Last updated on Jun 11th, 2021 at 05:32 pm

According to the World Health Organization, preterm birth (also referred to as premature birth) is defined as giving birth before 37 weeks. A typical pregnancy is around 40 weeks. While some premature babies require minimal intervention at birth, the truth is, many little ones who are born too early need some assistance or special care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as they’re susceptible to short and long-term complications.

Short-term consequences of preterm birth include:

  • Delays in optimal brain growth
  • Breathing problems
  • Latching/sucking delays
  • Poor health/immunity
  • Low birth weight

Long-term consequences of preterm birth could include:

  • Social and behavioural problems
  • Learning difficulties
  • A weakened immune system

ALSO SEE: Your essential premature birth guide

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Causes of preterm births

While many factors leading to preterm birth (PtB) could be out of your control, the South African Health Review 2019 maintains that smoking, drinking alcohol and drug use are 3 of the biggest culprits behind preterm births in the country. However, in many other instances, pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes, heart or kidney disease and pre-eclampsia can put your baby at risk, too.

Additionally, poor nutrition before and during pregnancy has also been linked to preterm birth (PtB). The good news is that this is the 1 risk factor you could eliminate if you focus on a healthy diet while you’re trying to conceive and during your pregnancy.

ALSO SEE: 25 foods you should include in your pregnancy diet

The one healthy habit that could make all the difference

Researchers from the University of Queensland In Australia believe we should follow our parents’ advice to eat our veggies when considering becoming parents ourselves.

PhD candidate Dereje Gete analysed the diets of nearly 3 500 women and found that a high consumption of carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, pumpkin, cabbage, green beans, and potatoes before conception helped women reach full-term pregnancy.

Why? “Traditional vegetables are rich in antioxidants or anti-inflammatory nutrients, which have a significant role in reducing the risk of adverse birth outcomes,” Dereje said.

Also, the nutrients you take in before becoming pregnant are critical for a healthy pregnancy. “Women depend on certain stored nutrients such as calcium and iron before conception, which are critical for placenta and foetus tissue development.

“Starting a healthier diet after the baby has been conceived may be too late, because babies are fully formed by the end of the first trimester,” he concluded.

The message is clear – the more veggies you consume while trying to conceive, the better.

ALSO SEE: The importance of taking folate before falling pregnant

Variety is key

As pregnancy aversions might get the better of you once you’re pregnant, it’s a good idea to get creative and experiment with different types of veggies while trying to conceive.

The larger the variety of veggies you eat, the higher your vitamin and mineral levels will be, says clinical nutritionist, speaker and wellness expert, Desi Horsman. Vegetables are also an important source of fibre to ensure regular bowel movement and to aid in digestion, she adds.

“Complications in pregnancy like gestational diabetes may also be avoided with a diet rich in vegetables. Plus, these foods have been shown to help control blood pressure and weight gain in moms-to-be,” says Desi. In other words, it’s well worth eating veggies at almost every meal – and for snacks, too!

How to prep and cook your veggies

Steaming vegetables is the healthiest way to cook veggies and preserve their nutrients.

Vegetable soups are a real nutrient powerhouse because you can add as many veggies as you like – as well as plenty herbs and spices.

Grilling can also add new flavours and texture to your veggie meal. Stick to using a little bit of olive or coconut oil – these are the healthiest oils to grill with.

ALSO SEE: 3 recipes to include in your first trimester eating plan

More tips to improve your diet

Cut out processed foods

One of the steps to take when trying for a baby is to clean up your diet as much as possible. This will help to create a healthy environment for a baby to grow and flourish, says Desi.

She suggests eliminating processed foods and refined carbohydrates, fried food and trans fats, high sugar soft drinks and alcohol from your diet. It’s also wise to cut down on stimulants such as tea and coffee and replace these with herbal teas and water instead.

You won’t believe how this simple habit will improve your energy levels!

Include healthy protein sources

For your protein requirements, stick to organic, grass-fed animal products where possible and if you’re vegetarian or vegan, eat plenty of dark leafy greens such as spinach, legumes such as chickpeas, beans and lentils, as well as nuts and nut products. Stick to low-sugar, low-processed milk alternatives such as almond milk with no added sugar or preservatives.

Increase your probiotic intake

According to the Nestle Nutrition institute, your probiotic levels during pregnancy and at birth are important as healthy bacteria can be passed on to your baby and help prevent skin conditions such as eczema and atopic dermatitis, as well as allergic rhinitis. A great way to boost your probiotic intake is to eat plenty of fermented veggies such as sauerkraut.

More about the expert:

Desi Horsman is a leading food authority. She is a qualified clinical nutritionist, wellness coach and professional speaker. Read more about Desi Horsman here.