Healthy Eating and Pregnancy

Eating for two isn’t the free-for-all, guilt-free eating we often see in movies. In reality, eating healthy is more critical than ever during pregnancy. It means you’re making healthy choices for two. Your food should reflect that.

Taking steps early on to provide the nutrition your baby needs can make a big difference in your pregnancy. You’ll feel better and have more energy to cope with your changing body. Plus, you’ll also feel good about what you’re doing to ensure the health of your baby.

In addition to eating right, you should also take a prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid. While this can’t replace a well-balanced diet, it’s a good safety net for supplementing nutrients you may be missing in your diet. As your pregnancy develops, your baby also needs vitamins to grow. Prenatal vitamins help provide the extra nutrition your body will need. Your doctor can recommend the best prenatal vitamin for you.

Path to improved health

There is a lot to consider when planning the proper nutrition for you and your baby. There are foods your body needs now more than ever. There are also foods that you should avoid while pregnant.

Foods to add

  • Vegetables (fresh, frozen, or from a can)
    • Look for iron-rich spinach.
    • Dark green, leafy vegetables are rich in folate.
  • Fruits (fresh, frozen, or from a can)
    • If choosing canned fruit, look for those canned in water or in 100% fruit juice (no syrup).
  • Protein
    • Make sure all meats are cooked well.
    • Choose lean cuts.
    • Eat no more than 6 ounces of white tuna per week.
    • Beans, peas, eggs, and unsalted seeds and nuts are good sources of protein.
  • Grains
    • Whole grains are best.
    • Cereals are a good source for grains. Look for cereals fortified with iron and folic acid.
  • Dairy
    • Look for low-fat and fat-free versions of yogurt, milk, or soymilk.
  • Fish
    • Aim to eat between 8 and 12 ounces of “safe” fish each week. Note some fish must be avoided. See the list below under “Foods to avoid.”
    • “Safe” fish include catfish, salmon, shrimp, and tilapia.
    • Ask your doctor for a list of fish that are safe for you to eat.

Foods to avoid

  • Raw fish.
  • Raw shellfish.
  • Certain cooked fishes that may contain large amounts of mercury.
    • Swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel
  • Foods containing raw or undercooked eggs.
    • Cookie dough, cake batter, Caesar salad dressings, some sauces, and custards
  • Foods that could expose you to listeria.
    • Lunch meat, meat spreads, and hotdogs
  • Unpasteurized milk or juices.
  • Unpasteurized soft cheeses (blue cheese, queso blanco, Brie, feta, Roquefort).
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, clover, mung bean, radish).
  • Store-made salads (chicken salad, ham salad, tuna salad).
  • Alcohol.
  • Sugary drinks (soda, sports drinks).
  • Caffeine (no more than 200 mg per day).
  • Saccharin (other artificial sweeteners are okay in moderation).

Things to consider

Gestational diabetes

About 10% of women develop gestational diabetes during their pregnancy. Gestational diabetes is caused by insulin resistance.

During pregnancy, your cells are more resistant to insulin. Sugar that would normally enter cells stays in your bloodstream as a way to deliver more nutrients to your baby. If your cells become too resistant to insulin, too much sugar stays in your blood. This causes gestational diabetes.

Gestational diabetes can be dangerous because it can result in a higher birth weight for your baby. This can cause issues with your baby’s delivery. It also can trigger a pre-term birth or cause jaundice.

Your doctor will test for gestational diabetes between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy. Sometimes, your doctor will test again later in the pregnancy if he or she thinks the baby is growing too fast or too big.

If you have gestational diabetes, you will be offered dietary counseling. Your doctor may also refer you to a registered dietitian. He or she can help you find ways to manage your gestational diabetes. The dietician will provide a meal plan that can help reduce your blood sugar. It’s important to follow this meal plan, even if your doctor prescribes medicine to control your blood sugar. This typically includes:

  • Pairing carbohydrates with proteins.
  • Eating a set number of calories each day.
  • Limiting foods and drinks that have simple sugars (sodas, desserts).
  • Dividing calories more evenly throughout your day.

Baby’s health

Your food choices impact your baby. If you skimp on nutrition now, you run the risk of serious health complications for your baby. For example, you should make sure you’re getting enough folic acid. This is important for brain and spinal cord development. Too few calories could result in low birth weight and have a negative impact on baby development. Too many calories could result in high birth weight and a more complicated delivery for baby and for you.

Mom’s health

Having a baby takes a toll on your body in many ways. The toll is even greater without proper nutrition. If you skimp on foods rich in iron, you could become anemic. Too much junk food could increase your blood pressure and cause extra weight gain. Unhealthy food can even affect your mood.

When to see a doctor

Regular prenatal checkups should be part of your pregnancy routine. During these checkups, your doctor will monitor your weight as a way to ensure you’re gaining at an appropriate rate. How much weight you should gain during your pregnancy will depend on your weight when you became pregnant. Therefore, the number is different for everyone. In general, if your weight was within a healthy range when you became pregnant, you should gain 25 to 35 pounds.

Morning sickness

Don’t be fooled by the name. Morning sickness can strike at any time of day. It can even last throughout the day. For most women, morning sickness is limited to the first few weeks of pregnancy. Sometimes it lasts through the first trimester. For others, though, it can last throughout the pregnancy.

If you have morning sickness, the nausea you feel can make it difficult to keep food—or even liquids—in your stomach. This can put you in danger of dehydration. See your doctor right away if morning sickness is preventing you from eating most meals or preventing you from keeping liquids down. There are medicines that can help relieve morning sickness. Also, your doctor may direct you to take some additional vitamins and minerals. These are in addition to your regular prenatal vitamin.

Pica

Pregnancy and food cravings go hand-in-hand. Most likely, you’ll crave sweet or salty things. Sometimes you’ll crave foods you didn’t like before you became pregnant. However, if you begin to crave non-food items, it can be a warning sign of a vitamin or mineral deficiency. Some items some women want to eat include dirt and paint chips. Persistently eating things that aren’t food is associated with an eating disorder called pica. It can be a sign of anemia. If you have these cravings, don’t give in. See your doctor.

Listeria

If you become ill while you’re pregnant and it’s not because of morning sickness, see your doctor. Pregnant women—and their developing babies—are especially susceptible to listeria. Listeria is a type of bacterial infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms mimic those for the flu: nausea and vomiting, headaches, muscle aches, and fever. Left untreated, listeria can cause meningitis and other serious, life-threatening conditions.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Should I be alarmed if I’m not gaining enough weight?
  • Should I be alarmed if I’m gaining too much weight?
  • Am I taking the right prenatal vitamins?
  • How can I help manage my food cravings?
  • Are there any over-the-counter medicines I can take to relieve morning sickness?
  • Are there certain foods that can help relieve morning sickness?
  • What types of fish are safe to each while pregnant?
  • If I have gestational diabetes during pregnancy, will I have it after pregnancy, too?

Resources

Foodsafety.gov: People at Risk: Pregnant Women

National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Pregnancy and Nutrition

U.S. Food & Drug Administration: Dietary Advice for Moms to Be