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Pregnancy Awareness Week was held from February 12 to 18, with many hospitals and clinics holding talks and workshops all of which impart vital information to would-be and expectant mothers. Omeshnie Naidoo whittled down some of the most important messages

Many of us know the importance of getting enough folic acid when we’re pregnant, but how many of us know some of the micronutrients we need are required before we conceive and within the first weeks of pregnancy, often before many of us even realise we’re pregnant?

The Association for Dietetics in South Africa (Adsa) says the daily requirements for a number of key micronutrients increase before and during pregnancy. It adds that during the first two months of pregnancy the baby and the placenta develop quickly and are sensitive to both excesses and deficiencies in micronutrients.

“Folic acid is a good example of this. Not only is it needed during pregnancy – most critically in the first six weeks – but prior to conception as well. In these early stages of pregnancy it helps reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the baby, and may help prevent other birth defects too,” explains Berna Harmse, Adsa president.

Folic acid also delivers benefits to the woman, as it plays a vital role in preventing maternal anaemia.

“In South Africa, many women will receive an iron-folic acid supplement routinely in their antenatal care.

“Many women don’t get enough of these two nutrients from their eating plan; iron-rich foods (such as meat) are expensive and folate-rich foods are not typically eaten in large amounts. But these nutrients are important as they work together to help prevent anaemia developing during pregnancy,” adds Harmse.

Maternal anaemia is linked to an increased risk of adverse outcomes during pregnancy, including low birth weight and premature deliveries.

It’s more difficult to prevent anaemia developing during pregnancy if women are anaemic before falling pregnant, which is why adopting a healthy, balanced diet before conceiving is so important.

In a healthy eating plan, most nutrients are supplied by the foods eaten. Occasionally this may need to be bolstered with appropriate supplementation of specific micronutrients. But supplements aren’t essential for every pregnant woman, and excesses of some nutrients are potentially harmful. Women are advised to consult a dietitian before and during pregnancy to determine the most appropriate eating plans and, if necessary, to determine possible courses of supplementation, based on their specific needs.

Top eating tips for pregnancy

Enjoy a variety of foods: Different kinds of food provide different kinds of nutrients. Strive to include a range of foods that supply beneficial nutrients, rather than opting for poor food choices.

Don’t overeat: Only one extra snack is needed each day to meet the extra energy needs of pregnancy.

Germs: Care must be taken that foods are not contaminated with harmful germs, so know what you’re eating and where it comes from.

Make starchy foods the basis of most meals: Fortified starchy foods (maize meal, bread flour and bread made from bread flour) contain vitamins and minerals that are beneficial before and during pregnancy. These foods are good choices for women planning families and who are pregnant.

Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits every day: Good choices of vegetables and fruit are those that supply vitamins A and C to the body. Vitamin A is important when cells in the body are multiplying, as in pregnancy, while Vitamin C helps the absorption of iron from foods and supplements.

Eat dry beans, lentils, split peas and soya regularly: These foods are especially helpful during pregnancy as they provide many important nutrients, help to keep blood sugar levels constant and help prevent constipation.

Eat chicken, fish, milk, meat or eggs daily: Eat lean meat, remove fat from meat and use low-fat cooking methods.

Use fats sparingly: Pregnant women should use foods high in fat sparingly and should use good fats such as cooking oil made from plants (sunflower, canola), avocado, peanuts and peanut butter in small amounts.

Use salt sparingly and make sure it is iodated: Use very little salt during cooking. Some seasonings and certain foods are high in salt; these should also be used sparingly.

Drink lots of clean, safe water: Water is the best choice of drink, and can be enjoyed on its own or in other drinks made with water, such as tea. Pregnant women may not want to drink lots of water as they feel they must go to the toilet often, but water remains important for their health during pregnancy and breastfeeding. - The Mercury

For more info, visit www.nutritionweek.co.za.