Thursday October 6th 2022

Eat Right, Feel Right

YOUR mother, doctor and best friend all have opinions about what you should – and shouldn’t eat – during pregnancy. Some mothers swear off caffeine, while others eschew chocolate or won’t touch tuna from a can.

Put urban myths and popular misconceptions to bed. Dieticians and nutrition experts agree that eating healthily isn’t rocket science – it simply involves a varied, nutrient-rich diet incorporating loads of healthy food and less processed, empty junk.

“Pregnancy should be a time when you are full of energy and vitality,” says Western Cape-based nutritional consultant Noelene van Huyssteen. “Everything you put into your mouth, whether it’s food, drink or medication, affects pregnancy and the growth and development of your unborn child.”

According to Johannesburg registered dieticians Petro Rautenbach and Anne Till, factors such as baby’s birth weight, cognitive functioning and developmental outcomes postnatally and into early childhood are influenced by your nutritional status.

The way you eat while pregnant even influences long-term risks of chronic disease such as heart disease and blood pressure in your baby’s adult life.

First things first

Before shopping for super-healthy foods, you should clear your cupboards of potentially harmful products.

Follow this simple rule of thumb – choose fresh, whole foods over processed and cooked ones where possible. Avoid or limit the following in your diet :

  • Caffeine. Found in coffee, tea (Ceylon, green and herbal), chocolate, colas, some medications and guarana products and may be linked to birth defects, miscarriage and low-birth weight if consumed in large amounts. Anne and Petra advise limiting caffeine intake to 300mg per day – the equivalent of three cups of coffee.
  • Processed foods are any canned, pasteurized or packaged products. During processing of some foods, nutrients may be reduced or destroyed. Fresh vegetables prepared by you are better than tinned vegetables, for example.
  • Diet drinks and sweeteners should be avoided, as studies cannot show categorically that their consumption has no effect on you or your developing baby, say Anne and Petra.
  • Cheese, Pate and uncooked foods. Do not eat raw or partially-cooked eggs, soft, mould-ripened cheeses such as Brie, Camembert or blue-veined varieties or feta cheese. Cold meats, shellfish, raw seafood and smoked fish are best avoided because of the risk of food contaminants and exposure to listeria.
  • Mercury and fish. If pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to conceive, don’t eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish or marlin. Limit tuna to one tuna steak (140g cooked, 170g raw) or two medium-sized cans (140g drained weight) a week.
  • Refined carbohydrates such as white flour or anything containing added sugar provide little nutrition, empty calories and deplete the body of B vitamins.
  • Alcohol is best avoided throughout pregnancy, as consuming alcohol (as much as one drink daily) has been associated with spontaneous abortion, low birth weight infants and fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • Peanuts are legumes and a common allergy in families. Particularly avoid peanuts sold as bird feed.

Eating for life

Food in its most natural state is best for us, says Noelene. Avoid processed foods with additives and up your intake of fresh, whole foods.

Fruit, vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, beans and whole grains are ideal foundation foods, as these contain large doses of antioxidants, phytochemicals, Vitamins C and K and folate.

  • Fats. Restrict saturated fats such as cream, butter and chicken skin and load up on unsaturated fats, say Anne and Petra. Long chain fatty acids are essential – they control your appetite, help regulate metabolism indirectly and therefore, your weight. The best Omega-3 sources are fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, pilchards, and sardines, while Omega-6 sources are found in seed and seed oils.
  • Carbohydrates are essential for providing sustained energy. Choose high fibre, unprocessed and nutrient-dense carbs such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dry legumes (beans, peas and lentils) and oats, say Anne and Petra. Other good choices are polenta, millet, sweet potatoes, potatoes, wholewheat rice cakes or corn thins.
  • Proteins are essential. If you eat meat, make it lean. The best animal proteins, in order, are : oily fish, white fish, skinless chicken, lean beef, lean pork, eggs, mutton, low-fat yoghurt, low-fat cottage cheese and low-fat hard cheeses. Anne and Petra advise eating fish three times per week.

Plant-based proteins are also power-packed with nutrients – up your intake of raw nuts, seeds, tofu and dried beans and legumes.

  • Fruit and vegetables are nature’s wonder foods and a good in-between nibble. Tip : Acid and sub-acid fruits eaten with raw nuts or seeds keeps your tummy full for longer.

Start cooked meals with fresh salad, fresh vegetable juice or vegetable crudités and dip. This boosts the immune system.

A diet high in raw fruit and vegetables contributes significantly to recommended daily allowances of folic acid. Remember to ask your caregiver about the best supplements to take while pregnant.

  • Calcium is an important mineral. Get your daily dose from milk, cheese and yoghurt, raw almonds, broccoli, raisins, sesame seeds and dark green, leafy vegetables

Get 20 – 30 minutes of non-midday sun every day too, as this produces Vitamin
D in the body, which aids with calcium absorption.

