Good nutrition is especially important for women when they are thinking about getting pregnant, pregnant or breastfeeding. Pregnancy is a time when your nutritional needs are greater, in order to nourish both yourself and your growing baby. Good nutrition now will benefit your children throughout their lives.
You don’t need to change your diet drastically when you are preparing for pregnancy, are pregnant or breastfeeding. You should continue to eat healthy foods, drink plenty of water and keep active. However, there are a few extra things you need to be aware of in relation to certain vitamins and minerals, alcohol, and food safety.
Eating from each of the following food groups every day helps to ensure you have all the nutrients you need to nourish yourself and your baby.
These serving size recommendations are based on Ministry of Health resources: Eating for Healthy Pregnant Women and Eating for Healthy Breastfeeding Women.
With pregnancy, you may become constipated. Eat foods with fibre (fruit, vegetables and whole grains). Kiwifruit has laxative properties and is an excellent way to stay regular as it also is a nutritionally dense fruit.
It can get difficult to keep up with the servings you eat every day, especially when the recommended servings are as large as 7-9 servings. Some ways to try and reach these serving numbers are:
Vegetables and fruits:
Iron carries oxygen throughout the body, giving cells the energy to function and keep your body moving. Lack of iron will make you feel tired and exhausted during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Animal products provide the best-used iron, with red meat the richest source. Others include chicken, fish and eggs. If you do not eat meat you need to eat larger amounts of other iron-containing foods, such as tofu, whole-grain bread, nuts, seeds, dried beans, peas or lentils. Eating two or more servings of these foods each day will help you meet your iron needs. To help increase the amount of iron used from these foods, have something rich in Vitamin C at the same time, such as capsicum, tomato or fruit juice. Tea and coffee may reduce the amount of iron absorbed so avoid drinking these until about an hour after a meal, or have them between meals.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women need extra calcium for their growing baby as well as to keep their own bones strong. Dairy foods are the best sources of calcium but if you don’t eat these, there are many other sources of calcium.
Calcium requirements during pregnancy and breastfeeding vary with age. Teenagers need more, as their own bones are still growing. An adult female will meet her needs by eating 2-3 servings of dairy products (or equivalent) each day, e.g. a glass of milk, a pottle of yoghurt and a slice of cheese. Teenagers need an extra serving. If you drink non-dairy milk check that it is enriched with calcium and vitamin B12.
Iodine helps the baby to develop, especially the brain. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need more iodine as babies get iodines from their mothers.
Choose good sources of iodine such as low-fat milk and dairy products, eggs, fish and seafood. Most bread have iodised salt added. Although the seaweed in sushi is a good source of iodine, it is recommended that women avoid sushi during pregnancy. Choose iodised table salt for cooking.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women are recommended to take a daily iodine supplement of 150 micrograms from the start of their pregnancy until they stop breastfeeding, as well as eating foods rich in iodine. Avoid seaweed and kelp tablets as the levels of iodine they contain are extremely variable and can be high enough to be toxic. Women with pre-existing thyroid conditions should seek advice from their doctor before taking a supplement.
Early pregnancy is a crucial time in a baby’s development, particularly for what is called the ‘neural tube’, which becomes the brain and spinal cord. This is formed in the first 27 days of pregnancy so that is why it is important to have a diet high in folate before and during the early stages of pregnancy. Foods rich in folic acid include leafy green vegetables, fruit, wholegrain bread and cereals, yeast extracts and foods fortified with folic acid, such as some breakfast cereals and bread.
In addition, women who are pregnant, or planning a pregnancy, are recommended to take a daily supplement of 800 mcg folic acid. This should be taken for at least one month before, and three months following, becoming pregnant. If the pregnancy was unplanned, take it as soon as possible.
A higher dosage of folic acid is recommended in any of these circumstances:
Consult your doctor if you think it is relevant to you.
While it’s important to get enough vitamin A, excessive levels of retinol (a form of vitamin A) during pregnancy are harmful to a developing baby. Liver (lamb’s fry), kidney, shellfish and some supplements are particularly high in retinol; limit liver to 100g once a week and do not take supplements containing vitamin A, including vitamin-A fish oils, unless advised by your doctor.
Vitamin B12 is essential for normal blood and nerve function. Women who are pregnant need enough B12 to meet their own needs and their baby’s needs to grow. B12 is only found in animal foods and fortified foods, so pregnant or breastfeeding women who follow vegan diets should consult the doctor for B12 supplements even if they are showing no signs of deficiency.
Vitamin D helps the body to use calcium to build and maintain strong bones and teeth and helps with muscle function for you and your baby. The main source of Vitamin D is through exposing skin to sunlight and is difficult to achieve adequate intake with diet alone as only a few foods contain Vitamin D in New Zealand (oily fish, fortified foods, full-fat milk and butter, egg yolk). A woman may be at a higher risk of being Vitamin D deficient in any of these circumstances:
Women at risk of Vitamin D deficiency should consult a doctor for advice on supplements.
Keeping food safe from contaminants is extremely important while you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Food poisoning can affect both yourself and your baby. If you experience diarrhoea, vomiting or flu-like illness it is important to contact your doctor or midwife immediately.
Here are some tips on handling food safely:
Click here to read the Ministry of Primary Industry’s guidelines for food safety during pregnancy.
There is no known safe level for drinking alcohol during pregnancy, as it enters a baby’s bloodstream, where it can affect development. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) describes a spectrum of varied disabilities that can result when a developing baby is exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. The Ministry of Health strongly recommends pregnant women avoid drinking alcohol, including those who are planning a pregnancy. Breastfeeding mothers are encouraged to avoid alcohol, especially during the first month. Note that, unless you’re doing it for comfort reasons, there’s not much point in expressing breastmilk and throwing it out (otherwise known as pumping and dumping). To learn more about breastfeeding and alcohol, visit Plunket’s webpage.
For more advice on low-risk drinking, go to www.alcohol.org.nz
For more advice on FASD, go to https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/fetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorder
Pregnant women are advised to limit the amount of caffeine they consume each day to around 2 cups of coffee (<200mg caffeine), as pregnancy slows down the rate that caffeine is metabolised. High caffeine levels have been linked to low birth weight and reduced fertility in women trying to conceive, The caffeine content of drinks varies. Whatever you choose, be aware caffeine is a stimulant and can contribute to indigestion as well as keep you awake at night.
Reference: NZ Food Composition Database & FSANZ
Drinks to avoid:
Plain water should be your first choice over other drinks, as in most cases it is exactly what the body needs! You need more water when you are pregnant or breastfeeding as your blood volume increases during pregnancy and you need fluids to produce breast milk.
Amount of fluid you need:
Keep in mind that these are broad guidelines, and will vary depending on the climate, your body size, activity levels. The best way to ensure you are drinking enough is to listen to your thirst cues and aim for the colour of your urine (pee) to be pale yellow. It may help to keep a water bottle with you at all times so you can remember to keep hydrated.
A standard serving of vegetables is about 75g (100-350kj) which is about the same as:
A standard serving of fruit is about 150g (350kj) which is about the same as:
Grain foods, mostly wholegrain and those naturally high in fibre
A standard serving (500kj) is about the same as:
Milk and milk products, mostly low and reduced fat
A standard serving (500-600kj) is about the same as
Legumes, nuts, seeds, fish and other seafood, eggs, poultry and/or red meat with the fat removed
Last modified: April 12, 2022