A healthy, balanced diet is good for us at any time in our lives and it’s even more essential if you’re trying for a baby or you’re already expecting.
Eating well prepares you for a healthy pregnancy, keeps you fit and well and, if you’re already expecting, helps your baby to develop and grow. It’s also key for new mums to help keep you healthy and provide you with plenty of energy!
Get your five-a-day
Eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day (and you can eat many more if you like) helps you reap the benefits from lots of vitamins and minerals plus fibre (to help keep things regular – you know what we mean!).
Enjoy a wide variety and have them fresh, frozen, or canned in fruit juice (try to avoid canned fruit in sweetened syrup). Fruit and vegetables are great snacks, too.
Starchy carbohydrate foods
These foods are a good source of vitamins and fibre, and help to satisfy the appetite without containing too many calories. Lots of foods come into this category, including potatoes (ideally with their skins left on), rice, pasta, noodles, bread, breakfast cereals and much more.
For extra filling power and fibre, opt for wholemeal pasta, wholegrain rice and wholemeal (not brown) bread.
For health it’s advised that about 50 per cent of our daily intake comes from this group of foods. While the foods are generally low in calories, what’s added to them can often pack in the calories, so watch out for creamy sauces, butters and mayonnaise that may send the calories soaring!
Protein is vital for growth, maintenance and repair in the body and we should eat some every day. Foods rich in protein include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, pulses and nuts. Some vegetarian options, like Quorn, soya and tofu products, are good sources of protein, too.
To reduce the fat content, choose lean meat and remove all visible fat, remove the skin from poultry and opt for lower-fat cooking methods – for example, grill instead of fry, and use light oil sprays instead of oil or butter.
For health it’s recommended that we eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily fish (eg, salmon, mackerel or sardines).
Health note: Avoid liver if you’re trying for a baby or are pregnant as this contains high levels of vitamin A, which can be harmful to a baby. Ensure meats are well cooked through. There are some types of fish it’s advised to avoid or limit in pregnancy. Find out more here...
Iron is important during pregnancy but many women can be at risk of becoming deficient, so it’s a good idea to build up your iron stores when trying for a baby.
As well as being a source of protein, lean red meat, poultry and fish are great sources of iron.
Iron is also found in some plant foods, such as dark green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts and wholegrains, though it’s more difficult for our body to extract the iron from these foods than from animal sources. However, serving these plant sources with a vitamin C-rich food can help with iron absorption – for instance, you could pair the iron-rich spinach in your salad with some crunchy red bell peppers (a great source of vitamin C).
Drinking tea or coffee with meals can reduce the amount of iron that is able to be absorbed from your food, so it’s advised to avoid having these drinks with your meals.
Iodine is less frequently talked about, but is an essential nutrient, particularly during pregnancy. Iodine is needed to produce thyroid hormones, which support healthy growth and metabolism. It’s vital for mums-to-be to have a good iodine intake, because the growing baby gets all their iodine from mum and continues to do so if they are exclusively breastfed after birth. Iodine is essential for the development of a baby’s brain, cognition, and motor abilities.
You should be able to get all the iodine you need by eating a varied and balanced diet. The main dietary sources of iodine are fish and seafood, and dairy products such as milk and yogurt. Small amounts are also in nuts and some fruits and vegetables. While a healthy intake of iodine is important, it can be harmful if intakes are too high. Seaweed is a particularly rich source of iodine and could easily provide excessive amounts, so it’s recommended not to eat seaweed any more than once a week, particularly during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Those following diets with limited intake of fish and/or dairy (such as vegan diets) will need to be particularly mindful of their iodine intake and it’s recommended that they discuss this with their GP or midwife. Read more about vegetarian and vegan diets here.
Milk, cheese, yogurt and fromage frais are all dairy foods rich in calcium and other key nutrients that are important for both you and the baby.
If you’re trying to manage your weight, choose low-fat options where possible. Reducing the fat content doesn’t reduce the calcium content. For example, skimmed milk is actually higher in calcium than full-fat milk.
Non-dairy foods that are a good source of calcium include soya yogurt with added calcium, tofu (made with calcium sulphate), sardines, curly kale, rocket and watercress.
Health note: It’s advisable to avoid some soft and mould-ripened cheese during pregnancy. Read more about food safety in pregnancy here...
Staying hydrated is important for good health, particularly during pregnancy. The recommendation for the general population is to drink around six to eight glasses of fluid per day; though the amount we need to drink varies between individuals.
There are currently no UK guidelines on how much you should aim to drink during pregnancy. However, as the body requires extra water to produce the fluid which surrounds the baby and also to support the increase in blood volume, it has been suggested to drink a little more during pregnancy. If you suffer from morning sickness during pregnancy, it’s also important to make sure you’re drinking enough to make up for the loss of fluid it can cause.
It’s important to respond to thirst, as this is an indicator you’re already a little dehydrated. To monitor how hydrated you are, you can keep an eye on the colour of your urine – a pale straw colour lets you know you’re adequately hydrated, whereas if it’s a darker colour you may need to drink a bit more.
Water is the best option to choose to keep you hydrated, though all non-alcoholic drinks count towards fluid intake, including hot drinks, milk, fruit juices and squashes. Just remember to keep track of your caffeine intake while pregnant so you don’t have too much, and limit the amount of fruit juice and sugar-sweetened drinks you choose, to protect your teeth and help you manage your weight.
The Food Standards Agency recommends drinking no more than around four cups of herbal or green tea a day during pregnancy as there’s currently little information available regarding their effects. If you’re unsure which herbal teas are safe to drink during pregnancy, please discuss this with your midwife or GP. Bear in mind that green tea is a source of caffeine, and intake should be considered in the same way as regular tea. The NHS advises that pregnant women can have moderate amounts of liquorice tea during pregnancy; however, the herbal remedy liquorice root should be avoided.
High fat and sugar foods
The foods we all know and love. Chocolate, crisps, biscuits, pastries – you don’t need to cut these out altogether, but reducing/limiting the amount you eat will help when managing your weight and be better for your health. Plus these foods tend to be pretty low in other nutrients.
Try these nifty swaps to help reduce calorie intake and support your health:
|Regular salad dressing
|Semi or skimmed milk
|Tuna in oil
|Tuna in brine/spring water
|No-added-sugar cordial or fruit-infused water
|Low-fat oil spray
During pregnancy it’s particularly important to pay close attention to the health of your teeth and gums, including regular visits to the dentist, as pregnant women are more prone to gum disease due to hormonal changes. Avoid having sugary foods and drinks too often, and snack on vegetables and other healthy snacks instead of sugary or acidic foods, to help protect against dental caries.
When your due date is approaching
If you’ve got the time, it can be helpful to make up large portions of freezable healthy meals so you can freeze portions ready for those early days with a new baby when you might not have much time to prepare healthy and nutritious meals.
*For the safety of you and your baby, please discuss the latest dietary recommendations and the suitability of any activity programme with your midwife or doctor.