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Nutrients & Numbers: Healthy Eating During Pregnancy

Jan 13, 2021 | 4 Minute Read

Eating healthy is so important for you and your developing baby during pregnancy. Eating healthy may help you gain the right amount of weight during pregnancy, reduce or prevent some pregnancy complications, and birth a healthy baby of normal weight.

How much weight should I gain during pregnancy?

The amount of weight you should gain during pregnancy is based on your weight before pregnancy. The Institute of Medicine has a weight gain guidelines table to assist you with understanding which weight gain is optimal for you. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention also provides information on healthy weight gain based on pregnancy weight categories (underweight, normal weight, overweight, and obesity).

Pre-pregnancy
Weight Category

Recommended
Weight Gain

Underweight

28 to 40 pounds

Normal

25 to 35 pounds

Overweight

15 to 20 pounds

Obese

11 to 20 pounds

Source: Institute of Medicine

What should I eat during pregnancy?

Pregnant women/persons need about 300 extra calories a day. These calories can be obtained with a healthy pregnancy diet consisting of protein, fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk or calcium-rich products.

Eating the following foods will ensure you’re getting the right nutrition for yourself, and nutrients to your developing baby:

Fruits
  • First trimester: Eating 1 ½ to 2 cups daily
  • Second trimester: 2 cups per day
  • Third trimester: 2 cups daily
Pregnancy-friendly fruits include apples, pears, grapes, oranges, and real fruit juices

Protein
  • First trimester: 5 ounces per day
  • Second trimester: 6 ounces daily
  • Third trimester: 6 ½ ounces daily
Powerhouse proteins for pregnancy include: Llean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.

Grains:
  • First trimester: 6 ounces daily
  • Second trimester: 7 ounces daily
  • Third trimester: 8 ounces daily
Good grains include brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, wild rice, barley, and bread.

Vegetables:
  • First trimester: 2 ½ cups daily
  • Second trimester: 3 cups daily
  • Third trimester: 3 cups daily
Vibrant veggies include spinach, broccoli, carrots, and cabbage.

Milk or Calcium-rich Products:
  • All trimesters: 3 cups daily
Make it milk or one of these calcium-rich products: milk, cheese, yogurt, cream soups, pudding, green vegetables, dried peas, and beans.

What vitamins and minerals are needed during pregnancy?

Vitamins and minerals are essential to consume during pregnancy. The best nutrients come from healthy foods. However, prenatal vitamins help you consume the proper nutrients needed to grow and sustain a healthy pregnancy and developing baby.

Prenatal vitamins are made especially for pregnant persons. They have more minerals and nutrients than a pregnant woman/person needs. It is important to only take prenatal vitamins as prescribed or directed by your healthcare provider.

Iron
Increased iron is needed during pregnancy because of the increase in the blood produced by pregnant women. Having too little iron in the blood Is called anemia. This may make you feel weak and tired. Foods rich in iron include red meat, enriched bread and cereals, dried beans, dried fruits, and green leafy vegetables.

Vitamin C helps you absorb iron so add foods such as mango, papaya, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, and oranges to your iron-rich plate.

Calcium
Calcium helps develop baby's bones, heart, muscles, and nerves. Pregnant women/people should consume calcium-rich foods, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, sardines with bones, and orange juice with calcium.

Folic Acid
Consuming folic acid through healthy eating and getting at least 400 micrograms in your prenatal vitamin may help reduce your risk of having a baby with a birth defect of the brain and spine called a neural tube defect.

Some studies show that folic acid may prevent heart defects and birth defects of the baby's mouth called cleft lip and palate. Folic acid works best when taken pre-pregnancy and during the first few weeks of pregnancy. Taking prenatal vitamins with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid daily is recommended for all women by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) even if you’re not trying to get pregnant because half of all pregnancies are unplanned.

Protect your little one who may not be planned for at this time—but who may surprise you. During pregnancy, ACOG recommends prenatal vitamins with at least 600 micrograms of folic acid. Some foods may have folic acid added to them and are labeled as "fortified" or "enriched." Those foods include flours, breads, cereals, and pasta.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for the growth and development of your baby. The three key fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA). Your baby needs omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and breastfeeding. You need 200 milligrams of DHA each day while you're pregnant or breastfeeding. Omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, can be found in some foods, including nuts, vegetable oils, and fish (salmon, herring, and sardines).

Sensational Snacks
Consuming snacks that are healthy during pregnancy is fine. Be mindful you should aim to consume about 300 extra calories daily while pregnant. Healthy, nutrient-rich snacks include:
  • Fresh fruit
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Pudding or flan
  • Low-fat cereal bars
  • Yogurt
  • Peanut butter on carrots, celery, or crackers
  • Yogurt

Food fixes for Nausea?
Eating small meals more frequently (5-6 meals a day) and drinking plenty of water can reduce nausea. Limiting spicy or fatty foods can keep nausea at bay. Some foods may help with nausea during pregnancy as well. When your tummy is churning but hunger pangs are striking, try:
  • Cereal
  • Rice
  • Bananas

Are vegan and vegetarian diets safe during pregnancy?

Yes, a vegetarian or vegan diet is safe during pregnancy. Pregnant women who practice either diet must be sure to get enough calcium, vitamin B12, protein, and vitamin D in their food. Speak with your health care provider about the best way to get these nutrients during pregnancy.

What food should I avoid in pregnancy?

Some foods are not safe to consume during pregnancy. Some contain chemicals that can affect your baby’s development. Other foods may place you at risk for getting an infection caused by bacteria or viruses. This can be harmful to you and your developing baby. Food Safety provides a comprehensive list of foods to avoid during pregnancy. On our short list are the following:

  • Raw meat or fish (e.g., sushi and raw oysters)
  • Raw eggs
  • Unpasteurized milk or juice products
  • Fish or seafood high in mercury (e.g., Bigeye tuna, king mackerel, and swordfish)
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables
  • What foods should I limit in pregnancy?

    Some foods are safe to consume during pregnancy in small amounts. Fish is okay to consume in small amounts during pregnancy. You can eat up to 12 ounces a week. Caffeine intake should be limited during pregnancy. Consuming too much caffeine can lead to miscarriage (pregnancy loss before 20 weeks of pregnancy) or premature birth (birth occurring before the 37th weeks of pregnancy). Limit your caffeine intake to less than 200 milligrams (mg) a day during pregnancy.
    • Limit fish with small amounts of mercury (e.g., catfish, cod, salmon, and tilapia).
    • Limit coffee or other products that contain caffeine (e.g., tea, soda, chocolate, energy drinks, and medicines).

    Using MyPlate can assist you with eating a balanced diet during pregnancy. It guides the various food groups that are right for you based on your stage in pregnancy. Healthy pregnancy recipes are also available through the American Pregnancy Association to assist you in cooking healthy pregnancy meals. Additionally, a healthy pregnancy meals and nutrients resources are provided on Healthy Mom & Baby website.

    Shawana S. Moore, DNP, MSN, CRNP, WHNP-BC

    Shawana S. Moore, DNP, CRNP, WHNP-BC, is a Philadelphia-based, board-certified women’s health nurse practitioner and the director of the Women’s Health-Gender Related Nurse Practitioner Program at Thomas Jefferson University.

    The information contained on this article should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your health care professional.