Tuesday 23 January 2018

Foods to fuel: How to eat well during pregnancy

If you want to give your baby the best possible start in life, it's all about making wise nutritional choices when pregnant, writes nutritionist Gaye Godkin

Pregnancy should not be your first introduction to a lifetime of maternal guilt. All mothers want the best for their babies.

 This is a natural human instinct. We live in an age where we are bombarded with information overload, which leaves many expectant parents confused. Never in the history of mankind have we experienced such a glut of food and everywhere we turn there's a feeding trough to negotiate, from supermarkets to garages to shopping centres to train stations, restaurants and cafés. The allure of cheap fuel is taking its toll on the waistlines and health outcomes of all of us, including the future health of our unborn children.

Eat a diverse diet

While eating a healthy diet increases the chances of achieving a pregnancy, there is less focus on the maternal diet during gestation.

Lots of wonderful events occur when the foetus is developing in the womb. Science is now so high-tech that we can understand more of what really goes on in the intra-uterine environment. One of the more fascinating aspects of this science is that a child's future food choices are hugely influenced by the mother's diet during pregnancy. Many parents struggle with 'fussy eaters' and it can be a battle to get children to eat healthy food. Food choice is never a simple process and most children go through phases of being fussy eaters, which can be trying. The good news is that we now know that the maternal diet positively and negatively influences their future food choices from a very early age.

There are five basic taste sensations: salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami (otherwise known as savoury). The earlier and broader a child's experience with food is, the more adventurous they will be and the healthier their diet will be.

So if you are hoping you don't end up with a fussy eater, then aim to eat a wide diversity of foods from all sensations during pregnancy. Taste sophistication is developed when we eat a varied diverse diet and starts with what tastes the baby is being exposed to. By approximately 16 weeks, the foetus will have developed taste pores on its tongue. As the baby consumes the amniotic fluid during the second and third trimester, she will taste the molecules that give food their unique taste but not its smell.

Distinct flavours such as garlic, mint, curries and spicy foods are transmitted most strongly through the amniotic fluid that nourishes the baby in the womb. So, the thinking goes is, if a foetus gets used to tasting strong flavours in the womb, then weaning the baby on to nutritious grown-up foods will be a doddle.


There are many food dictums that pregnant women are encouraged to abide by. These include no lamb's liver as it is high in vitamin A, no mouldy cheese or unpasteurised cheese or cured meats as they pose a risk of listeria to the baby. Be careful with tuna fish as it contains mercury so limit to once per week and avoid sushi and smoked salmon. Basically avoid all raw and unpasteurised foods that may contain bacteria. Food choices can become a minefield that women tiptoe over during this time. The real no-no's are caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine may cause palpitations and unpleasant symptoms and it has the ability to switch on the production of the stress hormone adrenaline in the body.

Minimising the baby's exposure to adrenaline is a good plan and coffee is easy to replace. There are many good chicory alternatives or tea is fine and there's a plethora of herbal teas available in supermarkets now. Try lots and you will find one that suits your palate.

According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, there is no safe limit for alcohol consumption during pregnancy. It is very difficult to prove this theory as research cannot be carried out on pregnant women and alcohol consumption for obvious reasons. However, the baby is sharing the same blood supply as mum. Alcohol is rapidly ingested into the blood system which is transmitting blood to vital organs in the developing foetus, such as the brain and the heart.

Babies whose mothers frequently drink during their pregnancies tend to be smaller and in extreme cases are born with foetal alcohol syndrome.

According to the HSE, the safest approach in pregnancy is not to drink at all.


Irish women have high rates of osteoporosis. This is a condition whereby the bones begin to thin out and become frail and are prone to fractures. This occurs mostly from the age of 60 onwards. The cause of osteoporosis is multi-factorial but the primary cause is a lack of calcium and vitamin D. Bone is laid down in childhood and requires these vital nutrients. Research carried out on expectant mothers in the National Maternity Hospital found that mothers did not have sufficient vitamin D to maintain their own bones and the bones of the developing infant. Due to our northerly latitude we do not get sufficient vitamin D. It is advisable to eat a diet high in oily fish, eggs and dairy products to get a dietary supply, however this is probably not enough. Check your blood levels with your GP and supplement with vitamin D if necessary. All newborns need to be supplemented with vitamin D from birth.


Human beings are faulty creatures and one of the biggest faults that we have is that we are born to love sweet foods. The love affair with sweetness begins in the womb. This is a survival mechanism which is programmed for a good reason. This sweet craving is there to ensure that the brain has a steady supply of glucose as it is its only fuel. Unfortunately our bodies have not evolved to cope with the syrupy sweet food environment that we now find ourselves immersed in. Early-life influences, beginning with the intra-uterine environment and continuing through the first few years of life, also shape the trajectory of weight gain and body fatness throughout the life course. Babies born to mums who consume a high sugar and a high carbohydrate diet tend to be bigger babies. Research is now showing that when a baby is exposed to excess glucose from sweet foods, certain genes are switched on that may lead to impaired glucose metabolism, which in turn leads to weight gain in childhood and beyond.


Pregnancy is heavy business. Worse than gaining weight during pregnancy is trying to lose it afterwards. It is easy to think that you are eating for two, but this is not the case. Weight gain has many implications for both mum and baby and is something that needs to be watched. Aim to cut out all junk foods including biscuits, soft drinks and cakes. Keep treats as a weekly occasion and not daily. Snack on fruit or natural yoghurt with fruit, nuts and a couple of squares of dark chocolate. Drink lots of water to hydrate. During the summer months, you might experiment with adding cucumber and mint into water or lime and mint water to give it extra flavour.


Interesting new research into the area of childhood asthma has shown that the off-spring of women who consume oily fish during their pregnancy have lower incidence and prevalence of developing asthma. The study was observational only but does hold promise. The findings of this study have shown that babies born to women who ate salmon were up to five times less likely to develop asthma by the age of three. In this study, lead Professor Calder, concluded that exposure in the womb to the fatty acids in salmon may improve the programming of the immune system to prevent it from over-reacting to asthma triggers like animal fur and pollen later in life. Vitamin D in oily fish might also be helpful; other research has linked vitamin A deficiency to children with asthma. Oily fish is a good source of all of three nutrients.

The baby's brain is a fatty organ - 66pc of its brain is made up of fats. The developing foetus is a scavenger and will rob mum of all of her nutrients to ensure her survival. It requires a steady supply of omega 3, which is an essential fat for brain development. Baby has first call on all the available nutrients to mum and itself. To ensure a steady supply of omega 3, aim to eat oily fish twice or three times per week. The best sources are mackerel, trout, salmon, sardines and anchovies. Low levels of omega 3 consumption during pregnancy are associated with a greater risk of developing postnatal depression. Pregnancy is not an illness - it can be a wonderful time in a woman's life. By making the healthy dietary choices, you are giving your baby the best start in life while supporting your body on this wonderful journey.

Irish Independent

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