With all the conflicting information of what you should and shouldn’t be consuming, doing, wearing, purchasing, and saying during pregnancy, it can be difficult to know where to start! Which is why it’s good to know that you can turn to a trusted professional for advice.
Nave spoke with nutritionist Jodie Abrahams about all things pregnancy and edibles to see if we could get some clear advice for mums-to-be.
Tell us about yourself, and how you became a nutritionist.
I came to nutrition after working for 10 years in education, as a secondary teacher and then in an education charity.
I’d been raised by a very health-conscious mother and had always thought I ate reasonably well, but it was while I was teaching that I really became aware of the importance of nutrition.
I remember noticing how what my students were eating and drinking, affected their behaviour and focus in a profound way. I taught 11-year-olds who I’d see drinking Red Bull on their way into school and they’d unsurprisingly be bouncing off the walls and unable to sit still all morning – then would be falling asleep in the afternoon.
What I was noticing in them made me look at myself, too. At the time, I was incredibly stressed, tired and over-worked, and dependent on caffeine and sugar. I wasn’t sleeping well, I had anxiety, terrible periods and mood swings, bad skin, unsettled digestion, I was getting ill all the time – so I was not in good shape at all!
I saw a nutritional therapist, which was a huge eye-opener. The experience really sparked my interest in the science of nutrition and the behaviours of change. I started to see how relatively small switches I was making to my diet and lifestyle were having a pretty transformative effect on how I felt.
I left teaching, and while I was working in a new job, studied for my nutrition diploma. My real passion is women’s health, and I now I work one-to-one with clients providing nutritional therapy, and also give talks and workshops to groups. I absolutely love working with women during pre-conception, pregnancy and the postnatal period, as these are such transformative and important times in a woman’s life. It’s a privilege to be involved in supporting them during these times.
Looking at evidence-based research is a good way to navigate the different opinions and advice.
We see a lot of info and conflicting advice around nutrition (and everything else surrounding pregnancy and childbirth!). How would you suggest women navigate this?
It can definitely be confusing! Even with my specialist knowledge in nutrition, at times I found it overwhelming when I was pregnant because guidelines change, and there’s a lot of people who feel very passionately (and speak very loudly!) about certain issues.
Personally, I think looking at evidence-based research is a good way to navigate the different opinions and advice. That, and finding the voices that resonate with you. Ultimately, you will make your own decisions about what to eat, how to exercise, where and how you want to birth, and how to parent – so trusting your own judgement is important and a good habit to get into for parenthood.
Listen to official guidelines around foods and lifestyle habits to limit and avoid – like alcohol and over-heating (NHS Choices is a useful reference point for foods to avoid). Beyond those things, do what feels right for you. When I was pregnant I really craved red meat, which I didn’t normally eat, but I went with it because I figured my body wanted the iron. I also remember feeling like I wanted to hibernate and be quiet at certain points, so I did, and it felt really good to give into that.
I know I’m biased, but I also believe pregnancy is a really valuable time to work with a nutrition specialist. This can help you understand how to support your body to function and feel its best during pregnancy, but can also give you the tools to prepare for a healthy, well-nourished, post-natal period.
We have a tendency in our culture to focus on pregnancy and birth, and neglect women’s health and wellbeing postnatally. But this is an equally important time to look after ourselves as we’re recovering from pregnancy and birth, possibly breastfeeding, getting little sleep AND adjusting to new motherhood. There’s a lot going on.
During pregnancy, our bodies are obviously going through a huge amount of change in sustaining another life. What nutrients, vitamins and foods do you suggest for women to feel their best at this time?
Ultimately, a whole-food based, varied, colourful diet! Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, complex carbohydrates like wholegrains and root veg and good quality protein from nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. Plus eggs, meat and fish, if you eat animal products.
If you eat fish, then two portions a week of oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel anchovies, herring or sardines will help to boost your omega‑3 levels. These fats play an important role in our overall health and have a positive effect on foetal visual and brain development.
During pregnancy, our requirements for certain nutrients increase and there is more demand on our body’s stores. Folic acid is the one we hear about a lot in terms of the baby’s neural tube development, but other nutrients like vitamin D, iron and calcium are also really important for the mother’s health, as well as the baby’s.
Good hydration and fibre are essential – constipation is a common pregnancy complaint and can make you feel more tired, bloated, heavy and uncomfortable. So stay well hydrated and eat plenty of fruit, veg, beans, legumes and wholegrains, to keep things moving.
Trusting your own judgement is important and a good habit to get into for parenthood
Do you suggest women take supplements during pregnancy? If so, which ones and why?
I recommend a pregnancy multivitamin and mineral supplement to ensure that women meet their basic micro-nutrient requirements. This is especially helpful during the beige-food phase that some women experience when they’re feeling sick in the first trimester. I really like Wild Nutrition’s pregnancy formula as it’s made from food-based rather than synthetic vitamins and minerals, which means the body recognises and assimilates them much better.
Most pregnancy formulas contain vitamin D, but it could be worth getting your levels tested if you’re pregnant during winter, to make sure you’re getting enough through your supplement.
You may also want to consider a good quality omega‑3 supplement – there are some vegan algae based formulas, as well as fish oils that are safe for pregnancy.
There is growing research into the role of the mother’s microflora (internal bacteria) on the baby during birth, in terms of supporting a healthy immune system and reducing the risk of certain allergies. Some women like to take a probiotic supplement to help with this. Look for a product that is tailored to pregnancy; Proven Probiotics is one brand that use evidence-based bacterial strains in their pregnancy formula.
What are your top 3 tips for expectant women?
- Listen to your body. If you’re tired, slow down! Accept that pregnancy is demanding on your body and that you need to make allowances for that. You’re doing something incredible, so honour it and take care of yourself.
- Keep well hydrated. It’s amazing the difference it can make to nausea, your energy levels and your digestion. Sip water throughout the day and aim for around two litres (your wee should be pale straw coloured).
- Block out the noise. Look at the evidence, find the voices that resonate with you (whether that be authors, practitioners or friends), and make your own informed decisions. Your aunty Sue, however well-meaning, isn’t necessarily the oracle on childbirth, just because she had three kids. Everyone’s experience is unique (remember this when people feel the need to tell you their horror birth stories, too!).
Find out more
You can learn more about nutrition more on Jodie’s website, where she offers recipes, tips, consultations and specially designed one-to-one nutrition programmes. Keep an ear out for the Real Talk podcast where we’ll be chatting with Jodie soon!