Nutrition during Pregnancy

Pregnancy is a unique time for women and their partners. There is a new life to consider—a baby who will need soft, tiny clothes and lots of diapers. But for now, during pregnancy, the best gifts an expectant mother can provide are the nutrients that will help her baby grow and develop.

For some women, pregnancy is the first time they take a good look at their life-style habits, because now, what they eat and drink directly affects someone else. Nutrition is extremely important during pregnancy.

Recent studies confirm that what the mother eats influences the health and neurological development of the newborn. A healthy diet can also give the mother-to-be more energy and stamina during her pregnancy.

"Current guidelines are for women to gain 25 to 35 pounds during the nine months, but this may be individualized more or less for each woman," says Juliet Mancino, registered dietitian with the Heritage Valley Health System high-risk pregnancy management program.

Throughout these nine months, a woman should consume a total amount of 80,000 extra calories to support the fetus’s needs. That may seem like a lot, but it’s just 285 extra calories a day.

"There is a greater increase in nutrient needs, like calcium, protein, folate and iron than in calorie needs," Mancino says. "That means make wise choices about what you eat.’"

Variety is the key when planning meals. If her diet is varied, a woman has a better likelihood of getting the nutrients she needs. Mancino suggests starting with the Food Guide Pyramid:

  • 6 – 11 servings of grains (bread, rice, cereal and pasta)
  • 3 – 4 servings of milk or milk products (milk, cheese & yogurt)
  • 3 – 5 servings of vegetables
  • 2 – 4 servings of fruit
  • 3 servings of protein (meat, poultry, fish, eggs & nuts)
  • Limit fats, oils and sweets

However, some nutrients are particularly important and should be added during pregnancy.

Pregnant women need an extra 400 mgs a day of calcium (for a total of 1,200 mgs) to aid in development of the fetal nervous system and skeleton and to regulate muscle contraction and blood coagulation in the fetus.

The best food sources are dairy products like skim milk and cheese, but if you have trouble digesting milk, you can get calcium from dark, leafy vegetables; broccoli; sardines; and salmon.

"There are also calcium-fortified breads, orange juice and other foods," Mancino says.

The need for iron also greatly increases during pregnancy to support the increase in maternal blood volume, normal development of the fetal circulatory system, and fetal iron that the baby will continue to use after birth.

"Iron can be found in red meat, liver, enriched breads and cereals, dried beans and spinach," Mancino says. "A prenatal vitamin with iron is recommended to be able to meet the very high demand for iron. Women should take their prenatal vitamin with food to enhance their tolerance of the vitamin."

Pregnant women should also increase their intake of folic acid by eating green foods such as green leafy vegetables, melon and orange juice, and foods fortified with folic acid. Folic acid helps in the growth of fetal tissue and prevents neural tube defects that affect the spine. As with iron, a prenatal vitamin is recommended to ensure an adequate amount of folic acid. In fact, adequate folic acid intake is most important before you get pregnant and in the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Therefore, it is important for women of child-bearing age to eat foods containing these nutrients.

Women should follow their physician’s recommendations regarding vitamin and mineral supplements to help boost their intake of iron, folic acid and calcium. During pregnancy, any supplements, medications and even over-the-counter drugs must be approved by a physician.

Some women experience nausea and vomiting, known as morning sickness, during the first three months of pregnancy. Traditionally, some women have found that eating dry toast or crackers early in the morning, and frequent, small meals of a bland, low-fat diet throughout the day can help. This diet has also been found to reduce heartburn.

Some women have alternative food tolerances during this period and can only tolerate foods as diverse as spicy tacos, sour lemonade or fruity snacks. If this condition is causing you great difficulties with eating and gaining weight, make sure your physician knows. You may also want to meet with a registered dietitian.

Constipation is also more frequent during pregnancy due to hormonal influences slowing the intestines as well as crowding from the baby. Consuming six glasses of water a day and increasing fiber, along with regular exercise, can alleviate this condition. A prenatal vitamin is available that contains a stool softener. Ask your doctor about it.

Other suggestions for expectant mothers are to:

• Limit simple sugars, sweets and junk foods since they contribute few needed nutrients, but a lot of calories.

• Avoid caffeine in foods and beverages.

• Discuss the use of alcoholic beverages with your doctor.

• Stop smoking.

• Avoid having to lose a lot of weight after the baby comes by gaining the right amount during your pregnancy. Many women gain excessive weight with successive pregnancies, which becomes difficult to lose with increasing family demands.

"During pregnancy, eat wisely, and make sure your calories count by including milk, low-fat protein sources, fruits and vegetables and your prenatal vitamin in your diet," Mancino says. "This will supply the building blocks of a healthy baby."

Editorial contributed by Alison J. Conte. Conte is a corporate communications specialist for Heritage Valley Health System (Sewickley Valley Hospital and The Medical Center, Beaver) in Pennsylvania.