When you are pregnant, it is important to eat a well-balanced, healthful diet. This includes getting the right amount of calories and key nutrients to support both you and your baby.
Since the amount of calories you need varies depending on age, weight, and physical activity among other things, talk with your healthcare provider about a calorie plan that is right for you.
Along with talking about the amount of calories and types of foods you need to consume to achieve a well-balanced, healthy diet during pregnancy, your healthcare provider may also discuss the kinds of nutrients you will need. There are some key nutrients, such as folic acid and iron , which deserve extra attention during pregnancy. Many women may also benefit from a vitamin supplement.
Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should consume 600 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid, or folate, every day. This mineral is most important during the first several weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant. Getting enough folic acid can help prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida . It may also help prevent other birth defects like cleft lip and congenital heart disease. You may also reduce your chance of having a miscarriage or stillbirth .
You can meet this requirement by eating a variety of foods rich in folic acid. For extra insurance, you may also want to take a folic acid supplement before you become pregnant and through your first trimester. (If you are taking a prenatal vitamin that contains folate, you do not need a separate folic acid supplement.)
Foods rich in folic acid include:
- Fortified breakfast cereal
- Whole-wheat breads
- Orange juice and citrus fruits
- Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli, and romaine lettuce
Iron is a mineral that helps red blood cells transport oxygen around the body. The recommended amount of iron for pregnant women is 27 milligrams (mg). Not getting enough of this mineral can lead to iron-deficiency anemia and pregnancy complications.
Good sources of iron include:
- Lean red meat
- Dried fruits
- Fortified breakfast cereals
Eating vitamin C -rich foods along with iron-containing foods can help with iron absorption. On the other hand, drinking tea or coffee at the same time can inhibit iron absorption.
Because it can be difficult to get all the iron you need from food alone, it is often recommended that all pregnant women take a prenatal vitamin that contains the necessary iron amount. Talk to your physician about iron supplementation. Taking too much iron can be toxic.
Good sources of calcium include:
- Low-fat or nonfat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese
- Fish canned with bones
- Green leafy vegetables
- Fortified soy milk or rice milk
- Fortified orange juice
- Other calcium-fortified foods
If you do not eat dairy products or enough foods fortified with calcium, talk to your healthcare provider about calcium and vitamin D supplementation. Vitamin D is necessary for the body to absorb and use the calcium.
During pregnancy the body becomes extra efficient at absorbing the nutrients in food. If you are eating a variety of healthful foods every day, you may not need a supplement. However, many women may benefit from taking a prenatal multivitamin. Some may need only an iron or folic acid supplement. Others may need an iodine supplement if deficient. Talk to your healthcare provider about your eating and lifestyle habits to determine if you should take a vitamin supplement.
No safe amount of alcohol has been shown in pregnancy. Therefore, it is recommended that you abstain from drinking until after your pregnancy.
Most experts agree that having 1-2 cups of coffee or tea per day is fine during pregnancy. There is some research that has linked high intakes of caffeine (more than 300 mg per day) with greater difficulty to conceive and a higher rate of miscarriages . One cup of brewed coffee contains about 135 mg of caffeine, 1 shot of espresso contains about 35 mg, 1 brewed tea bag contains about 50 mg, and a 16-ounce serving of cola has about 50 mg. Talk to your healthcare provider about how much caffeine you drink.
Seafood is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids , which are essential for the proper brain development of the fetus. Therefore, it is recommended that pregnant women include seafood, particularly fatty fish such as salmon, as a regular part of their diet.
Some seafood contains high amounts of mercury, a contaminant that can be harmful to the developing baby. Fish that should be avoided due to their high mercury content include: tilefish, king mackerel, swordfish, albacore tuna, and shark.
Good choices include salmon, sardines, catfish, canned light tuna, and shrimp. These are both high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury.
If you do not have a peanut allergy, you may want to consider consuming peanuts to lower the risk that your child will have a peanut allergy.
To avoid the risk of foodborne illness, which could harm you and your developing baby, it is important to pay close attention to food safety during pregnancy. Here are some general guidelines:
- Wash your hands before eating or preparing food.
- When preparing food, avoid cross-contamination of raw meats or poultry with other foods
- Cook meat to recommended temperatures
- Thoroughly reheat leftovers
- Avoid luncheon meats and hot dogs unless reheated until steaming
- Drink only pasteurized juice and milk
- Avoid raw or soft cheeses
Most artificial sweeteners are considered safe for use in moderation during pregnancy, including: acesulfame K (Sunett), aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal), and sucralose (Splenda). But more research is needed on saccharin (Sweet’N Low) and stevia - these should, therefore, be avoided by pregnant women.
Staying well-hydrated is important for the health of you and your baby, so try to drink at least 6-8 glasses of water a day. Make sure your water does not contain excess nitrate as in water from some private wells. Other beverages, such as juice and soda, also contribute to hydration, but tend to be high in calories and low in nutritional value.
- Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN
- Reviewed: 12/2015
- Updated: 11/17/2014
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