Maintaining a healthy diet can never be emphasized enough. This is especially important when pregnant. During pregnancy, a woman’s body undergoes numerous hormone-induced changes, thus helping the body to adapt to the pregnancy. With these bodily changes, there is an increased demand for essential nutrients especially the macronutrients.
Macronutrients are nutrients which the body requires in large quantities and are used for energy to maintain the critical growth and function in the body. During pregnancy, increased macronutrients are required to maintain steady and healthy growth for both the mother and the developing fetus.
The macronutrients are protein, fats, carbohydrates and fiber.
The demand for these macronutrients increases throughout pregnancy, as the fetus develops. A steady supply of these macronutrients is therefore required to maintain the mother’s health and the development of a healthy baby. Macronutrients must be adequate and must be obtained from a diet that is dense in micronutrients as well. Pregnant women are advised to reduce processed food as they include additives that may not be safe during pregnancy, for example, preservatives, colours, flavours, trans fats etc.
In this article, some of the key macronutrients and foods that can easily provide them, during pregnancy are outlined.
Among the macronutrients, protein requires the most attention during pregnancy. The demand for protein continually increases to support protein synthesis (biological processes by which individual cells build their specific proteins), which is required to maintain maternal tissues and fetal growth, especially during the third trimester.
Proteins consist of amino acids which are the building blocks for our body cells. The recommended daily allowance for pregnant women is 75-100gms of protein. The amount of protein taken may be determined by several factors such as age, weight or even physical activity. During pregnancy, mothers must increase protein consumption to 1gm of protein per 1 kg of body weight.
Sources of complete protein in the diet include paneer, cheese, eggs, meat/fish/chicken. Pulses (dals), beans (rajma, chole etc.) and nuts are also about 25 percent protein by dry weight and are sources of protein.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary and preferred source of energy. While on certain occasions, the body may metabolize other food substrates (the underlying substance on which enzymes act) such as fats or protein to produce energy, it is recommended that about 40 percent of calories should be obtained from carbohydrates. Pregnant women are advised to get carbohydrates from natural and fiber-rich sources such as coarse/whole grains, whole fruit, dals/beans and root vegetables as opposed to processed foods, sugars or high glycaemic simple starches. Natural sources not only provide energy but fiber and minerals as well, while processed foods, sugars and refined grains have lower nutritive value.
During pregnancy, carbohydrate breakdown, along with metabolization of fats and any excess proteins are the sources of energy for the mother. The developing fetus utilizes an average of 4-6 mg of glucose per kg per minute which is high, compared to an adult who consumes about 2.5 mg of glucose per kg per minute. Therefore, the pregnant woman will use more energy for specific tasks, while the fetus requires more energy for its continued growth in the womb.
Fats are the body’s secondary source of energy and are a stored form of energy. Fats also play a crucial role in the structural integrity of cells and cell organelles (small internal organs of a cell responsible for carrying out specific jobs to keep the cell alive). Fats are therefore required in the development of maternal and fetal tissue. They are also protective paddings for vital organs protecting them from shock as well as acting as an insulator to maintain body temperature. It is recommended that about 30 percent of calories must come from fat.
Some fats are known as essential fatty acids (EFA) and must be available in the diet in adequate amounts. A common deficiency in the diet is of Omega 3 fatty acids, which are essential for a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. Eat foods that are rich in these or take a supplement on the recommendation of your doctor.
Trans fats and oxidised fatty acids are types of artificial fat that are created by hydrogenation of oils or are created as a result of oxidation (high heat cooking) of vegetable oils. These are harmful and must be avoided. Do not eat any foods that are made using vanaspati ghee or margarine. Also, avoid baked goods that may use margarine or hydrogenated fats. Avoid foods that are deep-fried in vegetable oils. It is recommended that two-thirds of daily fats should be from plant sources like nuts, nut and seed oils, while a third should be from animal sources like butter, ghee, dairy fat in paneer and cheeses, lard etc.
Fiber is essential in food and cannot be digested by the human gastrointestinal tract. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber absorbs water, binds to fats, slows down sugar absorption, helps the stomach to get empty and gets fermented by bacteria in the gut.
Insoluble fiber goes without changes through the digestive system; it helps to maintain the PH level of intestines and it also helps to move bulk through the gastrointestinal tract.
Fiber helps to avoid constipation and hemorrhoids during pregnancy. Fiber has a pivotal role in ensuring a healthy mother and a healthy baby. Adequate fiber is available from a diet rich in vegetables, pulses, beans and coarse grains.
While adequate fiber is essential during pregnancy, excess fiber must be avoided as it may cause nutrient loss and diarrhoea.
It is critical to identify and ensure that these macronutrients are available to the mother through the pregnancy in adequate amounts. This will help fetal development, increase life expectancy and avoid deficiencies in the mother and the baby, leading to good health for both.