How your antenatal diet can influence your baby's future

The first part of the first 1000 days window of opportunity starts in pregnancy. What you eat and drink now can have a profound effect on your baby’s development and future health (2)

Throughout pregnancy, your baby is completely dependent on you for everything they need (2).  

Therefore care should be taken when planning what you are going to eat to optimise your baby’s brain development.

Research shows that with careful planning of your antenatal diet you can affect your child’s metabolism and reduce the risk of certain diseases and ill health later in life (2)

It’s also important to remember yourself too as what you eat is just as important to keep you healthy too.

What are the benefits of getting nutrition right in pregnancy?

The benefits are truly amazing, getting nutrition right:

How your antenatal diet can influence your baby's future by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

  • Ensures babies are born at a healthy weight

  • Reduces the risk of complications in pregnancy and birth 

  • Influences baby’s food choices later in life 

  • May impact on your babies future metabolism

  • May reduce their risk of diseases later in life

Balance and variety

A balanced diet containing the right amounts of all 40 nutrients are essential but there are some components that have a greater effect on your baby’s development. These are protein, unsaturated fatty acids, iron, zinc, copper, iodine, folate, vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K.

How do I ensure my diet contains enough of these?

Variety is key. Try new foods, mix things up a little, don’t stick to the same familiar foods every day. It’s not expected for you obtain the exact amount of each of these nutrients every single day but eating a wide variety of foods will mean that across a week you will obtain the optimum amount of nutrients to benefit your baby’s growth and development (5)

I’m always starving, is it OK to eat more?

Some mums-to-be get hungrier than usual and want to eat more. We are bombarded with messages about not eating too much when you are pregnant to prevent becoming overweight as this isn’t good for your baby either. However I’m a great believer that your body tells you what it needs, and so yes its fine to eat more if you are hungry, listen to your body and be guided by your appetite

I still feel like I need some help to get this right. 

If you need some help I have a meal plan you can have delivered directly to your inbox for free. Remember the key is to try and have as much variety as possible to ensure you get all the different nutrients you need.

How your antenatal diet can influence your baby's future by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Can pregnancy supplements provide a back up plan?

During the first trimester, it is recommended to take 400 micrograms of folic acid to help prevent neural tube defects such as Spina Bifida (5) .  I like Solgar Folacin which is a vegan supplement providing the exact dose.

Folic acid

New research from the University of Ulster looked at the intellect and cognitive performance of children who were born to mums who continued taking folic acid throughout their whole pregnancy. They found those children scored better in tests compared to children whose mums stopped taking folic acid at the end of the first trimester. Further studies are needed to show that this happens in all cases, however, it won’t do you or your child any harm to continue to take them throughout. Folic acid is a B vitamin and any excess that you don’t need is just pee’d out!

Vitamin D

10 micrograms of Vitamin D daily is also recommended for pregnant women. Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, which is needed for healthy bones, teeth and muscles (5) for both you and your growing baby.

Vitamin A

Pregnant women should not take Vitamin A supplements or any supplements containing Vitamin A as too much Vitamin A can cause harm to your baby (5)

Healthy Start

Some mums are eligible for free vitamins through the Healthy Start scheme (5) , the pregnancy vitamins contain the recommended amount of 400mcg folic acid (to reduce the chance of spina bifida), 70mg Vitamin C (to help maintain healthy tissue and cells) and the recommended 10mcg Vitamin D (to support your baby’s bones to grow properly) (9) . Your Health Visitor or midwife will advise on whether you are eligible for Healthy Start vitamins

Multivitamins

Although some women choose to take a pregnancy multivitamin many mum’s won’t need it and you can have too much of a good thing. My advice would be to take a close look at your own diet for nutritional intake and decide whether you really need additional supplements. If you do a good allrounder is Pregnacare Original

If you are really unsure ask your midwife to refer you to an NHS Registered Dietitian or you can seek one privately via www.freelancedietitians.org. 

What are the key nutrients during pregnancy?

