Eating for two: What to eat during pregnancy
Adequate nutrition and knowledge of safe foods during pregnancy can play a big role in the health of mum and baby.
Amid the joy of discovering you’re pregnant comes many other emotions and instincts, including the intense desire to protect your baby.
One way to do this is by being careful about what you eat during pregnancy because some foods carry a higher risk for food poisoning, which can compromise the health of an unborn child.
With this in mind, most women ban everything high risk for the term of their pregnancy.
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But the message about optimal and safe nutritional practices for pregnancy is getting lost, a Royal Women’s Hospital study shows.
Instead many women are avoiding certain foods unnecessarily, and therefore not getting the nutrients they need.
Good nutrition during pregnancy is important for optimal growth and development.
The study found women had a basic understanding that folic acid was recommended to reduce the risk of spina bifida, alcohol should be avoided and they were at higher risk of food poisoning.
But there were gaps in understanding in terms of the nutritional needs of their pregnant bodies and serving sizes.
There was also misinformation regarding the types of foods that could pose a bacteria risk, and how some of these could be consumed safely.
“Good nutrition during pregnancy is important for optimal growth and development,” study author and dietitian Dr Amelia Lee says.
“If women aren’t eating well enough it may result in nutritional deficiency. This can increase the risk of adverse outcomes like miscarrying, pre-term labour, birth defects or lower IQ.”
The right nutrients during pregnancy
Folic acid and iodine are the two key nutrients women need during pregnancy. Both are available in supplement form.
“Adverse outcomes like neural tube defects can be prevented by supplementing with folic acid,” Dr Lee says.
“Similar with iodine supplementation – iodine deficiency is associated with miscarrying and birth defects.
“There have also been studies to show low iodine in mothers can lead to lower IQ in the child, so it impacts on their schooling as well.
“Women who are planning a pregnancy or become pregnant are recommended to take iodine and folic acid.”
Which foods you should avoid
Listeria and salmonella are the bacteria women need to avoid while pregnant.
While these bacteria can make anyone ill, pregnant women need to be particularly careful because their immune system is compromised and food poisoning can lead to miscarriage, pre-term birth or stillbirth.
Though the list of foods to avoid is extensive, Dr Lee says it’s important to understand the way it’s served has a big impact on its risk factor.
- Related: What should I eat to get pregnant?
Even if food is on the high-risk list, cooking kills bacteria such as listeria, so freshly-cooked foods can be eaten safely.
“That puts things back on the menu,” she says.
Although listeria and salmonella have always been a risk to unborn babies, Dr Lee believes our modern lifestyle has created the need to be more vigilant.
“We’re eating more convenience foods, buying takeaway and eating out,” she says.
“There’s more risk of multiple handling, and therefore increased risk of eating contaminated food.
“When you’re eating freshly cooked food at home, you know how things are stored, how they’re prepared.”
Putting it all together
Dr Lee says it doesn’t have to be tricky balancing sufficient nutrients for mum without posing a risk to your baby.
She suggests learning how even high-risk foods can be safely consumed, by referring to the Australian dietary guidelines and adopting the recommended practices for the five food groups to ensure you’re getting the right nutrients for your pregnancy.
“We want to make sure we’re including fresh fruit and vegetables with each mealtime,” she says.
It’s OK to enjoy these foods while pregnant
Soft cheeses are often avoided like the plague during pregnancy, and while there is a risk eating them straight from the fridge, you can still enjoy them cooked.
“Very hot toasted ham and cheese sandwiches or things that have been baked are a safe option,” says Dr Lee.
There’s no need to ban all fish, including tinned tuna. The concern around mercury levels generally relates to larger fish at the top of the food chain.
“It’s best to limit fish such as shark (flake), swordfish, marlin, orange roughy (deep sea perch) and catfish.”
Only raw or runny eggs pose a food poisoning risk.
“I suggest cooking egg yolk until it’s set, and avoiding things like homemade mayonnaise or dressings made with raw egg you might find in cafes or restaurants.”
Yes, you can make friends with your favourite barista again.
“The caffeine levels in a barista coffee – having one of those a day – is still well under the 200mg guidelines. If you’re drinking instant coffee you can actually have a couple of cups.”
“Some women think the risk of toxoplasmosis means they can’t pet their cats,” Dr Lee says. “Really it’s just about cleaning the litter. Always wash your hands after handling cat faeces and before preparing foods.”
See the Royal Women’s Hospital A-Z women’s health fact sheets.
Written by Claire Burke