Eating well during pregnancy is not just about eating more. What you eat is as important.
You only need about 340 to 450 extra calories a day, and this is later in your pregnancy, when your baby grows quickly. This isn't a lot — a cup of cereal and 2% milk will get you there quickly. It's important is to make sure that the calories you eat come from nutritious foods that will help your baby's growth and development.
Eating Well When You're Pregnant
Do you wonder how it's reasonable to gain 25 to 35 pounds (on average) during your pregnancy when a newborn baby weighs only a fraction of that? Although it varies from woman to woman, this is how those pounds may add up:
- 7.5 pounds: average baby's weight
- 7 pounds: extra stored protein, fat, and other nutrients
- 4 pounds: extra blood
- 4 pounds: other extra body fluids
- 2 pounds: breast enlargement
- 2 pounds: enlargement of your uterus
- 2 pounds: amniotic fluid surrounding your baby
- 1.5 pounds: the placenta
Of course, patterns of weight gain during pregnancy vary. It's normal to gain less if you start out heavier and more if you're having twins or triplets — or if you were underweight before becoming pregnant. More important than how much weight you gain is what makes up those extra pounds.
When you're pregnant, what you eat and drink is the main source of nourishment for your baby. In fact, the link between what you consume and the health of your baby is much stronger than once thought. That's why doctors now say, for example, that no amount of alcohol consumption should be considered safe during pregnancy.
The extra food you eat shouldn't just be empty calories — it should provide the nutrients your growing baby needs. For example, calcium helps make and keep bones and teeth strong. While you're pregnant, you still need calcium for your body, plus extra calcium for your developing baby. Similarly, you require more of all the essential nutrients than you did before you became pregnant.
Nutrition for Expectant Moms
A healthy diet includes proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and plenty of water. The U.S. government publishes dietary guidelines that can help you determine how many servings of each kind of food to eat every day. Eating a variety of foods in the proportions indicated is a good step toward staying healthy.
Food labels can tell you what kinds of nutrients are in the foods you eat. The letters RDA, which you find on food labeling, stand for recommended daily allowance, or the amount of a nutrient recommended for your daily diet. When you're pregnant, the RDAs for most nutrients are higher.
Here are some of the most common nutrients you need and the foods that contain them:
Scientists know that your diet can affect your baby's health — even before you become pregnant. For example, research shows that folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects (including spina bifida) during the earliest stages of fetal development. So it's important to get plenty of it before you become pregnant and during the early weeks of your pregnancy.
Doctors encourage women to take folic acid supplements before and throughout pregnancy (especially for the first 28 days). Be sure to ask your doctor about folic acid if you're considering becoming pregnant.
Calcium is another important nutrient. Because your growing baby's calcium demands are high, you should increase your calcium consumption to prevent a loss of calcium from your own bones. Your doctor will also likely prescribe prenatal vitamins for you, which contain some extra calcium.
Your best food sources of calcium are milk and other dairy products. However, if you have lactose intolerance or dislike milk and milk products, ask your doctor about a calcium supplement. (Signs of lactose intolerance include diarrhea, bloating, or gas after eating milk or milk products. Taking a lactase capsule or pill or using lactose-free milk products may help.) Other calcium-rich foods include sardines or salmon with bones, tofu, broccoli, spinach, and calcium-fortified juices and foods.
Doctors don't usually recommend starting a strict vegan diet when you become pregnant. However, if you already follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, you can continue to do so during your pregnancy — but do it carefully. Be sure your doctor knows about your diet. It's challenging to get the nutrition you need if you don't eat fish and chicken, or milk, cheese, or eggs. You'll likely need supplemental protein and may also need to take vitamin B12 and D supplements.
To ensure that you and your baby receive adequate nutrition, consult a registered dietitian for help with planning meals.
Food Cravings During Pregnancy
You've probably known women who craved specific foods during pregnancy, or perhaps you've had such cravings yourself. Some old theories held that a hunger for a particular type of food indicated that a woman's body lacked the nutrients that food contains. Although this turned out not to be so, it's still unclear why these urges occur.
Some pregnant women crave chocolate, spicy foods, fruits, and comfort foods, such as mashed potatoes, cereals, and toasted white bread. Other women crave non-food items, such as clay and cornstarch. The craving and eating of non-food items is known as pica. Consuming things that aren't food can be dangerous to both you and your baby. If you have urges to eat non-food items, notify your doctor.