Below are the most important nutrients that you need to think about a bit more during pregnancy. Have a look at the food sources and think about whether you are having enough:

Iron

Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world (3)

During pregnancy when your baby’s brain development is at its peak, the requirements for iron are at their highest. Not eating enough can put you at risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia (3)

Symptoms of anaemia include tiredness, shortness of breath, pale skin and heart palpitations (6) but often iron deficiency occurs before full-blown anaemia kicks in and this, unfortunately, has no symptoms. 

This is why it’s very important to make sure you are eating enough iron rich food.

How your antenatal diet can influence your baby's future by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Good dietary sources of iron;

  • Lean red meat like beef, lamb or pork.

  • Egg yolk

  • Green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and spinach

  • Dried fruit – particularly figs, dates and apricots. 

  • Nuts – particularly hazelnuts, brazil nuts, almonds and peanut butter

  • Breakfast cereals fortified with iron

  • Beans such as chickpeas, butter beans, kidney beans or baked beans

  • Lentils

  • Seeds such as sesame and sunflower seeds

  • Soya products like tofu or edamame

  • Wholegrain starchy foods like brown pasta and rice and wholemeal bread.

Try to think about your iron intake and which iron rich foods you are including in your diet. Try to include 3-4  sources of iron per day. These can be in meals or snacks.  The plant based ones will also contain fibre which is great for that common pregnancy side effect constipation!

Here are some meal and snack examples where iron rich foods feature;

Breakfast

Eggs 

Cereals with added iron

Snack

Nuts and sunflower seeds

Cereal bar with dried fruit

Lunch

Baked beans or other beans

Lentil soup

Peanut butter on toast

Egg sandwich

Snack

Humus (made from chickpeas)

Dried fruit and nuts

Evening meal

Lean red meat

Beans

Green Vegetables

You can boost the iron in meals by adding sesame seeds to stir fry’s or sunflower seeds to granola and yoghurt. Beans can be added into chillis, casseroles or soups. Or try replacing rice with lentils sometimes. 

Research has suggested that iron supplements during pregnancy are beneficial and may help babies brain development (3) . If you don’t think you are eating enough iron and would find it really hard to change, talk to your midwife or GP about these.

It’s important to make sure your iron levels are regularly checked throughout your pregnancy and take supplements if they are low (5)

How your antenatal diet can influence your baby's future by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Vitamin C

Vitamin C helps maintain healthy skin, blood vessels, bones and cartilage. It also helps with the absorption of iron from non-meat sources. 

Good dietary sources of vitamin C include;

  • Citrus fruits such as oranges or grapefruit

  • Red and green peppers

  • Berries such as strawberries, blueberries and blackcurrants

  • Vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts and potatoes 

Eating at least 5 portions of vegetables and fruit each day, and eating them in the same meal or snack as the iron rich foods will ensure you meet your needs and that the iron absorption is maximised. A portion is 80g or a whole piece of fruit, and all fruit & veg contain fibre, great for alleviating constipation.

How your antenatal diet can influence your baby's future by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Calcium

Essential for your babies bone formation and strength and even though you won’t see them for a few months, calcium also helps form healthy teeth.

Good dietary sources include;

  • Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt – choose low fat versions such as skimmed, semi-skimmed or 1% fat milk, plain or greek yoghurt and reduced fat cheese.

  • Fortified plant milk such as soya, rice, oat or almond milk – check they’re fortified with calcium and that they are unsweetened versions. 

  • It’s important to check that soft cheeses like brie are made from pasteurized milk and avoid those made from unpasteurised milk. However, cooking soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk makes them safe to eat. Hard cheese made from unpasteurised milk like parmesan is safe to eat.

  • Tofu

  • Bread is a good source of calcium as most are made with calcium-fortified flour,

  • Green leafy vegetables such as rocket, watercress or curly kale, just be aware that the calcium in green veg is not easily absorbed in the body so treat this as a bonus rather than relying on it to help meet your calcium needs.

  • Fish with soft bones where the bones are eaten such as sardines, tinned salmon or pilchards, the calcium is in the bones.

