As a mother-to-be, your food and diet choices no longer affect just your own health, but also that of your baby’s. Receiving the proper nutrients early and throughout your pregnancy will greatly impact fetal growth and development.
Learn the basics of a healthy pregnancy diet, proper pregnancy weight gain, as well as which nutrients are essential to your baby’s development, to provide your baby the best possible diet during its formative weeks.
Essential Nutrients for a Healthy Pregnancy
As an expectant mother, there are essential nutrients vital to your baby’s development during your pregnancy, including Vitamin B9, Protein, and Calcium. Such nutrients help reduce the risk of birth defects and health complications for both mother and child, during and after pregnancy.
- Vitamin B9: Also known as folate, and more commonly referred to as folic acid, Vitamin B9 is critical to fetal development, helping support the placenta and preventing neural tube defects — birth defects of the baby’s spine and brain. B9 is so important for pregnant mothers that it is advised women should consume 400 micrograms of B9 daily, one month before conceiving, and 600 micrograms daily during their first trimester, according to The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
- Protein: The ACOG also states women who are pregnant require more protein than those who are not. Referred to as the “body builders,” protein nutrients are most important during the second and third trimesters when your baby’s body begins to take form. Protein recommendations vary depending on a mother’s weight, however dosage generally ranges between 40 to 70 grams. Most women already consume more protein than their body requires, thus many pregnant women will likely receive the recommended protein requirement during pregnancy.
- Calcium: Like adults, calcium is needed to help build and strengthen your baby’s bones and teeth, and is especially important in the third trimester, when the baby needs the most calcium for growth. Expectant mothers aged 19 and older should consume 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, and females between 14 and 18 are advised to consume 1,300 milligrams.
While Vitamin B9 is common in prenatal supplements, the dosage alone is generally not enough in meeting the required daily 400-600 micrograms. Thus, other sources of B9 — oranges, strawberries, broccoli, pasta, beans, nuts, and leafy greens like spinach — should be a part of your daily diet.
The Basics of Eating Well When Pregnant
A well-balanced diet consisting all five food groups is crucial to a healthy pregnancy. After all, your food and drink choices are your baby’s main source of nutrition.
- What foods to eat by food group
- Grains: A great source of Vitamin B9 is grains, both whole and enriched/fortified. In the United States, all enriched flour and grain foods are required to be fortified with folic acid, and should make up half of a woman’s grain intake while pregnant — six to eight servings daily*. Whole grains are equally important during pregnancy for fiber, potassium, and magnesium. Grains include: oatmeal, cereal, bread, pasta, pitas/tortillas, quinoa, barley, waffles, and pancakes. *One serving generally amounts to one slice of bread or half a cup of grains.
- Fruits: Fruits are a delicious way to receive essential nutrients while pregnant, with the USDA recommending two cups of fruit daily. Daily fruit intake can be from fresh, canned, dried, or frozen fruits, as well as 100% fruit juice. Nutrients from fruit that are high in fiber and potassium, such as kiwis and bananas, can help with common pregnancy symptoms such as constipation and leg cramps, while fruit with Vitamin C, such as citrus fruits and melons, and Vitamin B9, including avocados and pineapples, help reduce the risk of birth defects and health complications.
- Vegetables: Similar to fruit, vegetables can be raw, cooked, canned, frozen, and dried, and 100% vegetable juice also counts towards the recommended four to five servings per day. Diversify your vegetable intake with a mix of leafy greens including kale, spinach, collard greens, and swiss chard, as well as dark green and deep yellow, orange, purple, and red vegetables, such as asparagus, bell peppers, beets, broccoli, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and squash.
- Protein: Consuming plenty of protein is imperative to your baby’s growth in developing their skin, muscle, hair, and bones. While many women receive more than the required protein requirements, some proteins are better during pregnancy than others. Lean meats, eggs, fish, poultry, dairy, legumes, as well as nuts and seeds are all recommended sources of protein for pregnant women.
- Dairy: Three to four daily servings of calcium-rich foods, such as milk, eggs, yogurt, and cheese, will help pregnant women meet the required 1,000 milligrams they should consume. While cream and butter are also considered dairy foods, they should be consumed in lesser amounts due to their high fat content. Similarly, certain cheeses should be avoided altogether due to their saturated fat and salt content, including brie and camembert. Lastly, all dairy foods consumed during pregnancy should be pasteurized.
