Nutrition in Pregnancy

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by Meghan McGowan, MD
Sanford Clinic Women’s Health

When you’re eating for two, nutrition becomes more important than ever. Pregnancy is not a time to skip meals or stick to one specific diet, but instead to focus on eating balanced, healthy meals. Selecting and avoiding certain foods, taking the proper supplements and making sure that you’re getting the right amount of calories can all help you with your goal: helping your baby develop and grow.

Starting early
First of all, the best time to start making healthy lifestyle choices is long before you are actually pregnant. As early as six months before pregnancy, a woman should make sure she is eating a healthy diet and cutting out risky behaviors such as smoking and alcohol use to make sure her body is ready for a baby. She should also take a prenatal vitamin with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid, a supplement that can help prevent neural tube defects.

If you’re already pregnant, don’t worry, it’s not too late to make healthy changes that can benefit both you and your baby.

Your physician will talk to you about appropriate weight gain in pregnancy. The normal healthy weight gain for a pregnant woman is between 25 and 35 pounds. However, women who are underweight may need to gain more while overweight women may be advised not to gain any weight at all.
 
Counting calories
In general, pregnant women should opt for a diet that includes plenty of calcium, fruits and vegetables, as well as meats and fish. 

Calories are the number one most important nutritional factor in determining a healthy birth weight for your baby. The average pregnant woman needs 350 more calories a day during the second trimester of pregnancy and 450 more calories during the third trimester. When you’re looking to add those extra calories, do it with the best food choices, adding more dairy products, fruits and vegetables and grains instead of fast foods or three scoops of ice cream at bedtime. Babies who are a healthy weight at birth have the very best outcomes. They’re healthier overall, tend to breastfeed better and are most capable of regulating their own bodies.

DHA and Fish
Use some moderation in eating fish while pregnant. Fish is high in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid that is good for your baby’s brain and eye development. However, certain types of fish also have high mercury levels which are thought to negatively affect the brain and nervous system.

The safest fish for pregnant women are shrimp, salmon, catfish and canned light tuna. Eating two meals a week of these lower mercury level fish can give you the benefits fish can offer without the dangers. 

Food borne illnesses of all types can be more dangerous for pregnant women, making safe handling of food even more important. Raw or rare fish or meat is not safe, so make sure to cook your food thoroughly. Washing fruits and vegetables and avoiding unpasteurized dairy products or fruit juices will also help protect your health and the health of your growing baby.

Avoiding problems
Some types of foods have little or no place in a pregnant woman’s diet.

While few randomized controlled studies have been done on caffeine use during pregnancy, doctors think that there is a link between excessive caffeine and preterm births or small birth-weight babies. Physicians generally recommend limiting yourself to 200 mg of caffeine per day – which equates to two small cups of regular coffee or four small cups of black tea – while pregnant.

Few tests have been done on artificial sweeteners during pregnancy. While most doctors don’t suggest cutting out all sodas or food items that include sugar substitutes, using these in moderation is probably a good idea.

Alcohol should simply be avoided. While we know that large amounts of alcohol can cause mental retardation and/or physical abnormalities on a growing baby, we really don’t have studies that tell us what amount is safe. The safest thing to do for your baby is simply not to drink during pregnancy.

Healthy lifestyle
Eating healthy foods while pregnant will be a gift to both yourself and your baby. Your food choices will give your baby the nutrition he or she needs to grow and develop normally. The right diet will also nourish you and help you to maintain your energy level. By selecting the best foods, you can make every bite count.