Pregnancy & Birth

Can I eat this? A guide to pregnancy nutrition

We find out what you can eat and drink – and what you should avoid – during pregnancy.

Helen Foster
July 2018

When you fall pregnant, a healthy diet can help keep you and baby well. There are some nutrients you need more of and some foods to avoid. To make it simple, we sort the fact from the fiction.

Do I have to give up coffee?

No you don’t, says midwife and childbirth educator Jennifer Hazi.

“While high levels of caffeine (classed as above 300mg a day) may be linked to a higher rate of miscarriage, there’s no confirmed risk with a low or moderate intake.”

Try to stick to under 200mg of caffeine a day – which means about 1 small latte or 3 instant coffees. You need a little more fluid in pregnancy, so replace any cups of coffee you do remove from your usual intake with other drinks. And remember that you may be drinking caffeine in other drinks, too.

“Rooibos tea, ginger or peppermint herbal teas, or just a little hot water with some fresh mint leaves, are good things to swap to,” says Hazi.

How much should I eat?

The idea of eating for 2 is no more. In the first 3 months, you don’t need to increase your food intake. For the rest of pregnancy, you only need an additional 2 serves of wholegrains and an additional 1 serve of protein a day.

“Instead of focusing on quantity, think quality,” says Hazi. “Choose a good selection of vegetables and healthy fats from nuts, seeds and avocado. Aim for a little protein with every meal and plenty of fibrous foods like wholegrain bread, brown rice and beans.”

The government website Eat for Health provides specific advice on eating well in pregnancy.

Can I eat fish?

“Yes, with a few caveats,” says Melanie McGrice, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. “We know that the omega 3 fats they contain are very important for the baby’s brain development. Fish consumption is also linked to lower asthma risk.”

“However, it’s important to eat all fish cooked, not raw, and to limit your consumption of large oily fish like flake (shark), marlin or swordfish to one 100g [cooked] portion a fortnight, as these can carry high levels of mercury,” says McGrice.

Or you can eat 2–3 serves per week of other fish such as salmon or tuna, recommends Better Health Victoria.

Soft cheese, deli meats and raw eggs

“The fear about eating these is that they can carry bacteria like salmonella or listeria that can be very dangerous to an unborn child,” says McGrice.

“In Australia the risk of [listeria] infection is very low. There are around 300,000 births a year here but only 1–14 cases in pregnant women [each year from 2001-10]. Still, because listeria is so dangerous to the foetus, it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Soft cheeses include brie, camembert, ricotta, feta, mould-ripened goat’s cheese, and others with a similar rind. Other higher-risk foods that are advised against include: cold cooked chicken, cold processed meats, unpasteurised dairy products, cold smoked salmon, pre-prepared or packed salads, and pâté.

Cooked eggs are fine, but avoid eating them raw or undercooked.

If you’re travelling overseas during your pregnancy, take particular care to avoid these foods, as well as undercooked foods.

What supplements do I need?

The B vitamin folate (folic acid) is recommended for every pregnant woman as it can help prevent certain birth defects, including spina bifida and other neural tube defects.

“You should take this as soon as you start trying to conceive, or at least as soon as you find out you’re pregnant, and for the first 3 months [of pregnancy],” says Hazi. “For most women a daily dose of 500mcg is recommended.”

An iodine supplement is also recommended in pregnancy for healthy baby development. Other supplements that may be suggested include vitamin D (for those who lack sunlight on their skin), iron or B12 (vegans and vegetarians).

Ask your doctor, midwife or an accredited practising dietitian for advice before taking any supplements.

Are there any supplements to avoid?

“You shouldn’t take anything with a high level of vitamin E during pregnancy – it has been linked to low birth weight. High doses of vitamin A can also be toxic,” says McGrice.

“The amount in a basic multivitamin should be okay, but don’t supplement with large individual doses.”

Liver (lamb’s fry) is also very high in vitamin A and isn’t recommended during pregnancy. You don’t need to avoid foods that have vitamin E, as it’s unlikely you’ll get too much through your diet.

Can I get away with the odd glass of wine?

Sorry, no. Although it’s common in some cultures, and some research has previously said very small amounts of alcohol in early pregnancy might not harm the baby, no alcohol is the safest option.

“The National Health and Medical Research Council advises that the safest option for women is to abstain from drinking if they’re pregnant – or even planning a pregnancy,” says Simon Strahan, CEO of DrinkWise. “It’s simply not known how much alcohol is safe to drink when you’re pregnant – although the risk of harm is greater the more you drink.”

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