I hear the following statement many times, “I am eating for two,” or “She is eating for two.” Unfortunately many women take this to mean that whatever they have been consuming before, they double the portions which is wrong. Although eating for two, one of them is very tiny and even 9 months later they will weigh on average 3.4 kg-4kg. They therefore cannot consume a portion like yours. This leads to excessive weight gain in pregnancy which is very hard to shed after delivery – another time when she ‘eats for two’ to produce milk.
Eating for two is a truthful statement but only when applied to the quality and variety of food, not the quantity of servings. Let us look at eating during pregnancy – specifically what to eat and how to eat it.
What is a Pregnant Woman Supposed to Eat?
A pregnant woman should eat a balanced diet consisting of all the food components i.e. proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water.
These are the energy supply for both you and your baby. They provide the energy required to undertake normal chores and for the baby to put together the building blocks to make its organs and grow them. The best carbohydrates are complex carbohydrates that include brown bread, brown rice, arrow roots, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes baked with their skin, among others; basically, the unrefined carbohydrates. These provide energy for longer periods and do not subject the mother or the forming baby to episodes of sugar highs and sugar lows as would occur with refined foods. The baby needs a stable supply of energy and not peaks and lows as the baby is continuously growing. Fruits are also a significant source of sugar.
These are the building blocks that the baby manufactures itself from. One of the best proteins is the egg white. Fish, chicken and red meat also provide high quality protein as well as milk and dairy products. For those pregnant women who cannot afford animal protein or who are vegetarian, intermix many legumes together (beans, peas, black beans, cow peas, etc.) to get the maximum number of amino acids. Proteins should be eaten at least three times a day spread over the 24 hours so that the baby has a constant supply of building blocks.
Fat is needed in pregnancy. It is an extra source of calories (energy), in fact it has twice as much as carbohydrates so take little fat. Some vitamins found in vegetables especially vitamin A needs fat to be absorbed by the body. Denying oneself fats in pregnancy equally results in denying some vitamins. Omega 3 is very good for the baby’s brain development. Omega 3 is found in oily fish. There are also supplements of omega 3 that your doctor can prescribe. It is a useful tool in assisting brain development at the first 12 weeks when the baby is being formed, during the third trimester when the brain grows very rapidly and during the first few months of breast feeding.
In Kenya, we have a lot of green leafy vegetables and yellow vegetables. We also have a lot of different fruits. For most pregnant women, these would be enough sources of vitamins. Remember not to overcook the vegetables. Eaten raw or juiced they would be more nutritious as a source of vitamins. Remember also to add some oil to the vegetables as some vitamins are oil soluble and will only be absorbed through an oil medium. Most whole grain and legumes also have a lot of vitamins especially the B complex. The exemption is B12 which is only found in animal products.
Iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, selenium and other minerals are essential to the mother and to the development of the baby. Fortunately these are found in many foods that are naturally consumed in Kenya – red meat, white meat, whole grains, legumes, leafy vegetables and dairy products especially for calcium. Discuss with your doctor if you need any of these in the form of supplements.
The minimum of 8 glasses (2 liters) a day should be consumed in pregnancy. The baby who is forming needs water for proper development. The pregnant woman needs water as her fluid volume in the body will increase by 30%. Water will also keep her skin soft and with minimal stretch marks. Water also helps to ease the inevitable constipation associated with pregnancy.
Folic acid should be started by the woman as she prepares for pregnancy – about 3 months before conception and should be taken throughout pregnancy. It assists in stabilizing the cell walls of newly manufactured cells. As the baby’s cells are dividing very rapidly to form the various body organs, the stabilization of these cell walls by folic acid helps to reduce congenital malformations. Most prenatal supplements contain folic acid. Discuss with your doctor which supplements are suitable for you. Folic acid is also available on its own.
How to Eat when Pregnant
When eating during pregnancy, graduate from 3 main meals to a 6 meal plan over 24 hours. These 6 meals allow the forming baby to have a stable and constant supply of calories, building blocks and vitamins since these meals are spread over more frequent intervals. The baby finds this easier to build itself than when there is an overload of supply and then nothing for periods of time which happens in the three meal plan. For the mother this plan reduces headaches as her brain has constant supply of fresh calories.
3 of these 6 meals should contain protein and 4 of the meals should contain vitamin rich foods. The quantities used should not be large, for example, one serving spoon of meat should be enough for one meal, or one chicken leg or half a cup of legumes.
Author: Dr. Jane Wakahe
Dr Jane Wakahe is an obstetrician and gynecologist. She has been practicing for over 30 years. Her clinic is at Nairobi Hospital Doctor’s Plaza 2nd Floor Room 211