Pregnancy Nutrition Tips
By Carleton Rivers, RD, LD
Proper nutrition is essential throughout a person’s life, but the benefits of optimal nutritional status during pregnancy are of utmost importance. During pregnancy, it is very important for a woman to consume a variety of healthy foods and maintain a healthy weight to ensure proper fetal growth and development, as well as reduce the risk of birth defects and chronic health problems that may appear before or after birth. Mounting evidence suggests the importance of preparing for a healthy pregnancy prior to conception.
We now know that neural tube defects occur within the first few weeks of pregnancy, which is usually before a woman knows that she is pregnant. The current recommendations are that women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily to decrease the risk of a fetus developing a neural tube defect. In 1998, the USDA made it mandatory that all enriched cereal grains contained added folic acid. This decreased the prevalence rate of spina bifida alone by 31 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that 50 to 70 percent of all neural tube defects could be prevented by daily folic acid consumption before and during pregnancy. An easy way to ensure that you are consuming enough folic acid each day is to eat a bowl of cereal that has 100 percent of the daily value of folic acid. Not all cereals contain this amount of folic acid so it is important to check the nutrition facts label on the side of the box. Another way to ensure you’re getting 400 mcg of folic acid daily is to eat foods that are rich in folate such as dark leafy green vegetables, fruit, nuts, beans, peas, dairy products, poultry and meat, eggs, seafood, and grains. It is important to eat a variety of these foods every day because only 50 percent of folate in food is utilized by the body. If you are concerned about not getting enough folate from food, consider taking a dietary supplement containing folic acid. For better nutrient absorption, take the dietary supplement with food. It is always a good idea to consult your doctor before starting any dietary supplements.
Maintaining a healthy weight is also an important factor when planning a pregnancy. New research shows that a woman’s weight before and during pregnancy not only impacts the pregnancy outcomes for mother and baby, but it also determines their long-term health. A recent study done by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that women who were obese before pregnancy were more likely to have babies with congenital heart defects than women of normal weight. Other studies have shown that obese women are at higher risk of experiencing pregnancy-related problems such as high blood pressure, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes. However, obesity is not the only weight concern with pregnancy. Underweight women are also at risk for serious health problems. During pregnancy, doctors recommend a gradual weight gain of one to four pounds total during the first trimester and two to four pounds per month during the second and third trimesters. Women who are at a healthy weight range prior to pregnancy should gain between 25 to 35 pounds while pregnant.
To help promote a healthy pregnancy, women should take a prenatal vitamin daily, maintain a healthy weight, eat a variety of healthy foods, exercise regularly, employ food safety and avoid alcohol, illicit drugs, and smoking. Women may have the idea that once they are pregnant, they are eating for two; however, during the first trimester calorie needs should remain the same and only increase 300 calories per day during the second and third trimesters. It is important to avoid “empty calories,” which are found in foods and beverages high in calories but low in nutritional value. The 300 additional calories needed per day in the second and third trimesters should come from nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, and whole grains. For more information on how to build a healthy diet before and during pregnancy, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov at http://www.choosemyplate.gov/pregnancy-breastfeeding.html.
- Ventura A and Worobey J. Early influences on the development of food preferences. Curr Biol, 2013; 23(9):401-408.
- Spina Bifida. Nutrition Care Manual. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2014.
- Spina Bifida. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/spinabifida/. Published June 26, 2013. Accessed January 22, 2014.
- Folic Acid: Data and Statistics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/folicacid/data.html. Published July 7, 2010. Accessed January 22, 2014.
- Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Folate. Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institute of Health. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/. Reviewed December 14, 2012. Accessed January 22, 2014.
- Pregnancy & Healthy Weight. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/resources/spotlight/pages/040710-pregnancy-healthy-weight.aspx. Published April 7, 2010. Accessed January 22, 2014.
- Daily Food Plan for Moms: Weight gain during pregnancy. ChooseMyPlate.gov. United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/pregnancy-breastfeeding/pregnancy_weight_gain.aspx. Accessed February 4, 2014.