Nutrition and food safety during pregnancy
Pregnant women need extra vitamins, minerals and nutrients to help the baby develop. The best way of getting these vitamins is through your diet. Hormonal changes during pregnancy lower your immune system which can make it harder to fight off illness and infections, so preventing food poisoning and protecting yourself from other food risks during pregnancy is extremely important.
A healthy diet
The best way to meet you and your baby's nutritional needs is to eat a wide variety of nutritious foods. These should include:
- Bread, cereals, rice, pasta and noodles – preferably wholegrain or wholemeal
- Vegetables and legumes
- Milk, yoghurt, hard cheese – preferably low fat
- Meat, fish, poultry, cooked eggs and nuts
There is an increased requirement for many nutrients during pregnancy. Eating a normal balanced diet should ensure that your baby gets good nutrition.
Folate, a B vitamin, is important for your baby's development during early pregnancy because it helps prevent birth abnormalities like spina-bifida. The best way to make sure you get enough folic acid is to take a daily supplement of at least 400 micrograms one month before becoming pregnant and during the first three months of pregnancy.
It is also important to eat foods that have added folic acid or are naturally rich in folate. Foods with folic acid added to them (fortified) include some breakfast cereals, breads and fruit juices. Check the nutrition information panel on the package to find out how much folate is present.
Foods naturally rich in folate include green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and salad greens, chick peas, nuts, orange juice, some fruits and dried beans and peas.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have information about folate during pregnancy in their Folate - make it part of your day brochure.
Pregnancy increases your need for iron. Good sources of iron include lean beef, duck (with the skin removed), chicken, fish, green vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and spinach and cooked legumes such as chick peas, lentils, kidney and lima beans.
Calcium is essential to keep bones healthy and strong. Dairy foods, such as milk, hard cheese, yogurt and calcium fortified soy milk are excellent sources of calcium.
Omega 3 is important for the development of the central nervous system, brain growth and eye development in your baby before and after he or she is born. Good Omega 3 foods include oily fish like salmon, trout, herring, anchovies and sardines. Omega 3 is also found in chicken, eggs, canned tuna and flaxseed oil.
Iodine is required for healthy thyroid function in both the mother and unborn baby. Insufficient iodine can lead to brain development and neurological issues problems in the baby. Read more in our Iodine and Pregnancy article for daily intake guides and food sources.
Getting enough zinc is particularly important for the rapid cell growth that occurs during pregnancy. Zinc can be found in lean meat, wholegrain cereals, milk, seafood, legumes and nuts.
The need for vitamin C is increased in pregnancy due to larger blood volume in the mother and the growth of the unborn baby. Excellent dietary sources of vitamin C include fruit and vegetables.
Some women experience constipation especially during the later parts of pregnancy. A high fibre intake combined with plenty of fluid is encouraged to help prevent this. High fibre foods include wholegrain breads and cereal products, legumes, nuts, vegetables and fruit.
Drink eight glasses of fluid a day
If you think you are not getting enough vitamins or nutrients please contact your health practitioner.
Normal Weight Gain
Weight gain during pregnancy varies between women. It's normal to gain 12-14kg during pregnancy. It is important not to diet or skip meals while you’re pregnant – your baby grows every day and needs you to maintain a balanced, healthy diet
Foods to take care with
You need to be extra careful with food during pregnancy. Unfortunately, some bacteria in food can cause illness that can harm an unborn baby. That's why it's safer to avoid certain foods. These include:
- Soft and semi-soft cheese
- Cold cooked chicken
- Cold processed meats
- Raw seafood
- Soft serve ice-cream
- Unpasteurised dairy products
- Pre-prepared salads
NSW Food Authority provides a complete online list of foods to avoid or take care with.
