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Do you need to tweak your diet?


Are you trying to conceive, already pregnant or breastfeeding? Are you in the throes of menopause or recovering from injury or surgery? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, there are nutritional ‘tweaks’ you can make to meet the changing needs of your body.

We often eat the same way for our whole lives; stick within a food comfort zone because it’s easy and familiar. While this may work most of the time, there are times when nutritional requirements change. The best advice is to make sure you have a healthy baseline diet in the first place, and then tweak this when your needs or situation change. Remember, the tweaks are fine tuning — a healthy baseline diet is fundamental before tweaking is really effective.

What is a healthy baseline diet?

A healthy diet provides the nutrients you need to stay well and have a healthy weight. While quantities may vary (for different-sized people and in different life stages) it’s recommended you keep processed food to a minimum and include each day:

  • Plenty of vegetables and fruit — as many serves as you like of non-starchy vegetables such as carrots and salad greens, plus limited quantities (¼ plate maximum) of starchy vegetables such as potatoes, taro, kumara and yams
  • Plenty of breads and cereals, preferably wholegrain — quantity depends on level of activity
  • Milk and milk products, mostly reduced or low-fat options
  • Fish, seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs and/or other protein alternatives such as legumes
  • Foods with minimal added fat (especially saturated fat), salt and sugar*
  • Foods that are low in salt; if using salt, choose iodised salt
  • Plenty of fluids, especially water.

In addition:

  • If choosing to drink alcohol, limit your intake.

*For optimal health, the World Health Organization suggests we limit free sugar consumption to six teaspoons (adults) or three teaspoons (children) per day.

Trying to conceive or thinking of it?

It’s common knowledge that a healthy mother is more likely to produce healthy children. This is down to her genetics (and epigenetics*) and environment — her eating habits, to which her children will be exposed. Research is now emerging, however, that the father’s diet and lifestyle before conception also influences the health and future health of his children, not just environmentally, but genetically and epigenetically too. So the best advice if planning to have a child is for both parents to ensure a healthy baseline diet with a ‘for life’ approach, not just as an interim measure. Then, in order to meet extra nutritional needs, the mother is advised to take folic acid supplements, 800mcg per day for at least a month before conception.

*Epigenetic factors such as age, the environment, lifestyle and disease can affect how the information contained in our genes is used, even though the actual information (the DNA code) doesn’t change. The science of epigenetics — which literally means ‘outside conventional genetics’ — relates to this information which can be passed to the next generation but is not contained within the DNA code.


Once pregnant you don’t need to change your diet dramatically; your extra nutrition needs are small and you are not eating for two. During the second trimester you only need around 1400kJ more each day and in the third trimester, it’s around 1900kJ. Pregnancy ‘tweaks’ are more about getting the right nutrients for healthy baby growth and minimising foods that could compromise baby health.

Increase calcium from 1000mg to 1300mg per day to support bone growth in your baby. An extra glass of milk or extra pottle of yoghurt each day will be enough.

Make sure you’re having enough iron for healthy development of your baby and to prevent iron deficiency in yourself. Lean meats, chicken, seafood and eggs are easily absorbed sources. Adding vitamin C (from foods such as citrus fruit, kiwifruit and tomatoes) will enhance iron absorption from vegetarian sources such as legumes and wholegrains.

Take folic acid tablets (800mcg per day) to help prevent neural tube defects. Ideally it would be good to get enough folate from the diet, but the increased needs in pregnancy make this hard to achieve so supplements are recommended from at least a month before conceiving until 12 weeks into the pregnancy.

Take iodine tablets to help healthy brain development. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to take a registered 150mcg iodine only tablet daily.

Watch vitamin A — while having enough is important for the health of both mother and baby, too much can be harmful to the baby’s development. Avoid any supplements containing vitamin A (including multivitamin supplements) and avoid liver and liver pâtés.

Avoid contact with listeria and other food-borne disease by taking these precautions

  • Cook eggs until both yolk and white are solid:
  • Avoid prepared sandwiches and salads
  • Avoid pâté, hummus-based dips and spreads
  • Steer clear of ham and all other chilled pre-cooked meat products including chicken, salami and other fermented/dried sausages
  • Avoid foods containing raw fish, shellfish or seafood such as sushi
  • Wash and dry vegetables and fruit before eating
  • Avoid eating soft cheeses (such as brie and camembert), soft-serve ice cream and unpasteurised milk.


You’ll need more energy (kilojoules) to produce milk, so your appetite will naturally increase. If you have put on a lot of weight during pregnancy, extra kilojoules can come from fat stores and this will help you get back to your normal weight. It is important to get enough nutrients, so dieting to lose weight is not recommended.

The best advice is to:

  • Maintain your healthy baseline diet and have more of the same food if you’re still hungry.
  • Stay away from nutrient-poor foods such as cake and potato chips. They have no benefit and can make getting back to your pre-pregnancy weight difficult.
  • Drink plenty of fluids as you are losing more than normal through breast milk. Water is the best.
  • See a breastfeeding specialist if you think some foods may be upsetting your baby. Since it is difficult to pinpoint problem foods, you risk missing out on essential nutrients if you avoid some of them.

Perimenopausal or menopausal?

