Good pregnancy nutrition is really a continuum that begins with both father and mother long before conception of their baby. Ensuring that you are both eating well before pregnancy sets the stage for a healthy conception and supports the critical first weeks when the foundations of your child’s body are being formd. By the time most women realize they are pregnant, the fetus’ heart has already started beating.
Pre-pregnancy and early pregnancy nutrition also helps to ensure the later stages of pregnancy run smoothly. For example, if a woman is deficient in iron early on, it may only be discovered at the first checkup, 12 weeks into the pregnancy. Then, the mother has to play catch up by supplementing heavily with iron to make sure the fetus’ growing brain is not shortchanged of an important nutrient.
Pregnancy during nutrition continues to matter as your baby’s genetic “autopilot” is building with whatever nutrients you supply. Furthermore, there is now growing evidence that the fetal genetic code is smart enough to tailor the baby’s development based on cues such as the mother’s nutrition and response to the physical environment.
It is not as simple as “eating for two,” which is only about quantity. True pregnancy nutrition is about nutritional quality; getting the maximum nutrients to support cell growth with each bite and less of foods containing the wrong materials. Prenatal multivitamins are very useful, and may even help reduce the risk of certain pregnancy complications, but they are not an excuse for bad lifestyle and dietary choices, such as binging on potato chips.
Other studies in the past few years show that caffeine during pregnancy can have an effect on a child’s size and birth outcomes, but only if consumed in excessive amounts. If you need a caffeine fix, stick to two cups of green tea a day, which has a more mellowing effect than that latte you may crave. Drink it like the locals do and stretch it out with constant infusions of hot water to stay well hydrated.
Individuals can vary dramatically in how they absorb and use the nutrients they consume, which can increase or decrease their need for a particular nutrient. For example, there appears to be gene variations that affect how women incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into their milk. As we have covered before, these fatty acids are vital to infant brain development, and it turns out that some women incorporate less than others. This means that some infants may need omega-3 supplementation as soon as solid food is introduced.
Ultimately, nutrition does not start at conception or end at birth. Pregnancy is one stage of a continuum of nutrition for your lifelong health, and that of your children.
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Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.