First-time mum-to-be K asked me the other day: “Doc, my mum tells me to drink plenty of fresh coconut water in the last trimester so that I will have an easy birth. “My friends also tell me that it will help cleanse my baby’s skin. Is this true?”
This is just one among many of common nutritional myths and advice dished out to expectant mothers by well-meaning friends and relatives who know that a healthy diet is important for foetal growth.
Pregnant women are, after all, motivated to improve their nutrition and they want to do things right for their developing babies. They want to know which foods they should eat or avoid.
A common misconception is: “I can eat what I want when I’m expecting; I don’t have to worry about my diet. I should eat for two.”
In fact, most pregnant women require only an extra 300 calories per day, equivalent to two glasses of milk or four slices of bread, or four pieces of fruit and seven wholemeal biscuits.
A nutritious, well-balanced eating plan should be adopted.
Recommended daily serving include five to seven servings of carbohydrates (about three bowls of rice or noodles). This provides energy for vital body functions.
Two servings of fruit (two small apples, oranges or pears) and two servings (two cups) of vegetables. They provide vitamins (especially folic acid and vitamin C) and minerals (iron) for the baby.
Folic acid plays a key role in reducing foetal abnormalities especially of the nervous system. Iron helps increase the mother’s blood volume and hemoglobin (pigment that carries oxygen in the red blood cell) and prevent anaemia.
There are two sources of iron: green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, broccoli and lettuce) and red meat (like beef, poultry and seafood). Iron from vegetable sources is less well absorbed but can be enhanced by eating foods rich in vitamin C. Calcium decreases its absorption.
Four servings of dairy products (about four glasses of milk or yogurt) are also recommended. They are main source of calcium which helps build the baby’s bones and teeth.
Three servings of protein (three palm-sized pieces of chicken, fish or mutton or two cups of cooked peas, beans and lentils) are essential for foetal growth. Fats and sweets (desserts and drinks) should be eaten sparingly.
Some foods can cause harm to the baby. Meats should be thoroughly cooked to avoid toxoplasmosis (parasite) salmonella and other bacteria.
Alcohol should not be taken during pregnancy. It increases the risk of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) – developmental problems that can affect a child’s ability to learn throughout his lifetime.
Mercury contamination could turn seafood into a serious risk with potential harm to the nervous system of the developing baby. Shark, swordfish, King mackerel and tilefish should be avoided.
Moderate amounts of coffee and other caffeinated beverages like tea, soda and chocolate drinks are unlikely to harm the baby. So they can be taken in small amounts.
Unpasteurised cheese, which is seldom consumed by pregnant mothers here, can cause food poisoning and increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth or stillbirth.
Gaining the right amount of weight during pregnancy by eating a healthy diet is a good sign that the baby is getting all the nutrients he needs. However, dieting and trying to lose weight during pregnancy is potentially hazardous.
If junk foods are eliminated from the diet, there would be appropriate weight gain.
Expectant mums who put on excessive weight by eating calorie-rich foods could be condemning their unborn children to a lifetime of obesity with associated health risks.
To err on the side of caution, pregnant women should consume food in moderation. A well-balanced and nutritious diet will ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy.