We Are What We Eat: A Guide to Pregnancy and Postpartum Nutrition
It's so easy to underestimate what our bodies really go through during pregnancy, birth and in the fourth trimester. As mums, it's only natural to put our babies first but as a result we neglect our bodies at a time when we really shouldn't.
Taking positive steps to optimise your nutrition during pregnancy and the postnatal period is one of the most important things you can do for you and your growing baby. Nourishing your body with an abundance of nutrient-dense foods will support you feeling well (physically and mentally) and energised, and paves the way for easier labour and recovery too. In fact, research shows that what you eat during pregnancy provides a model for your baby’s own habits during infancy and beyond - so it’s never too late to start implementing positive change! We talk with Nutritional Therapist Ellie Wooodhouse.
Q. What supplements should I take during pregnancy?
A. If you are in good health, following a balanced diet centred upon nutritious whole foods should provide your body with the wide variety of nutrients it needs to function effectively. However, there are two essential supplements that all women should take during pregnancy, irrespective of how well you eat. These are folate (400µg for at least the first 12 weeks of pregnancy) and vitamin D (minimum of 10µg per day for the entire duration of pregnancy...and beyond!).
In some cases, additional supplementation may be beneficial, for example where there are known nutritional deficiencies, severe morning sickness, dietary restrictions (e.g. vegan, an allergy or an intolerance), or in cases of multiple pregnancy or history of poor diet. Common supplements to support pregnancy include prenatal multivitamins (I recommend Wild Nutrition or Cytoplan), iron (only if advised by GP or midwife), vitamin B12, and omega 3.
Q. Do you have any advice on relief from morning sickness?
A. One woman’s experience of morning sickness during pregnancy is usually very different from the next - ranging from mild periods of queasiness to more unpleasant symptoms that persist throughout the day. The same goes for prevention and relief - what provides relief for one person is likely to be different from the next. This is why I strongly recommend trying to be intuitive during this time in order to figure out if you have specific triggers that cause nausea, or similarly foods or remedies that provide you with relief. Some remedies for relief include:
Staying clear of trigger foods (e.g. fatty, greasy, spicy foods) and strong smelling foods.
Eating smaller, more frequent meals.
Ginger root has been used for thousands of years as a natural digestive aid to relieve nausea. Some women get relief from chewing on ginger, or sipping on ginger tea between meals.
Gentle movement such as walking, prenatal yoga and swimming.
Alternative therapies such as aromatherapy, acupuncture, reflexology and hypnotherapy are also worth a try.
Q. Are there any foods to avoid during pregnancy?
A. Yes - during your pregnancy there are certain foods and drinks you’ll need to cut down on or cut out altogether. Some of these foods are due to their link to food poisoning, such as raw eggs, unpasteurised cheeses / milk / juices, and raw or undercooked meats, whilst others contain potentially toxic substances for your developing baby, such as alcohol, certain fish and caffeine. When it comes to caffeine, note that it’s found in tea, coffee, chocolate, energy drinks and some medications. Guidance says to have no more than 200mg of caffeine per day (the equivalent of two cups of coffee per day), but if you’re able to go for something naturally decaffeinated like a turmeric latte or rooibos tea, then that’s a safe choice.
Q. How can postpartum Mums help keep their bodies nourished to aid quick recovery?
A. Eating a wide variety of seasonal fruit and vegetables is a brilliant way to support your body through recovery from childbirth. By eating fruit and vegetables soon after they've been picked, you benefit from greater amounts of phytonutrients compared to those that have been stored for long periods of time during transportation. These nutrients are fundamental for carrying out essential bodily functions such as growth, repair and energy production. Vitamin C, in particular, is really important for the wound healing process - I recommend Wild Nutrition's Food Grown Vitamin C & Bioflavonoids - one of the great things about this supplement is that it uses a non-acidic form of vitamin C, making it gentle on the stomach.
