Whether you’re a long distance runner or bodybuilding pro, chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve modified your diet to train for an event. Wanting the best results from your training and performance, you consumed a specific amount of specific foods. Similarly, pregnancy is a nine month long event that will require a significant amount of energy. While this is no time to start a new diet or try to lose weight, improving your eating habits during pregnancy will be extremely advantageous to you and your growing baby.
Throughout these nine months, your nutritional needs will vary. It’s important to have a foundational knowledge of the vitamins and minerals that are required for a healthy pregnancy. This is your opportunity to positively impact your future child, simply through the foods you do (or don’t) eat.
Adapting to the Changes
You will experience a variety of bodily changes that will affect your diet throughout pregnancy. Your uterus will fill with amniotic fluid and grow to accommodate your baby. Your breasts will fill with milk. It is normal to gain 25-35 pounds if you start with a BMI between the recommended 18.5 and 24.9. If your BMI is lower, expect to gain between 28 and 40 pounds. With a higher BMI between 25 and 29, expect to gain between 15 and 25 pounds.
Two of the most common pregnancy symptoms that will take their toll during the first trimester are food aversions and morning sickness. These nagging side effects can significantly impact your prenatal diet, sometimes resulting in weight loss during those early weeks. However, this generally is no reason for concern, as long as you’re able to resume a nutrient rich diet in the second and third trimesters. Food aversions, along with morning sickness, are generally caused by hormonal changes. The pregnancy human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) peaks and levels off around week 11 of pregnancy. These hormonal symptoms usually go away after the first trimester, but sometimes they last throughout pregnancy.
Nausea, heartburn and constipation are also common throughout the pregnancy journey. You can reduce these symptoms by eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, exercising and avoiding excess sugar and fat. During the second and third trimesters, you will need an additional 300-350 calories per day to accommodate your growing baby. It is a myth that you should be eating for two.
Loading Up on Nutrients
The best way to fill your prenatal diet requirements is by eating from a variety of food groups, focusing on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein and dairy sources.
- Fruits and vegetables are rich in two of the pregnancy nutrients, Vitamin C and folate.
- Vitamin C. Both you and your baby need Vitamin C to support the production of collagen, a structural protein that’s a component of cartilage, tendons, bones and skin. It helps your body fight infections and acts as an antioxidant while supporting metabolic processes. Aim for 85mg per day and choose from sources such as oranges, grapefruits, honeydew, broccoli, tomatoes and brussel sprouts.
- Folate (Vitamin B9). Folate protects unborn babies against serious birth defects. Choose natural sources of folate such as dark leafy vegetables such as spinach, asparagus, broccoli, black beans and lima beans. During pregnancy, it is important to consume 400-800mcg per day, being careful not to exceed 1000mcg.
- Whole grains are a fantastic source of nutrients including iron, B vitamins and fiber. While whole grains may contain folic acid, this is a fortified version of folate and, for some people, the body is unable to break it down properly. This is why it’s important to consume a variety of folate-rich fruits and vegetables.
- Iron. During pregnancy, your body uses iron to make extra blood for your baby. It also helps move oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body, and to your baby’s. Aim for at least 27mg each day during pregnancy. Lentils, raisins, kidney beans, beef liver and chicken liver are all high in iron.
- B Vitamins. Vitamin B helps increase your natural energy while reducing the risk of birth defects and relieving some of pregnancy’s side effects.
- Aim to consume 1.4mg per day of Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) from foods such as peas, oats, pecans, salmon and/or wheat germ.
- Vitamin B2 can be found in almonds, sweet potatoes, carrots, oats and peas. Aim for 1.4mg per day.
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin) can be found in peanuts, wild salmon, turkey, sunflower seeds and avocado. Aim for 18mg per day of Vitamin B3.
- Natural food sources of Vitamin B5 include sunflower seeds, oats, cauliflower, milk, oranges and bananas. Aim for 6mg of Vitamin B5 every day.
- Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) is found in garlic, beans, chickpeas, brown rice and spinach. Consume between 25 and 50mg each day.
- Vitamin B7 (Biotin) is found in oats, avocado, mushrooms, cheese, wheat bran and raspberries. The US Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine recommends at least 30 mcg of vitamin B7 for pregnant women.
- Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) is found in cottage cheese, swiss cheese, yogurt, shrimp, and wild salmon. Aim for 2.6mcg per day.
- Fiber. The American Pregnancy Association recommends 25 to 30g of fiber per day, while drinking plenty of water to help move the fiber through your system. Prioritizing fiber intake can help reduce the all too common pregnancy side effect of constipation. High-fiber foods are generally nutrient-rich as well, meaning you will feel fuller on fewer calories. Acorn squash, green peas, sweet potatoes, broccoli, raspberries, apples, oranges, quinoa, bran flakes, black beans and pecans are all excellent sources of fiber.
- Protein is important throughout your pregnancy journey, but especially during the second and third trimesters. Fish that contain high levels of mercury should be avoided. Protein has a positive impact on growth of the fetal tissue, including the brain. Along with increasing your blood supply, it also helps grow breast and uterine tissue. Experts recommend 75-100 grams of protein per day during pregnancy. Choose from sources such as chicken, pork, black beans, chickpeas, eggs, yogurt and almonds.
- Dairy products provide an excellent source of calcium. Calcium helps to regulate fluids while helping build your baby’s bones and tooth buds. Aim for 1000mg per day by consuming calcium-rich foods such as milk, eggs, yogurt and pasteurized cheese.
Holding Off on What May Be Harmful
While it may seem like your food choices are unlimited now that your nutritional needs have increased, there are certain foods you’ll need to avoid when pregnant. Be cautious of the following and check with your doctor if you’re unsure about any foods in your current and/or postnatal diet.
- Raw meat. There is an increased risk of contamination.
- Deli meat. These meats are known to be contaminated with listeria, which may cross the placenta and infect the baby. This can be life-threatening.
- Fish with mercury. There is a connection between mercury consumption during pregnancy and developmental delays or brain damage. Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Tuna should only be eaten in moderation.
- Raw shellfish. Oysters, clams and mussels should be avoided during pregnancy. Algae related infections can occur as a result of red tides.
- Raw eggs. Any food that contains uncooked egg should be avoided due to the potential risk of salmonella.
- Soft cheeses. Soft cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, Feta, Gorgonzola, Queso Blanco and Queso Fresco may contain listeria unless they are made from pasteurized milk. For the same reason, it is best to avoid unpasteurized milk and pate.
- Caffeine. The studies on caffeine and pregnancy give mixed answers. Most show that caffeine is acceptable, when limited to fewer than 200mg per day. However, others show that caffeine intake may be related to miscarriages.
- Alcohol. Alcohol in any amount should be avoided during pregnancy. Exposing the fetus to alcohol can interfere with the baby’s development and may increase the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Food for Thought
As with most things, your diet will ebb and flow on a daily basis. Your changing hormones will impact your mood, energy level and cravings. Rather than stress over the changes and follow these guidelines to the tee, embrace everything your body is going through and make smart choices along the way. There’s no such thing as the “perfect” diet or “perfect” pregnancy, but with the right mindset and resources, you’ll be more prepared for everything along the way.