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How To Eat Right During Pregnancy

By Anett Ume, MA, RD, LDN

Following a nutritious diet during pregnancy is important to keep the mother and the developing baby healthy. Although the general recommendations, like eating whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean protein still apply, eating while pregnant is not the same. Your diet strongly determines the health of your baby, so you might want to watch what nutrients are important to keep your fetus healthy, prevent birth defects, and what foods can cause problems. Here are some notes to consider per a registered dietitian:


Increased calorie needs and appropriate weight gain

Let’s start with the most common question: how much should a pregnant woman eat? Generally, women can continue their pre-pregnancy recommended calorie intake in the first trimester but need an additional 340 calories per day in their second, and an additional 450 calories per day in their third trimester to provide the nutrient needs of the fast-developing baby. The easiest way is to incorporate 1-2 extra snacks daily but increasing portion sizes can also help. When it comes to weight gain, 2-6 lb. is recommended throughout the first trimester, followed by 0.5-1 lb. per week thereafter, depending on your previous weight status. If you are underweight, you might need to eat more to support a healthy environment for your child and avoid him/her being born premature or small for gestational age.  Ask your medical provider how much is best for you.

Examples of 300-calorie snacks:

  • ½ cup Greek yogurt with 1 Tbs honey and 1 Tbs chopped nuts/seeds/ chia seeds
  • 1 apple or banana with 2 Tbs peanut butter
  • ¾ cup oatmeal with ½ cup 2% milk and 1 Tbs dried raisins or cranberries
  • ½ cup trail mix
  • 1 toast with butter, ½ avocado, and 1 oz mozzarella cheese
  • 2 Tbs hummus, ¼ cup pumpkin seeds, carrot sticks

Get the important nutrients

Protein: There is an increased need for protein during pregnancy due to the growing life inside of your body. Choose lean meat, cooked seafood (check below what is safe to eat), and low-fat pasteurized milk daily. Add high-protein snacks such as peanut butter, yogurt, cheese, unsalted nuts, and seeds.

Folic acid: This vitamin helps prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. It is found in leafy green vegetables such as spinach, berries, nuts, beans, broccoli, whole grains, seeds, seafood, fortified cereals, and oranges.

Iron: Increased iron is necessary to ensure the fetus is receiving adequate oxygen, growing properly, and has enough fetal blood production. The best sources of iron include enriched grain products, leafy green vegetables, beans, lentils, and animal proteins: poultry, fish, beef, and pork.

Calcium and Vitamin D: Calcium is needed to build teeth and bones, and it allows the heart, muscles, and nerves to function properly. Inadequate intake can cause pregnancy-induced hypertension and pre-eclampsia which can lead to preterm birth. Eat dairy and milk products, fortified cereal, soy beverages, greens, almonds, sardines, tofu, and avocado often. Vitamin D helps the absorption of calcium, it is found in egg yolk, salmon, fortified milk, and orange juice.

Women with vegan, vegetarian, or restricted diet are more at risk of inadequate intake of necessary nutrients, especially iron and calcium. Even if your diet includes a wide variety of foods, it is still needed to take your prenatal vitamins daily to ensure you receive all the nutrients that you and your growing baby need.

Avoid caffeine and added sugar

Caffeine passes through the placenta and can affect your baby. It is recommended to avoid or limit your caffeine intake below 200 mg per day (about 1 cup of coffee). Don’t forget, many other drinks, including soda, teas, and energy drinks contain caffeine. Too much of it can increase the risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, gestational diabetes, miscarriage, and growth retardation. Added sugar should be limited to avoid excessive weight gain, and complications such as pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, and preterm birth.

Don’t drink any alcohol

No amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy, so it should be strictly avoided. Drinking alcohol while pregnant is the leading cause of birth defects and increases the risk of miscarriage and low birth weight. Any amount of alcohol affects the baby’s neurological, cognitive, and cardiological health, and kidney function that cannot be cured later after birth.

Avoid these foods and the risk of foodborne illness 

  • Unpasteurized milk and juices, soft cheeses such as *feta, camembert, and gorgonzola, because they can contain listeria.
  • Hot dogs and lunch meat unless you heat them until steaming hot before eating.
  • Raw or undercooked meat, egg, fish, sushi, raw smoked seafood.
  • Bigeye tuna, mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish, and tilefish as they can be high in mercury. Canned tuna, bass, wild-caught salmon, shrimp, trout, catfish, and tilapia are safe to eat.

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