Pregnancy is a time of great joy and excitement but also a time of increased nutritional needs and challenges. You may have heard the saying that you should “eat for two” when you’re pregnant, but what does that really mean? How much and what should you eat to ensure a healthy pregnancy for you and your baby?
In this article, we will explain what nutrition is and how it affects your pregnancy, the benefits of good nutrition during pregnancy, the risks of poor nutrition during pregnancy, and how to improve it. By the end of this article, you will better understand why nutrition is important during pregnancy and how to make the best food choices for yourself and your baby.
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What is Nutrition, and How Does it Affect Your Pregnancy?
Nutrition is providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth. Nutrition is especially important during pregnancy because your body needs more nutrients to support your baby’s development. Some of the main nutrients that you and your baby need during pregnancy1Nutrition During Pregnancy. (n.d.). ACOG. https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/nutrition-during-pregnancy are:
Folic acid: This B vitamin helps prevent neural tube defects, which are serious congenital disabilities of the brain and spine. You need 600 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid per day during pregnancy. You can get folic acid from foods like leafy green vegetables, beans, nuts, fortified cereals, breads, and pasta or from supplements.
Iron: This is a mineral that helps your red blood cells carry oxygen to your baby. You need 27 milligrams (mg) of iron per day during pregnancy. You can get iron from foods like lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dried fruits, beans, tofu, spinach, and fortified cereals, or from supplements.
Calcium: This is a mineral that helps build strong bones and teeth for you and your baby. You need 1,000 mg of calcium per day if you are 19 or older, or 1,300 mg if you are 14 to 18. You can get calcium from foods like milk, cheese, yoghurt, sardines, broccoli, kale, almonds, and fortified orange juice.
Vitamin D: This vitamin helps your body absorb calcium and supports your immune system. You need 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day during pregnancy. You can get vitamin D from foods like fatty fish, egg yolks, cheese, mushrooms, and fortified milk or from supplements or exposure to sunlight.
Protein: This macronutrient helps build muscles, organs, skin, hair, and antibodies for you and your baby. You need about 71 grams of protein per day during pregnancy. You can get protein from foods like lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, soy products, and dairy products.
In addition to these nutrients, you also need more calories during pregnancy to provide energy for you and your baby2Eating right during pregnancy: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (n.d.). https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000584.htm. The amount of calories you need depends on your pre-pregnancy weight and your activity. Generally speaking,
If you were at a normal weight before pregnancy (body mass index or BMI between 18.5 and 24.9), you should gain about 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy. This means you need about 340 extra calories per day in the second trimester and about 450 extra per day in the third trimester.
If you were underweight before pregnancy (BMI below 18.5), you should gain about 28 to 40 pounds during pregnancy. This means you need about 340 extra calories per day in the second trimester and about 450 extra per day in the third trimester.
If you were overweight before pregnancy (BMI between 25 and 29.9), you should gain about 15 to 25 pounds during pregnancy. This means you need about 340 extra calories per day in the second trimester and about 450 extra per day in the third trimester.
If you had obesity before pregnancy (BMI of 30 or higher), you should gain about 11 to 20 pounds during pregnancy. This means you need about 340 extra calories per day in the second trimester and about 450 extra per day in the third trimester.
Gaining the right amount of weight during pregnancy is important for your and your baby’s health. Gaining too much or too little weight can increase the risk of complications such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, preterm birth, and cesarean delivery3Website, N. (2022, July 8). Weight gain in pregnancy. nhs.uk. https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/related-conditions/common-symptoms/weight-gain/.
The Benefits of Good Nutrition During Pregnancy
Good nutrition during pregnancy can have many benefits for you and your baby, such as:
Preventing or reducing common pregnancy complications: Eating a balanced diet that includes foods rich in iron, folic acid, calcium, vitamin D, and protein can help prevent or reduce the risk of anaemia, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and infections. Drinking enough fluids can also help prevent dehydration, constipation, urinary tract infections, and kidney stones.
Supporting your baby’s growth and development: Eating a balanced diet that provides enough calories and nutrients can help your baby grow at a healthy rate and reach optimal birth weight. Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, choline, iodine, and vitamin B12 can also help support your baby’s brain and nervous system development.
Preparing you for labor, delivery, and breastfeeding: Eating a balanced diet that includes foods rich in carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats can help you have enough energy and stamina for labor and delivery. Eating foods rich in vitamin C, zinc, and vitamin A can also help your body heal faster after giving birth. Eating foods rich in calcium, vitamin D, protein, and fluids can also help you produce enough breast milk for your baby.
