A woman needs the correct diet before, as well as during pregnancy. This has been underlined by recognition of the foetal alcohol syndrome, the physical and mental changes which can affect babies of heavy drinking mothers; by the effects of smoking on birth weight; and by the controversy over trials to evaluate the importance of vitamins, particularly folic acid, and mineral supplements in preventing spina bifida and neurological malformations.
Professor Stewart Truswell, of Sydney University, has reviewed current thinking on nutrition in pregnancy in the July 27 issue of the British Medical Journal. The subject is not always discussed in a busy antenatal clinic despite a woman’s keen desire to follow an approved diet.
Although a good average diet will cover the needs of most pregnant women, special attention should be paid to the intake of five nutrients:
Folates: Twice as much is needed of this vitamin in pregnancy, and the time of greatest need is in the first couple of weeks when many women will not realize that they have conceived. Most doctors will prescribe folic acid tablets to women hoping to become pregnant, but rich sources can be found without resorting to the medicine chest. Meat and yeast extracts are loaded with folate, and liver, endives, broccoli, sprouts, kidneys, and nuts are also good.
Calcium: Professor Adam Lancaster recommends more cheese and milk; in pregnancy a woman requires just over half a litre extra milk a day.
Iron: Meat is encouraged as the best absorbed source, but any women with a history of anaemia, or enthusiasm for an unusual diet, should take iron supplements.
Zinc: Recent work has shown that zinc levels fall during pregnancy and that mothers with low zinc levels tend to have small babies. Zinc is found in meat, liver, kidneys, nuts and cheese.
Iodines: Intake, in some parts of the world, may be deficient despite an otherwise healthy, wholesome diet, but this is unlikely in Britain.