Pregnancy series: Nutrition for the mother


Although it is probably quite high on your priority list to concentrate on the health of your developing baby, as a mum-to-be you must not neglect your own well-being at this precious time! We all know too well the dreaded morning sickness which can put a damper on the first few months of pregnancy for many unlucky women. Pregnancy can also bring several other unwanted symptoms including months of feeling nauseous, dry skin, low mood, stretch marks, excess weight gain, and sometimes even gestational diabetes. Not exactly a pretty picture of health. Some of these symptoms are often due to the fact that your growing baby is, quite literally, taking everything it needs – leaving you exposed to malnutrition.

Focusing on nutrient-dense foods can really help to keep your health in great condition while pregnant, not only for your baby’s sake, but also for your own health. If you want to feel good about yourself by the time the baby arrives, here are a few tips to help you enjoy the experience of pregnancy throughout.

Morning sickness

The first few months of pregnancy can often result in nausea or vomiting; commonly known as ‘morning sickness’, this can occur at any time of day. This reaction could be considered as your body’s natural defence system to warn you off certain foods which may be harmful to your unborn baby. Sense of smell is very much heightened during pregnancy, so any strong smells may give your body false signals that the food could be going off. This is a great temporary gift to have to defend your baby against infection, but quite annoying when every nice dish of food makes your stomach turn. There are many theories as to why some women experience quite severe morning sickness, although it is not fully understood. From high hormone levels, to bacterial infections in the stomach, to the immune system to stomach acid levels, it is quite a complex amalgamation of physical changes in the body! A large observational study following over 50,000 pregnant women found that those who experienced nausea and vomiting were more likely to be younger and heavier at the start of pregnancy. (1)

Ginger reduces nausea in women with morning sickness. Grate ginger into warm water with some lemon and after about 30 minutes, try some plain carbohydrates like oatcakes or rice cakes.

Not only is morning sickness an absolute nuisance, it can also cause problems with how much food is consumed, and therefore often leads to nutritional deficiencies. Deficiency of protein and healthy fats are the main issues. Lack of protein in the diet for just a few days will result in your body breaking down your muscles to access enough amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Not an issue for a couple of weeks, but if food consumption is limited for a couple of months, your muscles may start to waste away, causing your metabolism to drop quite significantly. A lack of healthy fats in the diet may cause your skin, hair and nails to suffer.

Tried & tested protocol

If you are trying to suppress those nauseous feelings, there are a lot of tricks to get your digestive system used to keeping food in. Within the first hour or so in the morning, if you feel nauseous, try sipping on a glass of warm water with fresh lemon juice and fresh sliced ginger. Ginger has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of nausea during pregnancy when compared to a placebo. (2) At least 30 minutes after finishing your drink, eat something simple and plain such as a rice cake, rye cracker or oat cake. Plain carbohydrate foods are usually easier to stomach at this time. If you feel well enough, try having nut butter, avocado or cottage cheese on your cracker, to help slow the release of carbohydrates from the cracker, to stabilise your blood sugar levels.

A general tip is to make sure that you have drinks separately from food, i.e. 30 mins before eating, as drinks actually dilute the digestive juices, reducing the acidity in your stomach. For healthy digestion, you should, at all times, pregnant or not, try not to drink too much liquid during meal times.

When having your first proper meal of the day, another trick for keeping food down is to have some apple cider vinegar at the start of your meal. The acidity of the vinegar may kick-start your digestion, maintaining high enough acidity in the stomach to start breaking foods down. If you enjoy the taste of vinegar, you could add 1-2 tbsp. to your salads. If you dislike the taste, you might want to have a vinegar shot (yes, down it!) or you could mix 1-2 tbsp. vinegar with your favourite herbal tea.

When moving on to dinner, stick to the less overpowering foods. For example, you may wish to start with white fish initially, and then move on to salmon or trout, perhaps leaving the mackerel to one side! Simple meals with a few ingredients such as meat / fish and veg are often best received, and of course very nutritious.

If, after following all of these steps, you still can’t stomach your food, consider taking a liquid multivitamin, fish oil, evening primrose supplement and protein powder. Always keep your midwife or GP in the loop too, if you are experiencing extreme nausea to the point that you can’t keep food down.

Healthy glowing skin, luscious locks and strong nails

Make a conscious effort to eat plenty of good omega fats, especially EPA and DHA found in fish and fish oil. Avoid large fish species and top up with a purified & concentrated fish oil to support optimal levels.

‘Oh, you are glowing’ is a pleasant comment we frequently hear during pregnancy, and although this may be the case for a lot of individuals, for some, the opposite can actually occur and you may end up with skin breakouts or dry dull skin!

Your skin, hair and nails are true signs of health, as the body prioritises nutrition for the important organs such as the heart, leaving the skin extremities to soak up what is left. Healthy glowing skin therefore generally represents very healthy insides! Having a breakout of acne, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are unhealthy, as your hormones may be running wild during pregnancy, but very dry skin, splitting nails and dry hair can be signs that you are low on healthy fats. The fact that your baby’s brain is made up of omega-3 and omega-6 fats is a key reason why you need plenty of healthy fats in your diet. If your diet is low in fat, your baby will take the healthy fats from your skin, hence the fairly common occurrence of dry skin and eczema during pregnancy, especially during the last 2 trimesters.

Protein is also essential for healthy skin, hair and nails so if you are finding it hard to eat enough high protein foods, consider having a whey protein powder in a shake or smoothie.