While some sail through this time with ease, other women are plagued by symptoms such as hot flushes, brain fog, fatigue and weight gain. As levels of oestrogen drop, the risk of bone loss and heart disease also increases. Again, a healthy baseline diet and exercise, stress management and plenty of sleep will help. There are several important nutritional tweaks that will also help maintain your health as you enter a new phase of life.

Some of the most important are around bone health:

Increase your calcium. As oestrogen drops, so does its protective effect on your bones and it is common for women to see a rapid dip in bone density after menopause. While you can’t stop this loss entirely, there is plenty you can do to slow it down; one way is to increase calcium intake to 1300mg per day (from 1000mg). An extra glass of milk or pottle of yoghurt should be enough.

Make sure you have enough vitamin D. You may need a blood test to establish this and if you are not getting enough from the sun, you may need to take a supplement.

Watch your alcohol. Too much can increase your risk of cancer as well as compromising bone health.

Keep active. Although not a nutritional tweak, this can’t go without a mention as it is essential for maintaining and promoting bone health.

Other benefits will come if you:

Get enough fibre. Many women around menopause report bloating and other digestive disturbances. Try to get enough fibre as this will help keep your digestive system happy. Chew your food properly (until liquid in the mouth). This encourages digestion to start in the mouth which will also help prevent digestive problems further down.

Watch portion size because weight gain around the middle is common around menopause, and because this increases risk of conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, it is important to work on maintaining a healthy weight. While losing kilograms may prove difficult, preventing weight gain is a worthwhile goal, and more achievable and realistic.

Eat food that keeps you well and limit energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods. As kilojoule requirements reduce with age (due to decreasing muscle mass and resulting decrease in metabolic rate) and nutrient requirements go up or stay the same, there is less room in the diet for ‘empty kilojoule’ foods such as cakes, biscuits, confectionary, fried food etc. Fill your diet with foods that keep you well and you are less likely to want such foods anyway.

Doing a lot of exercise?

Whether you are an elite athlete, a recreational sportsperson or just enjoy lots of exercise, good nutrition is fundamental to staying well and performing at your best. It will also help you recover well and stay fit. Again, there is no magic bullet; it all starts with a good healthy baseline diet. For those who simply like to keep fit through walking, running, going to the gym or playing a round of golf, apart from taking care to stay hydrated, a healthy baseline diet will meet your needs.

When you’re exercising a lot, there are important tweaks that will help before, during and after exercise.

Make sure you are getting enough carbohydrates. Carbs are a key energy source for exercise, especially during prolonged or high-intensity exercise. The body can store carbs in the form of muscle glycogen, but capacity is limited. Eating enough carbs before and during such exercise is important as it spares muscle glycogen. And getting enough carbs after exercise ensures glycogen reserves are restocked. The type of carbs for each situation is important however:

Before exercise, slow-release carbs such as high-fibre breads and cereals or legumes are good choices as they provide a slow and even supply of glucose to the blood and muscles while exercising (thus sparing muscle glycogen).

During prolonged exercise such as a marathon/triathlon, quick-release carbs are good for providing fuel and sparing glycogen. Sports drinks, bars and gels are specially formulated for this, but an easy-to-eat form of glucose will work just as well.

After activity, quick-release carbs will replenish depleted glycogen stores. A small amount of protein is also recommended to repair damaged muscles. Examples of foods that combine fast-release carbs with a little protein are white bread and chicken or egg sandwiches, fruit yoghurt or flavoured milk. Your muscles will recover better if such food is eaten as soon as possible after exercise.

Do you need protein supplements?

Endurance athletes and strength athletes do need additional protein. They also need additional kilojoules because their increased activity requires increased fuel. By increasing the amount of food eaten, you also increase the amount of protein eaten and this is generally considered to be more than enough to meet increased protein needs. In other words, the percentage of protein in the diet can stay the same as more food means more protein. Some people may find supplements such as protein powders convenient but they are not necessary and can add more kilojoules than realised.

Recovering from injury or surgery?

If you have minor injuries through sport or are recovering at home from surgery, good nutrition boosts healing and will help lift your mood too. Inflammation is the first response to injury or surgery and is critical as it begins the repair process. Too much however can cause further damage and slow healing. Promote a healthy inflammatory response with the following tweaks to your healthy baseline diet:

  • Eat more anti-inflammatory fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, oily fish and fish oil.
  • Include curcumin-providing herbs and spices such as turmeric and curry powder.
  • Eat more garlic.
  • Include antioxidant-rich foods such as berries, green tea and dark cocoa or chocolate.
  • Avoid alcohol, particularly in the early stages. Drinking alcohol after soft tissue injury significantly slows down recovery times.

To promote healing once inflammation has died down, continue your healthy baseline diet but take care to:

  • Eat enough lean protein as protein helps repair damaged tissue. Fish, unprocessed meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds are all good choices.
  • Lean meat will also add iron and zinc — important minerals to promote healing.
  • Limit foods with little nutrition. As you will be doing less exercise you’ll require fewer kilojoules each day. You’ll need all the good nutrients, however, but in a smaller food package. If you don’t want to put on weight, cut out nutritionally poor foods such as biscuits, cakes, confectionary and sugary drinks.
First published: Jan 2016

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