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Why healthy nutrition and exercise is important during pregnancy

A healthy balanced diet combined with regular exercise and prenatal care reduces your risk of complications during pregnancy. Here are some expert tips from our wellness team to help you optimise your diet to nurture your unborn child. 

Congratulations! Whether you’re planning a pregnancy or are already expecting, this is an exciting time of your life. 

Maintaining a healthy pregnancy is important for both mum and baby. What you eat and drink during pregnancy can have a major impact on your baby’s growth and development - not only in the womb, but for life. While you probably already know the dangers of smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy, eating too much or too little can be just as harmful.

Children born with a low birth weight (due to mum being either under or overweight during pregnancy) are at a higher risk of obesity later in life. Research shows that “early postnatal catch-up growth and excess childhood weight gain are associated with an increased risk of adult cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.”

It’s vital to maintain a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise routine to reduce these risks.

Pregnant woman at antenatal class | DNAfit Blog

What’s considered healthy weight gain during pregnancy?

Don’t be terrified of weight gain during pregnancy - it’s both inevitable and healthy (within reason). If you were a healthy weight prior to conception (with a BMI of around 18.5 to 24.5) then it’s recommended to gain between 25 to 35 pounds (10 to 15 kgs) during pregnancy.

It’s important to obtain proper prenatal care to monitor your weight, nutritional needs and overall health. Women who were underweight or overweight at the time of conception, or women carrying more than one child (twins, triplets, etc.) need to be particularly vigilant with their nutrition.

 Pregnant woman eating salad and fruit | DNAfit Blog

A healthy balanced diet during pregnancy

Despite popular belief, you do not need to “eat for two” or eat double helpings during pregnancy. In fact, calorie needs do not rise in the first trimester at all - you can eat as normal. In the second trimester, you would need an extra 340 calories per day, and in the third trimester, an additional 450 calories per day. General nutrition needs during pregnancy should mainly be met by your diet.

By eating a healthy balanced diet (with plenty of colourful fruit and vegetables), you should be able to get almost all the vitamins, minerals, and energy your baby needs to grow. Wholegrains, fruit and vegetables are a particularly great addition as they provide fibre to alleviate the much dreaded ‘pregnancy constipation’, while protein, dairy and healthy fats (such as oily fish, nuts, seeds and avocado) help support your baby’s growth and development. 

Some of your key nutrients during pregnancy include

  • Folate: the NHS recommends supplementing 400 mcg of folic acid per day leading up to conception and until you're 12 weeks pregnant (your doctor can advise if you need a higher dose supplement).
  • Iron: lean meat, spinach, dried fruit, lentils and certain nuts can help you meet your needs.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: oily fish such as salmon and sardines are advised (just be sure to choose lower mercury fish)
  • Calcium: dairy, fortified plant milk alternatives, kale, white beans and pak choy are great options. Remember that your body needs vitamin D to support calcium absorption, so continue your vitamin D supplement when sun exposure is poor (late March/early April to the end of September in the UK).

While a food first approach to healthy nutrition is recommended, a supplement can help provide some of the nutrients you need. If you’re a busy mum-to-be and don’t have time to prepare three nutrient-dense meals per day, then prenatal vitamins are a convenient alternative. Vegan and vegetarian mums may find it tricky to meet additional important nutrient needs such as iodine, vitamin B12, and choline, so speak to your registered dietitian or doctor for guidance.

There are also a few foods to avoid during pregnancy

  • All unpasteurised milk, cheese and juice
  • Foods high in preformed vitamin A (such as liver and other organ meats)
  • Processed meats
  • Undercooked or smoked meat, poultry and seafood
  • Large fish with a high mercury content (such as mackerel or swordfish)
  • Alcohol and large quantities of caffeine (the NHS recommends a maximum of 200mg of caffeine per day and to avoid alcohol completely) 

You can download our eBook, The Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Nutrition, for more advice to help you optimise your diet.

The importance of staying active during pregnancy

Unless your doctor recommends otherwise, it’s safe and actually advisable to remain active during your pregnancy. If you’re concerned that you may be at risk, however, or were very sedentary prior to conception, we recommend consulting your doctor before undertaking any strenuous exercise routine. 

Light aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, slow-paced elliptical or swimming/water aerobics help to improve your circulation, respiration, posture and muscle strength. Squatting and kegel exercises can help pregnant women maintain muscle tone. This helps during the delivery of the baby (if you’re having a natural birth) and speeds up the recovery period after giving birth.

It’s important to note that exercise shouldn’t go beyond your second trimester. 

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How to do kegel exercises

  1. Lie comfortably on the floor (make sure your bladder is empty)
  2. Tighten your pelvic floor muscles and hold for five to eight counts
  3. Relax your muscles to the count of ten
  4. Repeat ten times

The benefits of exercise during pregnancy

Exercising during pregnancy can help to:

  • Boost energy levels
  • Decrease stress levels
  • Improve sleep quality
  • Strengthen your muscles
  • Improve circulation
  • Aid with digestion and relieve constipation (a common pregnancy gripe)
  • Reduce pain and backache

You can download our eBook, The Ultimate Guide to Fitness, for more advice to help you stay active and improve your general health and wellness. 

Don’t overthink it, eating healthy and staying active is easier than it seems

Amy Wells, head dietitian and wellness team manager at DNAfit, shares some parting wisdom:

“Eating healthy during pregnancy can be a bit tricky, keeping in mind you will have cravings, and don’t forget the morning sickness and food aversions. It is not always possible to stick to a strict diet,and it is also not necessary. Focus on including plenty fruits and vegetables, take your prenatal vitamins as prescribed and, most importantly, enjoy your pregnancy”.

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