• “The guidelines differ across countries, because they are adapted to the nutrition situation in each country..." (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Surely a tiny cup of coffee and a sneaky nibble of cheese is okay once in a while, right? Here's what Australian evidence actually says.
Megan Blandford

26 Jun 2017 - 3:08 PM  UPDATED 26 Jun 2017 - 3:17 PM

People love to dish out advice to pregnant women. And there is nothing people would rather share their opinions on than what a woman should eat while pregnant.

The trouble is, all pregnant women are trying their best, but it can be pretty confusing to work out what you ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ eat.

There are so many recommendations in place that aim to avoid food-related diseases, including listeria and toxoplasmosis, which could harm the foetus. The risks of eating these foods include miscarriage, stillbirth or premature labour.

“Your diet from the time you’re planning pregnancy, and then during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, can impact both the short and long term health of the baby,” explains Dr Lenka Malek, Research Fellow in the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Global Food and Resource. “If your diet is poor during those times, there’s a chance the baby might develop chronic diseases later in life such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.”

The dietary requirements during pregnancy are a little different to at other times of your life. “Your grain requirements increase by two-and-a-half serves (one serve equals one slice of bread or half a medium-sized roll), and you need an extra serve from the ‘lean meat, poultry, eggs, nuts and seeds’ food group for more protein and iron,” says Malek.

How do pregnancy nutritional guidelines vary internationally?

International guidelines vary quite largely; in Japan, all fish – including sushi and varieties with higher mercury levels – is considered safe during pregnancy, and in some European countries such as France and Finland women aren’t told to cut out all alcohol. The latest advice from Finland suggests liquorice is best avoided, as it may decrease the child’s IQ.

“The guidelines differ across countries, because they are adapted to the nutrition situation in each country – some countries are at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies – as well as food availability and food cultures,” says Malek.

Such cultural considerations can be hard facts or simply advice passed from generation to generation. For example, in Japan it’s said that spicy foods during pregnancy will give the baby a short temper, and some Chinese people believe eating crab could make the baby mischievous.

The Australian pregnancy nutrition guidelines

According to research from University of Wollongong,65 per cent of pregnant women in Australia aren’t aware of the dietary guidelines, and this figure is mostly made up of women of lower incomes and whose first language isn’t English.

There’s also a gap between what we believe to be a healthy diet and actually eating the foods that are recommended.

“During my PhD, I did a survey of over 850 women around Australia and about 60 per cent believed they were eating a healthy diet during pregnancy,” says Malek. “But then when I looked at their actual food intake and compared it with the national dietary guidelines, none of the women were meeting the recommendations for all five core food groups.”

It’s important to seek out the right information. Australian guidelines suggest avoiding the following while trying to conceive and during pregnancy: 

- Alcohol

- Large amounts of caffeine (up to three cups of coffee is considered safe)

- Liver, due to its high amount of vitamin A

- Fish that’s high in mercury, such as flake, broadbill, marlin, orange roughy, catfish and swordfish

- Cold meats and salads, unless they have been freshly and safely prepared

- Soft cheeses, like brie, camembert, ricotta, feta and blue cheese

- Soft-serve ice cream

- Uncooked, pre-cooked or smoked seafood

- Raw eggs

For more information, see the Australian guide to healthy eating during pregnancy.

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