be avoided while pregnant. A pharmacist should be consulted before taking any over the counter medication.
Smoking cigarettes during pregnancy can cause low birth weight in babies, which leads to other complications. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause the baby to be born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The symptoms of FAS vary but can include learning disabilities, mood disorders, and intellectual impairment (3). Using street drugs can cause miscarriages and it can also mean that the baby will be born addicted to the drug the mother used in pregnancy. The baby will then need to go through a detoxification period in the NICU in a special hospital so that it can be monitored closely and given medications to help ease the detoxification period.
There are also some foods that should be avoided during pregnancy because they can contain harmful bacteria that could make a woman sick during pregnancy. Having a high fever while pregnant is harmful for the fetus so these foods should be avoided to reduce the risk of exposure to food-borne bacteria:
Women should also try to make sure they do not over-consume foods that contain Vitamin A. Having too much Vitamin A can cause birth defects as well, although it is less common.