Written by Solaade Ayo-Aderele - Nigeria
Pregnancy is a trauma to the body; or so physicians want us to know and, I dare say, they know better.
Indeed, when you remember that pregnancy takes a whopping nine months to mature into the delivery of a healthy baby if everything goes well, you will appreciate the physical and psychological changes that attend it, as well as their implications on the health of the expectant mother.
Head of Nutrition at the Federal Ministry of Health, Dr. Chris Isokpunwu, says pregnancy leads to increased oxygen consumption due to the rising metabolic needs of the mother and the developing baby.
He notes that the growth of the size of the uterus, alongside the increase of the progesterone levels, leads to increment of the respiratory rate, resulting in lower level of carbon dioxide in the blood, or what is medically known as hypocapnia – a state of reduced carbon dioxide in the blood that can lead to brain injury.
"When this condition is in a mild stage, the pregnant woman can experience constipation, nasal blockage, constant coughing, etc. She may also have visual disturbances, anxiety, transient dizziness, muscle cramps, blackouts, shortness of breath and vomiting," experts warn.
Consultant Paediatrician at the Calabar General Hospital in Cross River State, Dr. Friday Odey, warns that the health of the unborn baby and his very life hang on the mother's wellbeing; hence, whatever affects the expectant mother is very likely to affect her unborn baby.
Indeed, the United Nations Children's Fund laments that the diets of women often lack nutrients, which endanger womanhood; and that when dietary deficiency extends to pregnancy period, it could lead to irreversible damage on both the mother and her baby.
"And that is why pregnant women are counselled to eat well and to also observe other healthy habits while the condition lasts," Isokpunwu enthuses.
At the UNICEF workshop warning the nation on the effects of malnutrition on children and the need for pregnant women to imbibe good dietary and other habits that will ensure mother-child wellbeing, experts agree that the effects of nutritional deficiency in pregnant women have been identified as the major causes of unsafe pregnancy and maternal mortality in Nigeria.
Gynaecologists say good management of a pregnancy will improve the foetal status too, noting that it is one of the reasons why pregnancy care is two-pronged: caring for mother and her unborn baby at the same time.
Isokpunwu says no matter the level of care available to a pregnancy woman, nothing will work positively if the expectant mother does not eat balanced diet.
He counsels, "Healthy diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle at any time, but it is especially vital if you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant. Eating healthily during pregnancy will help your baby to develop and grow, and will keep you fit and well."
Nutritionists add that while a pregnant woman doesn't necessarily have to go on a special diet, it's important to eat a variety of different foods every day in order to get the right balance of nutrients that you and your baby need.
Experts recommend eating fruit and vegetables; as well as foods that contain carbohydrates, protein, dairy (eggs, cheese and yoghurt); and moderate quantities of foods that contain sugar and fat such as butter, oils, salad dressings, chocolate, biscuits, pastries, etc.
Nutritionists say fruit and vegetables provide vitamins and minerals; as well as fibre, which helps digestion and prevents constipation. They add that starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, breakfast cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, maize, millet, oats, sweet potatoes, yams, etc., are important sources of vitamins and fibre, and are satisfying without containing too many calories.
Protein-rich foods such as meat (avoid liver), fish, poultry, eggs, beans, pulses and nuts are also recommended.
However, physicians say though it is best to get vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat, when you're pregnant, you need to take some supplements as well to make sure you get everything you need.
They note that the main reason for this is because no matter how much we try, cooking, storage and the way we handle foods generally are capable of destroying some of the nutritional elements derivable from them.
This is supported by experts at the United States Department of Agriculture, who note that during pregnancy, the mother's needs for several vitamins and minerals increase.
"You need enough for your growing baby's needs as well as your own needs. This makes it difficult to get all that you need from food. This is especially true for folic acid and iron: During pregnancy, mothers need to consume enough nutrients to meet their increased needs as well as those of their growing baby," Isokpunwu submits.
Again, the authorities at the United Kingdom-based National Health Service agree that while it is best to get vitamins and minerals from the food you eat, when pregnant, you will need to take some supplements as well to make sure you get everything you need.
A Professor of Pharmacognosy, Maurice Iwu, notes that naturally-prepared food supplements, otherwise called nutraceuticals, contain ingredients that promote health and wellness, maintain weight and fight diseases.
Iwu says nutraceuticals contain food products such as zinc, magnesium, iodine, copper, iron, calcium, folic acid, vitamins B12 and B6, anti-oxidants, vitamin K and selenium.
Experts say a dietary supplement that contains all these nutritional elements in balanced proportion will help in nurturing both mother and child during pregnancy; and, after delivery, during the breastfeeding period.