Poor nutrition during pregnancy can have many negative consequences for you and your baby, such as:
Increasing the chances of birth defects, low birthweight, and preterm birth: Not getting enough folic acid during pregnancy can increase the risk of neural tube defects. Not getting enough iron during pregnancy can increase the risk of low birth weight and preterm birth. Not getting enough calcium and vitamin D during pregnancy can increase the risk of rickets, which causes weak bones in babies.
Affecting your mood, energy, and immune system: Not getting enough calories, carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals during pregnancy can make you feel tired, irritable, depressed, and more prone to infections. Not getting enough fluids during pregnancy can make you feel thirsty, dizzy, headache, and nauseous.
Contributing to chronic diseases for you and your baby later in life: Not getting enough nutrients during pregnancy can affect your metabolism and hormone levels. This can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and osteoporosis later in life. It can also affect your baby’s metabolism and hormone levels. This can increase their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, asthma, allergies, and cognitive problems later in life.
How to Improve Your Nutrition During Pregnancy
Improving your nutrition during pregnancy is good for you and your baby and easier than you may think. Here are some tips and strategies to help you eat well during pregnancy:
Eat a variety of foods from all food groups: Eating a variety of foods from all food groups can help you get all the nutrients that you and your baby need during pregnancy. The food groups include fruits, vegetables, and grains. Protein foods include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, and soy products; dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt; and oils such as olive oil, canola oil, and sunflower oil. Try to eat at least three servings of fruits, four servings of vegetables, six servings of grains (half of them whole grains), three servings of protein foods, and three servings of dairy products per day. You can also use MyPlate as a guide to plan your meals and snacks.
Choose foods that are rich in the nutrients that you and your baby need most: Some foods are excellent sources of the nutrients that you and your baby need most during pregnancy, such as folic acid, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Here are some examples of foods that are rich in these nutrients:
Folic acid: leafy green vegetables, beans, nuts, fortified cereals, breads, and pasta
Avoid or limit foods and beverages that are harmful or have little nutritional value: Some foods and beverages can be harmful or have little nutritional value for you and your baby during pregnancy. These include:
Alcohol: Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which are a range of physical, mental, behavioral, and learning problems that can affect your baby for life. There is no safe amount or type of alcohol during pregnancy. Therefore, you should avoid alcohol completely when you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that can cross the placenta and affect your baby’s heart rate and breathing. High caffeine intake during pregnancy can also increase the risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, and preterm birth. Therefore, you should limit your caffeine intake to no more than 200 mg per day during pregnancy. This equals about one 12-ounce coffee or two 8-ounce cups of tea. You should also be aware that caffeine is found in other sources, such as chocolate, energy drinks, soft drinks, and some medications.
Fish high in mercury: Mercury is a toxic metal that can damage your baby’s brain and nervous system. Some fish contain high levels of mercury because they feed on other fish that have mercury in their bodies. You should avoid eating fish high in mercury during pregnancy, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. You should also limit your tuna intake to no more than 6 ounces per week. You can eat up to 12 ounces of fish low in mercury per week, such as salmon, trout, sardines, herring, anchovies, and shrimp.
Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and sprouts: These foods can contain harmful bacteria such as salmonella, listeria, e.coli, and campylobacter that can cause food poisoning for you and your baby. Food poisoning can lead to dehydration, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, headache, and in some cases, miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature labor. Therefore, you should cook these foods thoroughly until they reach a safe internal temperature and avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs, seafood, and sprouts.
Unpasteurized milk, cheese, and juice: These foods can also contain harmful bacteria, such as listeria, that can cause food poisoning for you and your baby. Listeria can cross the placenta and infect your baby, causing serious complications such as meningitis, sepsis, or death. Therefore, you should only consume pasteurized milk, cheese, and juice during pregnancy and avoid eating soft cheeses such as brie, camembert, feta, and blue cheese unless they are made from pasteurized milk.
Artificial sweeteners: These substances are used to sweeten foods and beverages without adding calories or sugar. Some artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and stevia are considered safe to use during pregnancy in moderation. However, some artificial sweeteners such as cyclamate and acesulfame potassium are banned in some countries due to their potential health risks. Therefore, you should limit your intake of artificial sweeteners during pregnancy and choose natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar instead.
Processed foods: These foods have been altered from their natural state by adding preservatives, additives, flavorings, colorings, or other substances. Processed foods tend to be high in calories, fat, salt, sugar, and chemicals that can affect your and your baby’s health. Processed foods can also lack essential nutrients you and your baby need during pregnancy. Therefore, you should limit your intake of processed foods during pregnancy and choose fresh, whole, or minimally processed foods instead.
