Getting the right nutrition can be a challenge for Asian moms-to-be. Not only is there already a lot of confusing and conflicting information out there, much of it is catered to Western diets. Fortified breakfast cereals just don’t sit well with taste buds used to kaya toast, rice congee or even a steaming bowl of pho for breakfast. Many Asians also suffer from lactose intolerance so taking more milk and cheese just isn’t feasible. And do we really need to give up sushi?
The truth is, Asian diets already contain many tasty superfoods that do wonders for your baby’s development. Plus, they’re easily available at the local market or grocery store and it’s likely you’re already eating them. Here are just a few:
1. Steamed egg custard
Whether it’s Japanese chawanmushi or Chinese water egg, this delightful, custardy dish is a favourite across Asia. Eggs are packed with protein and choline, which promote your baby’s brain health and overall growth. Choline is also essential for preventing birth defects in the brain and spine. Some eggs are fortified with omega-3 fats that help with brain and vision development.
Steamed egg custard is an extremely versatile dish that can be easily enhanced with some shrimp or chicken for added protein. If you’re having chawanmushi, just remember to hold back on the ginkgo nuts as they are not recommended for pregnant women.
Sesame seeds and oil are used widely in Asian cuisine, adding a delicious aroma and a burst of nutty flavour when sprinkled over food. Sesame seeds are also rich in essential pregnancy nutrients such as calcium, protein and vitamins B, C and E. Calcium helps build strong bones and teeth, and may reduce the risk of preterm labour during pregnancy. Folic acid is an essential nutrient that helps to prevent birth defects in your baby’s brain and spine.
Many Asian dishes already come garnished with sesame seeds - chee cheong fun, ramen and sesame chutney are just some tasty examples. Just three tablespoons of sesame is equivalent to one-third of your daily nutritional needs (1000mg of calcium daily).
Daal, or spiced lentil stew, is the quintessential Indian food that is also packed with essential nutrients that are great for both you and your baby. Lentils have lots of protein to support rapid cell growth and are also a good source of zinc and iron. Plus, just one cup of cooked lentils meets 90% of your daily folate requirement.
Lentils lend themselves easily to all sorts of Asian cuisines, such as this Thai lentil soup or even this recipe for kung pao lentils. Just a word of caution as you indulge, lentils contain lots of soluble fibres that, while great for constipation, also make you rather gassy.
4. Bok choy and other leafy greens
Asian veggies such as bok choy, choy sum and spinach are inexpensive, easy to find and contain nutrients in abundance. Besides folic acid and calcium, they contain beta carotene, which your body converts to vitamin A for good eyesight; development of the heart, kidney, eyes, bones and limbs; and protection against infection.
Doctors recommend that expecting moms have between four to six cups of dark leafy greens and other fruits and vegetables daily. You need different amounts during each trimester as well so here’s a handy guide to keep track. Always remember to wash them properly. Here’s a super quick two minute video if you’re not sure how.
Asians eat a lot of fish, which is great because fish provides your baby with essential omega-3 fatty acids for eye and brain development. A quick eight-minute steam with some ginger and soy sauce will produce a delicious feast for the baby and the whole family! However, more caution is needed when consuming raw fish dishes such as sushi. Make sure the fish has been properly frozen first to minimise the chances of it containing parasitic worms. That said, we’d suggest erring on the side of caution and waiting till after your baby is born for that sushi feast.
Doctors recommend at around 340g (about three servings) of fish or seafood a week for pregnant women but the type of fish you eat also matters. Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and eel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, while other common Asian varieties such as pomfret, Pacific saury and golden thread contain a more moderate amount.
6. Kimchi, achar and other fermented or pickled foods
Whether it’s achar, kimchi, or the gari on the side of your bento, pickled and fermented foods are quintessential parts of Asian cuisine. Their sour taste is great for coping with morning sickness, especially in the first trimester, and the probiotics many of them contain can help to stave off yeast infections. Probiotics also help to boost your baby’s immune and digestive systems. Just make sure to keep an eye out for the sugar and sodium levels. Everything in moderation!
With so many factors to consider (and so many tasty choices!) it can be very easy to go overboard when eating for two. You only really need an extra 300 – 350 calories per day (about one and a half bowls of white rice). Also, it is not always easy to optimize your daily diet, especially with hectic lifestyles, maybe morning sickness or tiredness. If you’re having a hard time consistently balancing the right nutrients, consider a pregnancy multi-vitamin, particularly one rich in folic acid, vitamin D, calcium and iron. You can also look out for fish oil supplements for that much-needed omega-3 boost, well known to be beneficial, especially from the third trimester. As always, make sure to check with your doctor before embarking on any sort of new dietary regime during your pregnancy.
 Elmadfa, I & Meyer, AL 2012, ‘Vitamins for the First 1000 Days: Preparing for Life’, Int. J. Vitam. Nutr. Res, Vol. 82, No. 5, pp. 342 – 347