At the same time, increasing water intake, resting as much as you can, and minimising inflammatory foods will also help support your body in its recovery. Try to reduce processed and packaged foods, as these are typically high in salt, sugar and saturated fats. I always come back to the belief that the best thing you can do for your health is to cook from scratch using whole food ingredients - that way you know exactly what you are consuming. If you’re breastfeeding too, then this is even more important as you’re eating for baby too!
There are other wonderful remedies to support natural healing that you can try, such as sitz baths to increase blood flow to the perineal area, and arnica as a homeopathic remedy to minimise bruising.
Q. What foods would you recommend to keep energy levels up during and post pregnancy? And are there any you would avoid?
A. It goes without saying that the later stages of pregnancy and postpartum period are taxing on the body, and energy levels in particular can feel depleted because of disrupted sleep, sharing nutrient stores with your little one, and the physical demands of carrying a baby. Especially once baby has arrived, prioritising eating well can become increasingly difficult, yet proper nourishment is so important for regulating energy levels, healing wounds and replenishing strength, and for mental wellbeing too.
It can be easy to default to packaged meals and convenience snacks during this time, however these are typically high in salt and saturated fats, as well as simple carbohydrate sugars. Not only to these foods tend to be pro-inflammatory, refined sugars cause a spike in blood glucose levels followed by a sudden dip - ultimately leaving you feeling more tired and depleted.
This is where having your freezer full of portioned home cooked meals comes in so handy, to provide an abundance of nutrients to optimise recovery, energy levels and mood. If friends and family ask how they can support you, don’t be afraid to ask them to cook up something hearty and nutritious for you, that can be portioned up and frozen. Things like ratatouille, lentil bolognese, soups and curries are all brilliant and versatile for those early days while you’re busy finding your feet. Then, you can simply pop it in the oven, and serve it with a complex carbohydrate (such as brown rice, buckwheat or quinoa) to provide slow release carbohydrates that will keep you energised for longer. On that note, another great one for you (or ask a friend!) to prepare is energy balls - they are perfect for night hunger when you’re awake feeding your little one - there are so many great recipes online.
Q. Is it safe to eat a plant based/vegan diet during pregnancy and while nursing?
A. As with all dietary preferences, there are healthier or less healthy ways to be plant based/ vegan. If you’re eating a nutritious vegan diet with an awareness of nutrients, there is no reason why shouldn’t have a perfectly healthy pregnancy and baby. Whatever your dietary preferences, take the time to think about your overall food intake and consider what nutrients might be limited with your dietary choices (just because someone eats meat, they may still fall short on some nutrients). With a vegan diet specifically, you’ll want to be mindful that you’re getting enough protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega 3. Some examples of food sources of these proteins, iron and calcium are listed below. As for vitamins B12 and vitamin D, these can easily be supplemented to support low levels of these nutrients found in plant based food.
Protein: chickpeas, lentils, beans, quinoa, black rice, buckwheat, whole wheat pasta, oats, rye, tempeh, tofu, edamame beans, nuts and seeds.
Iron: beans, edamame beans, oat bran, barley, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, dried fruits, spinach, kale, seaweed.
Calcium: green leafy vegetables, tofu, tahini, dried figs, kale, okra, white beans.
Q. Any advice on foods to avoid whilst breastfeeding?
A. Whilst breastfeeding, it’s important to be aware of what you’re consuming, since traces of the food and drink you digest are passed through your breastmilk to your little one. Alcohol, caffeine and fish (because of mercury levels) are the big ones that all breastfeeding mothers will want to be mindful of - although do note that all these things are ok in moderation. However if your baby is suffering from Colic, noticeable gut symptoms (such as trapped wind, constipation, diarrhoea) or regular eczema or skin rashes, it’s worth considering the link between the foods you’re eating and your baby’s response in terms of symptoms. Cows’ milk is one of the most common allergies and intolerance in infants and children, but some babies are more sensitive than others and may react to all sorts of foods, so paying close attention to what you eat may help you identify the cause.
For a deeper dive into pregnancy nutrition - Feeding your pregnancy: A guide to optimal nutrition and mindful practices during your pregnancy (£25) is available here.