Whether your skin is oily or dry, you will almost always benefit from a good dose of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your diet. Omega-3 fats are required for your skin, hair and nails, so if you aren’t having oily fish 2-3 times per week, then consider a high-dose fish oil. Fish oil will provide your omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, but to balance this, it may also be beneficial to take a specific type of omega-6 called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) found in evening primrose oil. GLA is particularly beneficial for dry skin (3) and evening primrose oil provides the added bonus of triterpenes, powerful antioxidants .

Stretch marks

If the possibility of developing stretch marks during pregnancy bothers you, there are certainly a few new habits you can pick up to reduce your chances. Stretch marks are basically small tears of the skin which appear when the area your skin covers grows quicker than your skin cells can replicate. Stretch marks are a normal fact of life and they are common even when growing in teenage years, but if you want to give your skin a boost of nutrition and blood flow, you may be able to help your skin cells keep up with your growing belly! The ability of skin cells to replicate does unfortunately decline with age, so if you are over 30, you may want to pay special attention to this information.

Firstly, and quite importantly, make sure that you are eating plenty of zinc-rich foods such as meat, seeds, nuts and beans, as zinc is required in the process of cell replication. A combination of fish oil and evening primrose may also keep skin supple, reducing your chances of developing stretch marks by keeping skin well moisturised from the inside. Pharmepa MAINTAIN is a perfect option as it contains concentrated sustainable wild anchovy oil, certified free from contaminants, combined with organic evening primrose oil.

There are a lot of stretch mark products marketed for pregnancy with questionable artificial ingredients, so it may be best to stick to natural oils such as rose hip oil, jojoba oil and echium seed oil. These oils can be massaged into the skin after having a bath or shower to retain the moisture in your skin cells, helping them to stay plump and possibly making replication easier. Echium seed oil can also be taken in capsule form internally for optimum effects.

You must also consider the products you use to wash your skin. Most shower gels contain the ingredient sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulphate, a very drying chemical which is used in products to help them lather. Apart from drying out skin, it may be a good idea to cut these types of chemicals out of your routine anyway during pregnancy, to be on the safe side.

Any activities that increase blood flow are also great for improving the skin’s ability to replicate cells, so gentle exercise, skin brushing and massages are all great to fit into your normal routine. Just a simple 15 minute walk a few times each day can get the blood pumping around, to deliver nutrients and oxygen to the cells.

Controlling weight gain

Healthy weight gain during pregnancy is around 1.5-2.5 stone – avoiding excess weight gain will help prevent stretch marks and make it easier to return to pre-pregnancy weight.

The common, but completely incorrect notion of eating for two is more often than not the reason people end up putting on huge amounts of weight during pregnancy. As we discussed in Nutrition for the developing baby, pregnant women only need an extra 200 calories in their last trimester, although requirements for nutrients increase by about 50%. In other words, your diet needs to be extremely nutritious! It is of course completely normal and healthy for your weight to increase during pregnancy, ideally around 10 – 15 kg (approx. 1 ½ – 2 ½ stone), depending on your height and weight to begin with (less weight to put on if you are overweight at the start). Putting on a slight excess of this amount is not a huge issue if you are eating very healthy foods but remember that fast weight gain will also make you more prone to developing stretch marks – and you’ll have more weight to lose later on. So, while you should in no way diet and restrict food when you are hungry during pregnancy, you might want to say no to that extra portion of sugary cake; although we like to say the baby is asking for it, they really are not!

If you put on a significant amount of weight due to eating a lot of refined carbohydrates such as biscuits and white bread, affecting your ability to control blood sugar levels, you will be at much higher risk of gestational diabetes (4) i.e. ‘pregnancy’ diabetes. You will also be at higher risk of gestational diabetes if your BMI was over 25 (overweight) at the beginning of your pregnancy, if you are inactive, or if you smoke. (4) Look out for symptoms of extreme thirst and frequent urination for signs that you may have gestational diabetes. The odd treat is fine – as long as it doesn’t displace healthy, natural foods.

Enjoy your pregnancy, nourish your growing baby, but also look after your own body – it is the body that will bring your baby into this world. Be healthy for yourself and for your child-to-be!

References

  • Chortatos A1, Haugen M, Iversen PO, Vikanes Å, Magnus P, Veierød MB. Nausea and vomiting in pregnancy: associations with maternal gestational diet and lifestyle factors in the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study. 2013 Dec;120(13):1642-53
  • Viljoen E1, Visser J, Koen N, Musekiwa A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect and safety of ginger in the treatment of pregnancy-associated nausea and vomiting. Nutr J 2014; 13:20.
  • Kawamura A, Ooyama K, Kojima K, Kachi H, Abe T, Amano K, et al. Dietary supplementation of gamma-linolenic acid improves skin parameters in subjects with dry skin and mild atopic dermatitis. J Oleo Sci 2011;60(12):597-607.
  • Zhang C, Tobias DK, Chavarro JE, Bao W, Wang D, Ley SH, et al. Adherence to healthy lifestyle and risk of gestational diabetes mellitus: prospective cohort study. BMJ 2014;349:g5450.

Kyla Williams

About Kyla Williams

Kyla has an educational background in Medical Engineering and a master’s degree in Nutritional Medicine, as well as a Nutritional Therapy Diploma from the Institute for Optimum Nutrition. Kyla runs her own practice as a clinical nutritionist, specialising in skin disorders, digestive issues, and weight management. As well as authoring articles for Igennus, Kyla regularly contributes to leading consumer magazines including Men’s Health, Natural Lifestyle and The Telegraph.

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