Overcome common barriers to good nutrition during pregnancy: Eating well during pregnancy can be challenging for many reasons. You may face barriers such as nausea, vomiting, heartburn, constipation, cravings, aversions, lack of time, money, or access to healthy foods. However, you can overcome these barriers by following some tips and strategies such as:
For nausea and vomiting: Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day instead of three large meals. Avoid foods that are spicy, greasy, or have strong odors. Eat dry foods such as crackers, toast, or cereal in the morning before getting up. Drink fluids between meals rather than with meals. Sip on ginger tea, lemon water, or peppermint tea to soothe your stomach. Wear acupressure wristbands or take vitamin B6 supplements to reduce nausea.
For heartburn: Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day instead of three large meals. Avoid foods that are spicy, acidic, fatty, or caffeinated. Eat slowly and chew well. Do not lie down right after eating. Elevate your head with pillows when sleeping. Take antacids or other medications as prescribed by your doctor to relieve heartburn.
For constipation: Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day to keep your stools soft. Eat foods that are high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Exercise regularly to stimulate your bowel movements. Do not use laxatives or enemas without consulting your doctor.
For cravings and aversions: Listen to your body and eat what you feel like eating as long as it is healthy and safe for you and your baby. Cravings and aversions are normal during pregnancy and may indicate a need for certain nutrients or a dislike for certain smells or tastes. However, do not overindulge in unhealthy foods that are high in calories, fat, salt, sugar, or chemicals that can harm you and your baby. If you crave something that is not good for you, try to find a healthier alternative or limit your portion size. If you have an aversion to something good for you, try to prepare it differently or mix it with other foods you like.
For lack of time, money, or access to healthy foods: Eating well during pregnancy does not have to be expensive, time-consuming, or difficult. You can save time and money by planning your meals and snacks ahead of time, making a grocery list, buying in bulk, using coupons, cooking in large batches, freezing leftovers, and eating at home more often. You can also use canned, frozen, or dried foods that are low in sodium and added sugars, as they are cheaper and last longer than fresh foods. You can also grow your own fruits and vegetables in a garden or a pot if you have space and access to water. You can also seek help from local food banks, community gardens, farmers’ markets, or nutrition programs that provide healthy foods for pregnant women and their families.
Nutrition is one of the most critical factors affecting your and your baby’s health during pregnancy. Eating a balanced diet that provides enough calories and nutrients can help prevent or reduce common pregnancy complications, support your baby’s growth and development, prepare you for labor, delivery, and breastfeeding, and protect you and your baby from chronic diseases later in life. Eating a balanced diet also means avoiding or limiting foods and beverages that are harmful or have little nutritional value for you and your baby. Eating well during pregnancy can also help you cope with some of the challenges and changes that come with pregnancy, such as nausea, vomiting, heartburn, constipation, cravings, aversions, lack of time, money, or access to healthy foods.
We hope this article has helped you understand why nutrition is important during pregnancy and how to improve your nutrition during pregnancy. Remember that you are not alone in this journey and that many resources and people can help you along the way. If you have any questions or concerns about your nutrition during pregnancy, do not hesitate to talk to your doctor, dietitian, nurse, or other health care provider. They can give you personalized advice and guidance based on your medical history, current health status, and individual needs.
We wish you all the best for a healthy and happy pregnancy!
Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about nutrition during pregnancy:
Q: How much water should I drink during pregnancy?
A: You should drink about 10 cups (2.4 liters) of fluids per day during pregnancy to stay hydrated and prevent dehydration, constipation, urinary tract infections, and kidney stones. Fluids include water, milk, juice, soup, and herbal teas. You should avoid drinking alcohol, caffeine, and sugary drinks as they can dehydrate you and harm your baby.
Q: Can I take supplements during pregnancy?
A: You may need to take supplements during pregnancy to meet your increased nutritional needs or to correct any deficiencies. However, you should not take any supplements without consulting your doctor first, as some supplements may be harmful or unnecessary for you and your baby. The most common supplements that pregnant women need are prenatal vitamins, folic acid, iron, and calcium.
Q: Can I follow a vegetarian or vegan diet during pregnancy?
A: You can follow a vegetarian or vegan diet during pregnancy as long as you eat various foods from all food groups and get enough protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D from plant-based sources or supplements. You may also need to take extra folic acid, zinc, and iodine supplements as these nutrients are more difficult to obtain from plant-based sources.
A: You can eat sushi during pregnancy if it is made with cooked fish or seafood or vegetarian ingredients such as avocado, cucumber, or tofu. However, you should avoid eating sushi made with raw fish or seafood as they may contain harmful bacteria or parasites that can cause food poisoning for you and your baby. You should also avoid eating fish that are high in mercury, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish5Lindberg, S. (2020, February 25). Can You Eat Sushi While Pregnant? Choosing Safe Sushi Rolls. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/pregnancy/can-pregnant-women-eat-sushi.
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