Maintaining a healthy diet when pregnant helps to protect the mother and her developing baby from immediate and long-term risks.
Good nutrition is most important immediately prior to conception and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (including the very early stages, when the woman is unaware she is pregnant).
Importance of a healthy diet prior to pregnancy
A woman’s nutritional status during pregnancy depends on the availability of nutritional reserves. These are stores of particular micronutrients, like calcium and iron, which have built up in her body from consuming foods containing those micronutrients.
As these reserves build up before a woman becomes pregnant, maintaining good nutrition prior to conception is vital for ensuring adequate nutritional status during pregnancy.
Evidence suggests that maternal nutritional status has an important influence on how many cells go on to form the foetus, and how many form the placenta. In women who are undernourished, more cells are likely to form the placenta compared to the foetus, which means the foetus will be relatively small when it begins growth and its development in the womb will be restricted.
Not consuming enough of particular micronutrients can slow foetal development in the early stages of pregnancy and increase the likelihood that the baby will be too small when it is born.
Importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy
Research shows that maternal nutritional status during pregnancy plays a more important role in determining foetal health and predisposition to some diseases, than genetic factors.
Maternal nutrition during pregnancy also appears to have a “foetal programming” effect, that is, the foetus learns nutritional habits, which will influence it for the rest of its life, before it is even born.
A foetus will also adapt its metabolism and other body systems to cope with different states of nutrition. If the mother is undernourished, this will slow foetal development.
Nutritional guides for the first trimester of pregnancy
Pregnant women, especially with special nutritional needs, are encouraged to see a registered dietician for dietary recommendations. A healthy eating plan, though, begins with eating small, but more frequent meals a day.
This is to match the increased demand for nutrients like folic acid, calcium, zinc and iron, all of which play a critical role during the first trimester, which is the foetus’ most rapid time of organ development and growth.
There are foods that pregnant women are discouraged from consuming, including caffeine and alcohol, which can hamper development.
The following foods are incredibly nutritious for women in their first trimester:
- Citrus fruit
- Cottage cheese
- Chicken, salmon and lean beef
Expectant mothers should be informed about the benefits of eating healthily; being physically active at least 30 minutes most days of the week; taking a prenatal vitamin; and breastfeeding if possible.
They should also be reminded that women have been having healthy babies for thousands of years and that they should relax, take a few deep breaths and enjoy this special time in their lives.