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Pregnancy Diet and Nutrition | What to Eat, What Not to Eat

pregnancy, nutrition, diet
Credit: Valeriy Velikov | Shutterstock

There's a reason they say you're "eating for two" when you're pregnant. In addition to the nutrients that your body usually needs, you now have a baby growing inside of you who is relying on you to provide what it needs to thrive and develop. The best way to ensure this is with a healthy diet that is balanced with the minerals and nutrients that the baby needs.

Misconceptions about diet

Your body is going to undergo a number of changes, including increasing blood volume, a growing uterus and lactation. These changes require energy, and that must come in an extra 300 calories a day during the second and third trimesters. They should not be junk or empty calories, however. It's important to eat a balanced diet filled with fruits, vegetables, proteins and whole grains.

Just because you are eating for two does not mean you get to double your caloric intake or eat whatever you want. You will have cravings, but this is not, as many believe, your body letting you know what it needs. Pregnant women crave all sorts of foods and combinations (ice cream and pickles, anyone?), and this has little to do with what your body needs.

Some people believe that the less weight you gain during the pregnancy, the easier labor will be. This is not only untrue, but places the baby in serious danger. Mothers must gain enough weight during pregnancy or put their babies at risk for premature birth and the complications that come with it, like lung and heart problems. Aim for gaining two to four pounds total during the first trimester, then three to four pounds per month in the second and third trimesters.

What you need

Make sure that you are getting enough folate and folic acid. A B vitamin that prevents neural tube defects (like spina bifida), folate (or its synthetic form, folic acid) can be found in supplements or fortified foods. Roughly 600 to 800 mg per day before conception and throughout pregnancy can decrease the risk of premature birth as well. You can find folic acid in fortified cereals, or the naturally occurring folate is also found in leafy greens, citrus fruits, and legumes.

Calcium is important for strong bone and teeth, and helps the circulatory system run normally. It also has positive benefits to the muscular and nervous systems and helps regulate the body's fluids. Pregnant women should aim for 1,000 mg a day, while pregnant teens need to aim for 1,300 mg a day. To get calcium, consume dairy products, like milk or yogurt, or vegetables like broccoli or kale. Calcium is also in fortified cereals and many fruit juices. With some of the same benefits as calcium, vitamin D helps build the baby's bones and teeth. Aim for 600 IU per day, either through a supplement, fatty fish or fortified milk/juices.

As mentioned earlier, your blood volume increases to help the baby make a blood supply. This means your body needs iron, which makes hemoglobin. Iron deficiencies can cause fatigue, increase the risk for premature labor and low birth weight, plus make you more susceptible to infections. Make sure you get at least 27 mg a day, through sources like lean meats, fortified cereals, beans, or spinach.

In the second and third trimester, protein becomes more important. Protein is vital to help your breast and uterine tissue grow during pregnancy, as well as helping with the increased blood supply. It is necessary for the growth of the baby, including fetal brain tissue, and you'll need to take in between 75 and 100 grams per day. The good thing is that there are many protein sources, like lean meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. For vegetarians, legumes, tofu, and dairy products are a great source of protein.

Vitamin C is crucial for the immune system's ability to heal, tooth and bone development, and metabolic processes. Aim for 85 mg a day through citrus fruit or juices, as well as other types of fruit.

The Mayo Clinic recommends consulting with your health care provider before taking any supplements. Your doctor can help you find the right prenatal vitamin for you, depending on your needs.

What not to eat

Pregnancy affects your immune system, making you and the baby more susceptible to foodborne illnesses. Because you don't want to endanger the baby, you should try to avoid the following foods:

  • Soft cheeses from unpasteurized milk may contain E. coli or listeria. Eat hard cheeses instead, or cheese made from pasteurized milk
  • Raw cake batter or cookie dough may contain salmonella. No matter how tempting it is, don't lick the bowl!
  • Alcohol should not be consumed by pregnant women or those trying to conceive. This can cause behavioral and developmental problems for the baby, even just moderate drinking. Heavy drinking can cause serious problems, such as malformation.
  • Fish with high levels of mercury, such as shark, swordfish, mackerel or tuna. You can instead consume up to 12 ounces a week of fish and shellfish low in mercury, such as salmon, catfish and shrimp.
  • Raw or undercooked fish, such as sushi, may contain any number of parasites or bacteria that could harm you and the baby. Fish should be cooked to 145 degrees, and be low in mercury. Raw shellfish, such as oysters or clams on the half shell, can contain vibrio bacteria. These should also be cooked to 145 degrees.
  • Anything unpasteurized that should be, such as juice, cider or milk. These may contain E. coli or other bacteria. If drinking fresh-squeezed juice, bring it to a rolling boil for at least a minute before drinking.
  • Processed meats, such as deli meats or hot dogs, may contain listeria. Even if the meat is precooked, make sure it is properly reheated to at least 165 degrees.

Use common sense when eating food. If you cannot verify its source or the safety of its preparation, it's not worth the risk. When in doubt, don't eat it.

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