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Pregnancy nutrition: Carbohydrates

Pregnancy nutrition: carbohydrates Full power

Summary

Carbohydrates provide essential fuel for you and your baby during pregnancy, but not all carbs are created equal. Learn the difference between high and low GI carbohydrates, how they affect your body and which foods to eat for the added benefit of fibre.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy in your diet1. They are broken down into simple sugars like glucose, which pass easily across the placenta and provide energy to support your growing baby during pregnancy.

“Around a third of your daily food intake should be starchy carbohydrates.”

The different types of carbohydrates include starches, sugars and fibre2. For a steady supply of energy, starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and cereal should make up about a third of the food you eat1. Many starchy foods also provide other important nutrients for your baby’s development, including calcium, iron and B vitamins1.

Choosing healthy carbohydrates during pregnancy

Some carbohydrates, especially sugars, are broken down quickly by the body and can cause a rapid increase in blood glucose and insulin levels. These are known as high GI foods, scoring highly on the glycaemic index – the rating system that indicates how quickly food affects your blood sugar3.

High GI foods include many refined foods like white bread, white rice, sugary foods such as cakes and biscuits, and potatoes3.

High GI foods like potatoes are broken down quickly by the body and can cause a rapid increase in blood glucose and insulin levels.

Foods that are broken down more slowly are categorised as low GI foods – these keep blood sugar levels more stable. Low GI starchy foods are considered to be healthier and should be selected over refined, high GI options where possible3.

Examples of low GI carbohydrates include3:

  • Bananas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Porridge made from rolled oats
  • Chickpeas and other pulses
  • Wholegrain breads, cereals and pastas

A diet based on these healthier starches can help you ensure your blood sugar levels remain steady, reducing your risk of gestational diabetes as well as other pregnancy complications4.

A sensible approach is to eat a wide variety of slow-release, fibre-rich low GI carbohydrates, balanced with some higher GI foods to provide an energy boost every so often5.

“Eat good sources of fibre every day to keep your digestive system working well.”

The importance of fibre

Fruit and vegetables, wholegrain foods, and potatoes, particularly when eaten with their skin on, are all sources of fibre1. Also a carbohydrate, fibre helps to keep your digestive system healthy and regular6. This is especially important during pregnancy, when constipation can be a problem.

Foods that contain carbohydrates

Carbohydrates provide essential fuel for you and your baby during pregnancy.

A note about hygiene with rice and grains1

Cooked rice and grains left at room temperature can be a breeding ground for bacteria that can make you ill. To minimise any risk, cook these foods ready for when you need them, rather than preparing them ahead of time.

If you do need to prepare rice or grains in advance, or if you have leftovers you’d like to use, make sure you refrigerate them within an hour of cooking and eat them within 24 hours. You should throw away any rice and grains that have been left at room temperature overnight and never reheat them more than once1.

Always follow best before dates and storage guidelines on pre-prepared foods made with rice and grains.

Next Steps

Add these good sources of carbohydrates to your shopping list1:

  • Rice
  • Wholemeal pasta
  • Wholemeal bread
  • Noodles
  • Maize
  • Oats
  • Cereal
  • Potato/sweet potato/yams
  • Couscous
  • Bulgur wheat

View references

Hide references

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1. NHS UK. Starchy foods and carbohydrates [Online]. 2015. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/starchy-foods.aspx [Accessed September 2016]

2. NHS UK. The truth about carbs [Online]. 2014. Available at: www.nhs.uk/Livewell/loseweight/Pages/the-truth-about-carbs.aspx [Accessed September 2016]

3. NHS UK. What is the glycaemic index (GI)? [Online]. 2015. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1862.aspx?categoryid=51 [Accessed September 2016]

4. Moses RG et al. Effect of a low-glycemic-index diet during pregnancy on obstetric outcomes. Am J Clin Nutr 2006;84(4):807-812.

5. Clapp III JF. Maternal carbohydrate intake and pregnancy outcome. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2002 61(1);45-50.

6. NHS UK. Why is fibre important? [Online]. 2015. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1141.aspx?categoryid=51 [Accessed September 2016]

Last reviewed: 9th September 2016
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