But following your cravings is fine as long as you crave foods that contribute to a healthy diet. Often, these cravings let up about 3 months into the pregnancy.
Food and Drinks to Avoid While Pregnant
No level of alcohol consumption is considered safe during pregnancy. Also, check with your doctor before you take any vitamins or herbal products. Some of these can be harmful to the developing fetus.
And although many doctors feel that one or two 6- to 8-ounce cups per day of coffee, tea, or soda with caffeine won't harm your baby, it's probably wise to avoid caffeine altogether if you can. High caffeine consumption has been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage and other problems, so limit your intake or switch to decaffeinated products.
When you're pregnant, it's also important to avoid food-borne illnesses, such as listeriosis and toxoplasmosis, which can be life threatening to an unborn baby and may cause birth defects or miscarriage. Foods to steer clear of include:
- soft, unpasteurized cheeses (often advertised as "fresh") such as feta, goat, Brie, Camembert, and blue cheese
- unpasteurized milk, juices, and apple cider
- raw eggs or foods containing raw eggs, including mousse and tiramisu
- raw or undercooked meats, fish, or shellfish
- processed meats such as hot dogs and deli meats (these should be thoroughly cooked)
- fish that are high in mercury, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, tuna steak (bigeye or ahi), and tilefish
If you've eaten these foods at some point during your pregnancy, try not to worry too much about it now; just avoid them for the remainder of the pregnancy. If you're really concerned, talk to your doctor.
More About Fish
Fish and shellfish can be an extremely healthy part of your pregnancy diet — they contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and are high in protein and low in saturated fat. But limit the types of fish you eat while pregnant because some contain high levels of mercury, which can cause damage to the developing nervous system of a fetus.
Mercury, which occurs naturally in the environment, is also released into the air through industrial pollution and can accumulate in streams and oceans, where it turns into methylmercury. The methylmercury builds up in fish, especially those that eat other fish.
Canned tuna can be confusing because the cans contain different types of tuna and varying quantities of mercury The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends eating 2–3 servings per week of canned light tuna, but only one serving per week of albacore/white tuna (these are larger fish and contain more mercury). A 2017 review by Consumer Reports, though, showed that some canned light and albacore tuna can contain higher mercury levels than expected, and recommends that pregnant women eat no canned tuna at all. But the FDA stands by its current recommendations, saying that the levels are safe if tuna consumption is limited.
It can be confusing when recommendations from trusted sources differ. But because this analysis indicates that amounts of mercury in tuna may be higher than previously reported, some women may want to eliminate tuna from their diet while pregnant or when trying to become pregnant.
Almost all fish and shellfish contain small amounts of mercury, but you can safely eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, such as salmon, shrimp, clams, pollock, catfish, and tilapia.
Talk with your doctor if you have any questions about how much — and which — fish you can eat.
Managing Some Common Problems
The iron in prenatal vitamins and other things can cause constipation during pregnancy. So try to get more fiber than you did before you became pregnant. Try to eat about 20 to 30 grams of fiber a day. Your best sources are fresh fruits and vegetables and whole-grain breads, cereals, or muffins.
Some people use fiber tablets or drinks or other high-fiber products, but check with your doctor before trying them. (Don't use laxatives while you're pregnant unless your doctor advises you to do so. And avoid the old wives' remedy — castor oil — because it can actually interfere with your body's ability to absorb nutrients.)
If constipation is a problem for you, your doctor may prescribe a stool softener. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids, especially water, when increasing fiber intake, or you can make your constipation worse.
One of the best ways to avoid constipation is to get more exercise. Drink plenty of water between meals each day to help soften your stools and move food through your digestive system. Sometimes hot tea, soups, or broth can help. Also, keep dried fruits handy for snacking.
Some pregnant women find that broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, and fried foods give them heartburn or gas. You can plan a balanced diet to avoid these foods. Carbonated drinks also cause gas or heartburn for some women, although others find they calm the digestive system.
If you're often nauseated, eat small amounts of bland foods, like toast or crackers, throughout the day. Some women find it helpful to eat foods made with ginger. To help combat nausea, you can also:
- Take your prenatal vitamin before going to bed after you've eaten a snack — not on an empty stomach.
- Eat a small snack when you get up to go to the bathroom early in the morning.
- Suck on hard candy.