Essential Nutrition for Women

Good nutrition sets the stage for healthy reproduction and the diet of the mother directly affects the status of the foetus, as pregnancy makes heavy nutritional demands on the female body.

With this in mind it is clear that healthy eating habits are essential for both mother and baby. This Pregnancy Awareness Month we explore the importance of essential nutrition for both women and girls.

Spotlight on Nutrition

“A UNICEF report on eastern and southern Africa concludes that the survival and development of children depends to a large extent on the nutritional status of the mother. A woman, whose nutritional status was poor when she conceived, or who did not gain enough weight during pregnancy will give birth to a low birth weight baby. With approximately 14% of infants in the region weighing less than 2.5 kilos at birth and at a high risk of neonatal mortality, nutrition for women and girls should be high up on the agenda of health departments across the continent,” says Philips AVENT’s Astrid Anderson.

As midwifery consultant, Dr Diana du Plessis explains, some women (especially teenagers) are more at risk of a vitamin and mineral shortage, especially if they are junk-food addicts, obese, anorexic or vegetarian. When a woman enters pregnancy with a nutrient deficiency it puts her and the foetus at risk. HIV affects nutrition in particular because it impairs the absorption of nutrients. Furthermore, in the first trimester, nausea and vomiting may interfere with the uptake of nutrients.

Dietary Guidelines for Pregnant Women

“The same eating rules apply during pregnancy as at any other time: Sugary foods and fatty ones should be kept to a minimum; two thirds of the diet should be made up of fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates, such as potatoes, bread, pasta and rice. Two servings should be eaten daily from both the dairy product and protein food groups,” advises Dr du Plessis.

Certain dietary substances are particularly high in demand, so it’s worth knowing what they are and where to find them:

  • Calcium helps develop the baby’s bones and teeth. It is found in milk, yoghurt and cheese. Non-dairy sources of calcium include spinach, canned fish, dried figs, oranges and white bread
  • Vitamin D helps with the absorption of calcium. It is found in salmon, eggs, butter and cheese
  • Iron is vital for creating the baby’s blood supply. Good sources are red meat, green vegetables, dried fruit, sardines and fortified cereal
  • Vitamin C improves the uptake of iron from non-meat sources, but caffeine and tannins (present in tea and coffee) inhibit absorption
  • Omega 3 fats are important to ensure optimal brain development of the baby.  They can be found in canned, oily fish like sardines

Dr du Plessis cautions that it is important to cut out junk food during pregnancy and reduce the temptation to drink coffee, tea, cola and fizzy drinks because of uncertainties regarding the effect of caffeine and stimulants on the baby.

Foods to avoid during pregnancy:

  • Raw or lightly cooked eggs because of the risk of salmonella (food) poisoning
  • Pâtés, soft whip ice creams, un-pasteurised or soft cheeses (camembert, brie) that may contain listeria, a bacterium which can cause miscarriage or illness in newborn babies
  • Liver: It contains large quantities of vitamin A, linked to birth defects.
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