  • Drink up! Anne and Petra challenge moms-to-be to drink at least six to eight glasses of water daily, since adequate fluid intake is essential for keeping our metabolic processes in tip-top shape. Limit pure fruit juices and fizzy drinks though – these affect blood glucose and pack in too many calories.
  • Make a plan. Try to have at least three daily meals, say Anne and Petra and leave a gap of no more than five hours between each. If you do, then have a healthy fruit snack in-between.

Stock up on Super Foods

There are some magical munchies that you simply can’t do without in pregnancy. Anne and Petra suggest the following for high-powered nutrition :

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables (high in fibre and packed with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients)
  • Fatty fish such as pilchards and salmon (rich in omega-3 fatty acids and therefore good for baby’s neurological development)
  • Fat-free milk and yoghurt (calcium source and low in saturated fat)
  • Lean meat, fish and chicken (protein and iron)
  • Water (mother’s hydration and maintenance of amniotic fluid). Filtered or distilled water are the most pure forms.
  • Wholegrains such as barley, whole corn, brown rice and rolled oats (packed with important B vitamins)

Also add the following to your diet for their powerful nutritional value :

  • Avocados have loads of vitamins and minerals and are an important source of monounsaturated fats, biotin and potassium.
  • Raw almonds are a good source of monounsaturated fat and vegetable protein. They also contribute calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium amongst other vitamins and minerals.
  • Flaxseed oil from a reputable manufacturer (organic seeds cold-pressed below 38 degrees Celsius and in heat-protected bottles). It may help to reduce constipation, which is often a problem in pregnancy and the unsaturated fats delay gastric emptying and help control appetite and blood sugar levels if used as part of a combined meal.

Curb those cravings

“Instead of heading automatically for the chocolate or crisps, take some time to consider what your body is actually telling you,” says Noelene.

Craving sweets means that you need more fresh fruit. Choose fresh or sulphur-free dried fruit such as raisins, dates or figs.

To satisfy a desire for salty foods, try avocados, raw nuts or seeds, olives, sweetcorn on the cob and cold-pressed vegetable or seed oils

Anne and Petra explain that no food contains a single nutrient unique to that particular food – so if you crave chocolate, that doesn’t mean you need it for its nutritional value. You could be feeling an emotional need instead, as pregnancy causes a rollercoaster of tiredness and hormonal changes. Chocolate, for example, has “feel good” factors and boosts serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain.

Pica is an extreme form of craving common during pregnancy. Defined as the compulsion for persistent ingestion of unsuitable substances with little or no nutritional value – such as dirt, clay or even laundry starch – pica should be discussed with your caregiver if you feel unable to control it.

More-ish meal ideas on the run

Too tired to cook? Too busy to bake? Here are some fabulous ideas from Anne and Petra for moms-to-be on the go :


Try rolled oats, oat flakes or millet porridge. Throw in a handful of strawberries or fresh fruit and some low-fat yoghurt or milk.


Grab a chicken salad from Nando’s or a health sandwich from Kauai OR throw together a selection of baby carrots, spelt cakes and herbed chicken strips OR salmon and avocado on ryvita biscuits (or rice cakes) with rosa tomatoes on the side.


Make a quick stir-fry with beef strips and stir-fry vegetables, adding a bit of sweet chilli sauce for flair and flavour OR enjoy a roasted chicken with microwave roast vegetables (or stir-fry some yourself). If you’re going out, have grilled line fish with a garden salad or a ladies steak with grilled vegetables. Try a red cappuccino for dessert.

Smart snacks

Noelene’s list of luscious between-meal nibbles :

  • Nut shake – grind a few handfuls of raw almonds or cashews and/or seeds in a blender. Add chopped pineapple and pear, mango or frozen strawberries, blend with some 100% natural apple juice. This is great for breakfast too.
  • Preservative-free dried fruit such as raisins and dates
  • Raw, unsalted cashews
  • Rice cakes, corn thins or rye bread topped with marmite and hummus, raw honey or mashed avocado with garlic and herb salt.
  • Quick bean spread – mix one tin of butterbeans with ½ – one teaspoon mustard powder, ¼ teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon garlic and herb salt and one small, chopped spring onion.
  • Blended carob chips with milk of your choice (GM-free soya, rice, goat’s, cow’s or nut) makes a great, sweet spread. Add nuts or raisins for a change.

A last word on weight

Don’t “eat for two”, advise Anne and Petra. Simply have regular meals with small snacks in-between if needed, control your portions and speak to a registered dietician to calculate how many calories you need during each stage of pregnancy.


Petro Rautenbach, RD (SA) and Anne Till, RD (SA), of Anne Till & Associates : (011) 463 4663. email:

Noelene van Huyssteen, Natural Way nutritional consultant : or 082 468 5935

Copyright : Beth Cooper, 2010. FIRST PUBLISHED IN YOUR PREGNANCY MAGAZINE (2007)