  • Some seeds including sesame seeds

You should have 3-4 portions of calcium rich foods per day. One portion of calcium is;

  • 125g pot of yoghurt

  • 30g portion of cheddar cheese (small matchbox size)

  • 30g parmesan

  • 200ml of milk (dairy or calcium fortified dairy alternatives) on your cereal

  • 120g Tofu

  • 200g tinned salmon

  • 50g sardines

  • 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds

  • 2 calcium fortified pitta bread

Vitamin D

Sometimes called the sunshine vitamin as it only occurs in foods at very low levels and is produced naturally when our skin is exposed to daylight. Vitamin D is needed for healthy bones, teeth and muscles for both you and your growing baby.

There are some foods that contain a little vitamin D. These are:

  • Eggs – go for the Red Lion stamp to be assured they are free from salmonella.

  • Oily fish including salmon, fresh tuna, salmon, pilchards, mackerel – limit to twice a week as they can also contain pollutants and avoid shark, swordfish and marlin (they’re too high in mercury)

  • Fortified foods such as some plant based milks

However, despite there being a few vitamin D containing foods, you will probably still need a 10mcg Vitamin D supplement as it’s unlikely you’ll get enough from eating food. 

Foods to avoid in pregnancy:

  • Soft cheeses with white rind such as brie and camembert or soft goats cheese (these cheeses are ok if cooked)

  • Soft blue cheese with blue veins such as danish blue and Roquefort 

  • Eggs without the Red Lion Stamp that are eaten raw or partially cooked such as soft boiled eggs, mousses with fresh eggs and fresh mayonnaise. The Red Lion Stamp eggs are fine to eat.

  • Meat that is rare or medium, it must be cooked all the way through, check there are no pink bits and that there are no traces of blood.  

  • All types of pate including vegetarian pate

  • Liver or products containing liver like haggis or pate.

  • Cold meats, such as salami, prosciutto, chorizo and pepperoni need to be frozen for 4 days first to kill any potential parasites or bacteria unless you will be cooking them first (like pepperoni on a pizza). Ham and corned beef are safe.

  • Game meat that has been shot with lead pellets

  • No more than 2 tuna steaks per week or 4 medium-sized cans of tuna

  • No more than 2 portions of oily fish per week (salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, herring). Note smoked fish like smoked salmon is safe.

  • Shark, swordfish or marlin

  • Raw shellfish

  • Sushi that contains raw fish. The raw fish must be frozen for 4 days before being used to make sushi to kill any potential parasites. Most shop-bought sushi is fine but do check with the retailer.

  • Fish oil supplements 

  • Raw unpasteurised milk from any animal (including cows, goats, sheep, buffalo etc) and yoghurts and cheeses made from them.

  • Foods with soil on them (wash thoroughly first)

  • Limit caffeine to 200mg per day which is the equivalent of 2 cups of instant coffee,  1 ½ cups of filter coffee, 1 cup of coffee shop coffee or 3 cups of tea. Be aware that chocolate and cola also contain caffeine.

  • The safest approach is to avoid all alcohol 

Much of this list of foods (16) is about keeping your baby safe and protected from potential food poisoning bacteria, heavy metals or excessive nutrient intakes. Once they are born, most of these rules are relaxed.

Other big no-no’s during pregnancy

It probably goes without saying but just in case it’s passed you by, unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking, excessive food intake and becoming overweight or not eating enough can have a very negative impact on the immediate and future health of your child and the future generations of your family (5) .

If you do smoke or food is an issue for you please do seek help as soon as possible. Your GP or Midwife would be the best people to talk to.

How your antenatal diet can influence your baby's future by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Congratulations your baby has arrived, now what?

Once your baby is born there is a new set of nutritional considerations to be aware of that you can read all about here .

I’ll talk through breast and formula feeding, but also, this is when how you hold your baby when feeding and bonding plays an important role in their future development.

Pssst…it’s not all about breastfeeding, I’m a great supporter of “fed is best!”

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