- What foods to limit during pregnancy
- Fish: While fish is considered a recommended protein, mercury found in some fish should be limited, as the metal can be passed to your baby during pregnancy. Consuming too much fish with mercury can lead to brain damage and, impaired hearing and vision for your baby. Limit your intake of salmon, catfish, and canned light tuna, as well as shrimp to eight to twelve ounces per week, and avoid seafood such as swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.
- Caffeine: Found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and soda, limit your caffeine intake to 200 milligrams and less a day, or about one twelve-ounce cup of coffee.
- What foods to avoid
- Raw foods: Toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by toxoplasmas, generally occurs by eating undercooked, raw, and/or contaminated meat, fish, and eggs, and may impair your baby’s vision and learning post-birth.
- Alcohol: Consuming alcohol while pregnant puts your baby at risk of developing fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), resulting in learning difficulties; behavioral, mental, and emotional problems; and physical disability, hindering their growth throughout their lifetime. Consuming large amounts of alcohol at any stage of pregnancy also increases the risk of preterm delivery and stillbirth.
Other foods to avoid include those susceptible to listeriosis — a bacteria found in some food items, even if food is properly stored — can weaken the immune system for those who are pregnant. Foods such as deli meats, unpasteurized soft cheeses, pate and meat spreads, as well as smoked seafood and fish.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight while Pregnant
Gaining a healthy amount of weight during pregnancy is important for the long-term health of mother and baby, and is based on your body mass index (BMI) before pregnancy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those pregnant with one baby should gain:
|BMI Before Pregnancy||Health Weight Gain|
|Less than 18.5||28-40 pounds|
|Greater than 30||11-20 pounds|
While tracking your pregnancy weight is important, it is more important to track the development and growth of your baby. Maintain a healthy pregnancy weight with a well-balanced diet and regular exercise, including swimming, walking, or yoga. Contact sports and those involving jumping should be avoided. Being mindful of your portion size will also help ensure you are receiving the proper nutrients and caloric intake for your weight.
Health implications can arise if a healthy pregnancy weight is not maintained, including an increased risk of miscarriage, preterm delivery, and a baby with a low or high birth weight. Those considered overweight or obese are at a greater risk of health complications such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and fetal abnormalities, while those who are underweight or struggle to gain a healthy amount of weight during pregnancy may not be providing the necessary nutrients to their baby.
Limiting and restricting your caloric intake will not only affect your pregnancy weight and therefore your baby, but such limitations and restrictions will also risk placental growth. According to the National Institute of Heath, limiting your caloric intake while pregnant effects placental size and function, putting you and your baby at risk of health complications during pregnancy. Thus, diets such as The Zone, Raw Food Diet, South Beach, and Atkins are advised against.
Maintaining a Healthy Diet as a Vegetarian or Vegan
Despite misplaced concern, vegetarians and vegans have perfectly healthy pregnancies and babies, and it is reasonably simple to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet throughout your pregnancy, while still meeting the nutritional needs of you and your baby. The key is to eat a well-balanced diet, rich in foods that provide enough protein, calories, and nutrients.
While meats and other animal-based products are no doubt, nutrient-rich, it’s still easy to satisfy your body’s need for additional protein and other key nutrients from other food sources, without having to sacrifice your diet:
- Protein: For women who consume dairy and eggs, they are likely meeting their daily protein requirements. However, if you’re worried you aren’t getting enough protein, or are vegan, there are a host of veggie-based proteins you can add into your diet such as legumes, whole grains, soy, nuts, and seeds.
- Calcium: Fortunately, dairy products aren’t the only reliable source of calcium. Soy milk, tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, and green leafy vegetables all contain calcium, and for vegetarians, so too does yogurt, milk, and cheese products. You may also want to consider a calcium supplement.
- Iron: This one is easy for vegetarian and vegans! Beans, soy products, dried fruit, spinach, kale, collard greens, and even seaweed, plus quinoa, barley, oat bran, and bulgur.
- Vitamin B12: Vegetarians and vegan are more susceptible to vitamin B12 deficiencies so it’s important you speak to your doctor about possible B12 or folic acid supplements, but foods such as fortified cereals, and vitamin B12-fortified soy milk will help.
- Vitamin D: By far, the best sources for vitamin D are milk and fish. If you’re vegan, a few minutes in the sun each day can help produce vitamin D, but this isn’t a reliable source for many. Soy milk, breads, cereals, and orange juice will help, but likely you should speak with your doctor about a supplement.