EXPLAINER: What you should know about pregnant women’s diet

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Pregnancy is one of the most delicate stages of a woman’s life, owing to the growing foetus inside of them. That is why there is a need for extra caution on what they do, eat, wear, and whatnot. 

Over time, there have been a lot of debates and discussions surrounding what pregnant women should eat and what to avoid as a result of their condition.

Medical practitioners usually advise patients – whether pregnant or not – to eat healthy as it is a prerequisite for good and healthy living. 

This researcher has observed how, on many occasions, women take to social media platforms, particularly pregnancy-related communities, to query what they should eat or what they should avoid, owing to old tales told by either their own mother or mother-in-law. 

EXPLAINER: What you should know about pregnant women's diet
Screenshot of a post on a private Facebook group 

Nigerian foods such as ewedu soup, pepper soup, white soup, snails, among others fall into the category of meals they are advised not to eat. Meanwhile, fruits such as pineapple, pawpaw, dates, oranges etc are sometimes regarded as a no-go-zone, as some of these fruits are either believed to cause miscarriage or some defects when the baby is eventually born. 

DUBAWA monitored social media pages dedicated to the course of pregnant women and observed how women are concerned over their safety and that of their unborn babies after they have consumed some of these “forbidden meals.” 

What does research say?

According to an article by Healthline, it is important for pregnant women to maintain good nutrition as this helps to ensure that the baby/foetus gets the best start possible.

Medical News Today also noted that to achieve a healthy pregnancy, the diet should include a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. 

Pregnant women are advised to prioritize fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, protein, fats, fiber rich foods like oats, brown rice, among others. 

On the other hand, WebMD advised on what pregnant women should avoid consuming due to their condition. The article advised pregnant women to avoid meat not properly cooked, sushi, raw eggs, unpasteurised milk, unwashed fruits and vegetables, among others. 

In one of its articles, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) encouraged pregnant women to ensure they get adequate vitamins and minerals from their meals. These include: calcium, iodine, choline, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, and Folic Acid. 

What do practitioners say?

In an interview with DUBAWA, Dr Francis Agbaraolorunpo, a medical expert at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), said although foods have nutritional benefits, they should be consumed within the quantity permitted by pregnant women. 

The doctor explained that rather than avoid meals, pregnant women should avoid herbs because herbs contain some level of toxicity and have varied dosages as they are medicinal.

He added that pregnant women should not take unprescribed herbs at all. 

“But for things that are not herbs, they are regarded as food and they fall into classes: carbohydrate, fat, protein, mineral and vitamins, and water. Those are what are generally regarded as food and it is what a pregnant woman eats that the baby eats,” he said.

The health expert further noted that fruits are highly encouraged as they contain vitamins and minerals, which is beneficial for the growth and development of the baby. 

He added: ”They need vitamins and minerals so if the woman takes them, the baby benefits”.

Dr Agbaraolorunpo explained that what may not be too good for adults in food are sugar and too much oil. These, according to him, may affect the flow of blood and equally compromise the health of the baby. He said as long as minerals are gotten from food and not formulated into tablets, there may not be contraindications, provided these meals are consumed at the normal level. 

The medical practitioner, however, discouraged the ingestion of junks, refined flour, canned foods, and those with preservatives. He explained that all these are not good for pregnant women. 

‘Good food hygiene is important for women’

Dr Agbaraolorunpo further said women should be concerned about the hygiene of the meals they consume.

He said: “Generally, when I talk to pregnant women during antenatal visits, it is mostly about hygiene. Food must be prepared in an hygienic manner but you know a lot of pregnant women buy roadside food and some of these do not pass the test of hygiene. 

“For instance, those who sell those food take money with their hands and they also serve macaroni with their hand, the food handler uses contaminated hands to serve contaminated food and these can be sources of infection to the mother and those infections can be passed to the baby.”

The medical practitioner also addressed claims that certain fruits like pineapple cause contractions and abortion. He said research has to be conducted to ascertain if such is true or not.

‘How to avoid miscarriage’

Dr Agbaraolorunpo also explained that pregnant women are usually advised at the early stage of pregnancy to be careful so there would not be a miscarriage.

Dr Agbaraolorunpo said because this is the stage when organs are formed, pregnant women are advised to watch food and drugs taken. 

“They may not take any drug that their doctor has not prescribed because those drugs could cause malformation and some of them could equally cause miscarriage as it were. But nutrients from food, fruits, no, except the individual is allergic to it,” he said.

He further explained that what causes contractions is the hormone called oxytocin (the hormone of labour). He said the hormones are supported by estrogen, adding that towards labour, they pick and start going up. He said if the hormones are too high in early pregnancy, they can cause miscarriage.

“Therefore those who make the claim that pineapple can cause miscarriage need to establish that pineapple will increase oxytocin and estrogen level,” he said. 

“It is the estrogen that increases the size of the space occupied by the baby — the uterus. When a patient does not go into labour when expected, it is the oxytocin that will be used to induce labour so those who make that claim should prove that pineapple or any of these fruits are able to raise the level of oxytocin or is able to raise the receptor, the key oxytocin acts on, except they are able to prove that, then these are just speculations.” 

He warned that sometimes, issues are aggravated by underlying health conditions or genetic traits. Citing an instance, the medical doctor said if a woman with a tendency to be hypertensive takes a lot of salt in pregnancy, it can fast-track pregnancy induced hypertension.

He also mentioned that there is gestational diabetes – high sugar in the blood that comes up during pregnancy. He said if pregnant women take chocolate and other sugary things in excess, they may push themselves towards gestational diabetes.

He also advised pregnant women to avoid taking alcohol. 

‘What to avoid during pregnancy’

Also speaking, Dr Jeremiah Agim, a senior registrar at the National Hospital Abuja said all classes of food are open to every pregnant woman.

He, however, noted that there should be some level of precautions, particularly with meals that are not well cooked. 

He gave an instance of Suya – a popular Nigerian delicacy. Dr Agim said because it is usually not properly cooked or grilled, Suya could cause diarrhoea and some other forms of infections for a non-pregnant woman pose serious risk to a pregnant woman. 

Dr Agim also said while milk is advised and recommended for pregnant women, they must avoid unpasteurised milk like Fura de nunu, a locally prepared beverage made from millet and milk. 

“I’m not talking about the ones that are packaged and have NAFDAC numbers, I want to assume the milk is pasteurized and well processed but I’m talking about the ones hawked by Fulani women. If the milk is not pasteurized, it can transmit anything you can think of, from tuberculosis to whatever. Milk should be pasteurized,” he said.

He concluded by saying whatever a woman eats or avoids during pre-conception is the same thing she is advised to eat or avoid in pregnancy, except on rare occasions as advised by the doctor. 

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