Remember the golden rules of food safety
- Keep it cold
- keep the fridge at 5oC or below
- put any food that needs to be kept cold in the fridge straight away
- don't eat food that’s meant to be in the fridge if it’s been left out for 2 hours or more
- defrost and marinate foods – especially meats - in the fridge
- shop with a cooler bag, picnic with an esky
- Keep it clean
- wash hands thoroughly before starting to prepare or eat any food, even a snack
- keep benches, kitchen equipment and tableware clean
- don't let raw meat juices drip onto other foods
- separate raw and cooked food and use different cutting boards and knives for both
- avoid making food for others if sick with something like diarrhoea
- Keep it hot
- cook foods until they're steaming hot
- reheat foods until they're steaming hot
- make sure there's no pink left in cooked meats such as mince or sausages
- look for clear juices before serving chicken or pork
- heat to boiling all marinades containing raw meat juices before serving
- Check the label
- don’t eat food past a 'use by' date
- note a 'best before' date
- follow storage and cooking instructions
- be allergy aware
- ask for information about unpackaged foods
Other food risks
Listeria is a type of bacteria found in some foods which causes a serious infection called listeriosis. It can take up to six weeks for the flu-like symptoms to occur and if transmitted to your unborn baby can lead to miscarriage, infection of your newborn and stillbirth. The best way to avoid this is through hygienic preparation, storage and handling of food. FSANZ have a brochure online titled Listeria and Food.
Salmonella can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, fever and headache. It’s advisable to avoid foods that contain raw egg and cook meat, chicken and eggs thoroughly.
Toxoplasmosis occurs most commonly by touching cat and dog faeces or contaminated soil. It can also occur if you eat undercooked meats, or unwashed fruit and vegetables (particularly from gardens with household cats). It is particularly important to avoid during pregnancy because it can cause brain damage or blindness in your unborn child.
- Don't eat undercooked or raw meat
- Don't drink unpasteurised goat’s milk
- Don't handle cat litter
- Wear gloves when gardening
- Always wash your hands after touching animals
Fish are rich in protein and minerals, low in saturated fat, and contain Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids are important for the development of the central nervous system in babies, before and after they are born.
Although it’s really important to eat fish during pregnancy and breastfeeding, you need to be careful about which fish you choose. That’s because some fish may contain mercury levels that may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing system.
- Eat 2-3 serves per week of small fish. Fish should be small enough to fit on your plate OR
- 1 serve per for fortnight of Shark (Flake) or Billfish (Broadbill, Swordfish and Marlin) and no other fish that fortnight OR
- 1 serve per week of Catfish or Orange Roughy (Deep Sea Perch) and no other fish that week
Get more information from the FSNAZ's website and NSW Food Authority.
The same general rules regarding nutrition during pregnancy apply to those following a vegetarian diet. There's more information about suitable sources of the required vitamins and minerals online from the Vegetarian Society.
Alcohol During Pregnancy
No one knows if there is a safe amount to drink during pregnancy. That’s why it’s best not to drink at all. The Australian Alcohol Guidelines (Department of Health and Ageing) advise:
- For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest option is not to drink alcohol.
The evidence against smoking during pregnancy is overwhelming and giving up is the best thing that you can do for both you and your child.
Smoking during pregnancy has been linked to a number of problems, including increased risk of miscarriage, premature birth, developmental problems, asthma and SIDS, as well as an increased risk of a number of other diseases in adult life, such as heart disease and diabetes. Read more here on the Smoke Free Zone website.
For assistance with quitting smoking, call the Quit line on 131 848.
Medicines During Pregnancy
Medications that you take can pass to your unborn baby through the placenta. Be very careful with any remedies that you take - including herbal remedies, over-the-counter medications and vitamin supplements. Check with your pharmacist for non-prescription items or doctor/obstetrician before starting any form of medication.
You can also contact the Medicines Line on 1300 633 424 (1300 MEDICINE). NPS collaborates with healthdirect Australia to deliver Medicines Line, a telephone service providing consumers with information on prescription, over-the-counter and complementary ( herbal / ’natural’ / vitamin / mineral ) medicines.
There is an additional service for residents of NSW called Mothersafe that you can call on (02) 9382 6539 (Sydney) or Tollfree 1800 647 848 (outside Sydney metro and state wide). Mothersafe is a telephone service based at the Royal Hospital for Women that is for pregnant and lactating mothers to call and check on any concerns they have about taking medications during this time (eg vitamins, across the counter medications, use of pesticides, exposure to radiation via mammograms, xrays & dental xrays, medications for other health reasons, prescription drugs from your doctor).
Drugs during Pregnancy
It is strongly recommended that you do not take any form of recreational drugs during pregnancy.
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