Fad diets and ‘healthy’ eating plans hit the internet almost daily, and it often means you have to stop eating certain food groups – usually carbohydrates and fats! This article explains why getting the right amount of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats in your diet whilst pregnant is important your health, and the health of your developing baby.
Why is it important?
After water, protein is the most plentiful part of your body. Getting enough protein is essential for your body to create the physical structures of your baby like hair, nails and muscles and also to produce the enzymes, hormones and growth factors vital for your baby’s development.
Did you know?
- Pregnant women should eat at least 60g protein every day
- Protein should make up 20-25% of your diet
However, not all protein is equal and the quality of protein is determined by the number of ‘amino acids’ it contains. Without getting too complicated animal products (meat, fish, eggs etc.) contain high quality or ‘complete’ protein meaning they provide all 9 essential amino acids. Plant foods on the other hand (grains, vegetables, etc.) contain incomplete protein meaning that they lack one or more amino acid and therefore must be eaten in combination. Eating grains and legumes together (e.g. beans on wholemeal toast) provides complete protein.
Did you know?
Quinoa is a complete protein – and a great wheat-free alternative.
Why are they important?
Carbohydrates are essential to human nutrition because they provide the primary source of energy we need to fuel bodily functions. It is worth emphasising here that carbohydrates are not your enemy despite what popular diet models may have you believe.
In pregnancy, as always, you should focus on eating complex carbohydrates and avoid, or limit simple refined carbohydrates.
- Brown rice
Simple carbohydrates – limit or avoid
Refined carbohydrates – limit or avoid
- All flour
- White potatoes
Simple carbohydrate and refined carbohydrates provide virtually no nutrients, cause your blood sugar to spike (a short burst of energy, followed by a huge drop in energy) and gain weight. Whilst complex carbohydrates provide lots of nutrients and fibre and slowly release energy.
Current advice is that carbohydrates should make up around a 45% of your diet during pregnancy, just make sure you choose the right type of carbohydrate.
Why is it important?
Fat was demonised in the 1980’s but in the last few years the press seems to have caught up with the evidence-based research and the nutritional headlines confirm that ‘sugar (not fat) makes you fat’. Fats are the powerhouse for each and every cell in our bodies – 60% of our brains are composed of fat. Research shows that making sure pregnant women eat the right amount of essential fats can reduce the risk of low birth rates and also postnatal depression. That said, not all fats are equal.
There are good fats and bad fats – and it is about getting the right fats into your diet.
There’s been some really bad press about saturated fats and they are rather misunderstood. Arachidonic acid (AA) which is found in saturated fat:
- Supports brain development
- Strengthens the gut lining
- Helps keep our skin supple.
Saturated fat is non-essential in our diet as we can produce it ourselves but consuming moderate amounts has been shown to have health benefits and certainly shouldn’t be feared.
Good sources of saturated fat
- Coconut oil
- Egg yolks
- Grass-fed butter
Whilst monounsaturated fats are non-essential they can be highly beneficial when consumed as part of a balanced pregnancy diet.
Good sources of monounsaturated fats
- Olive oil
- Rapeseed oil
Polyunsaturated fat (PUFA)
PUFAs are vital parts of every cell in your body and because your body cannot produce them, it is essential to get them from your diet. This group of fats include Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids.
In the west we typically consume too many Omega-6 fatty acids (found in processed vegetable oils, and seed oils such as sunflower oil – think chips, fried foods etc.), but not enough Omega-3 fatty acids, which are more important as they provide us with the most health benefits.
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is important as it makes other Omega-3 fats
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are long chain fats that are made from ALA in our bodies – these have the most health benefits!
Why is Omega-3 important for your baby?
DHA is fatty acid that makes up approximately 30 percent of the structural fat of the brain and is key component of the heart. It builds both antenatally and postnatally in your baby’s brain, eye and nervous system tissue. Developing infants cannot efficiently produce their own DHA and must obtain this vital nutrient through the placenta during pregnancy and from breast milk following birth.
Increasing DHA in your diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding significantly enhances the level of DHA available to your unborn baby / infant. Getting enough in your diet is particularly important during the third trimester when major brain growth occurs.
Did you know?
Studies show that supplementation of DHA in the mother’s diet improves infant developmental outcomes, including:
- Hand-eye coordination
- Motor skills
- Attention span.
DHA has also been shown to play a part in maternal well-being and supplementation can increase the length of pregnancy by six days helping mothers carry to a healthy or full term.
Good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids
- Oily fish, think SMASHT (Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, Herring, Tuna*)
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts and pumpkin seeds)
- Green leafy vegetables
- Algae – micro algae is currently available in dietary supplements and fortified foods
- Small amounts are found in poultry and egg yolks*
Many people believe that flaxseed oil is a good source of DHA, but flaxseed oil is a dietary source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a precursor of DHA. The body can make small amounts of DHA from ALA, but this process is inefficient and variable. Therefore, if you are looking for the benefits of DHA, it is best to consume it directly.
If you would like to understand more about getting the right Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio in your diet, read this article.
If you would like to understand more about Omega-3 fatty acids and their benefits, read this article from The Association of UK Dietitians.
Information provided by specialist Nutritional Therapist: Rosie Letts Nutrition