Pregnant women realize that they are no longer only caring for their own bodies. During the nine-month pregnancy term, what the woman does to her body affects the unborn baby too. With this in mind, there is often a need to adopt a few new lifestyle habits. The goal of these is to assure the baby is able to develop without complications.
There are several factors that contribute to the well-being of a baby. What a woman eats during pregnancy is one of these factors. Choosing the wrong foods can lead to poor nutrition, excessive weight gain (1), or even contribute to birth defects (2). In this post, we take a closer look at strategies women can use to remain healthy during the course of pregnancy. We place an emphasis on eating healthy and look at foods that should be avoided.
Nutritional Requirements During Pregnancy
The first step to caring more effectively for an unborn baby is to understand the nutritional requirements. During pregnancy, a woman needs to focus not only on the baby, however. She needs to look after herself too. There are nutritional requirements for both the pregnant woman and the developing baby.
Before we consider the most appropriate foods to include and exclude from a pregnancy diet, we should first consider what nutrients are most essential. Below is a list of nutrients that women need to prioritize when developing a diet for pregnancy. These nutrients are also important when looking at supplements to take.
- Folate: Also known as folic acid, this is an important nutrient that may play a role in reducing the risk of birth defects. Studies show that folate is important for fetal development (3). The nutrient also contributes to placental development. Both immediate and long-term health benefits have been associated with the use of folate during pregnancy.
- Vitamin A: A vitamin that helps to keep the skin and eyes healthy (4). Vitamin A also contributes to bone growth. When a woman is pregnant, her body requires about 770mg of vitamin A each day.
- Vitamin D: The sunshine vitamin, or vitamin D, is also important during pregnancy. This vitamin works alongside calcium to help make bones healthy and strong. Vitamin D essentially contributes to enhanced calcium absorption in the body.
- Vitamin B12: Red blood cells depend on the presence of vitamin B12 in the body (5). Additionally, this vitamin also contributes to the regulation of nervous system functions. About 2.6mg of vitamin B12 is needed each day by a pregnant woman.
- Vitamin B6: Another B vitamin that the body relies on – especially during pregnancy. Vitamin B6 assists with the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. This vitamin plays a role in red blood cell formation too.
- Vitamin C: An antioxidant vitamin that has numerous roles to play. Vitamin C in the body ensures enough iron can be absorbed. The vitamin also helps with the maintenance of healthy teeth and gums.
- Calcium: A mineral that is most commonly associated with healthy bones (6). The mineral also helps to keep teeth healthy. About 1,000mg of calcium is needed on a daily basis when pregnant.
- Iron: Red blood cells are critical for the well-being of the human body. These cells carry oxygen. When red blood cells reach the uterus, it delivers oxygen to the growing fetus. Iron is important for the production of red blood cells.
These are some of the most important nutrients to focus on. Women should, however, not only include these in their diet. A healthy balance of all nutrients that the body requires should be added to the woman’s diet. This can help to prevent nutritional deficiencies in the mother and baby.
Foods To Eat During Pregnancy
The nutritional requirements of the body tend to increase at least somewhat during pregnancy. During this time, a woman may feel confused about how she should plan out her daily meals. Failure to comply with these new requirements could lead to health complications – not only with the pregnant woman but also with the baby.
When deciding how to plan out meals, it is important to start by looking at the best foods that pregnant women should eat. The good news is that there is a lot of variety when it comes to cooking during pregnancy.
It is important to start by considering the classes or groups of food that form an important part of a pregnancy diet. We share a few of these food groups below.
Vegetables should form the main part of a pregnant woman’s diet. There are many vegetables to try out. These foods are rich in essential nutrients, including vitamins and minerals – all essential to human health and survival. A wide variety of vegetables added to a pregnant woman’s diet can help to ensure she obtained all the important nutrients that we discussed previously.
When adding vegetables, variety is key. Do not limit vegetables to only a single type. Kale and spinach are both nutritional vegetables, for example, but they are both leafy greens. Rather try to combine kale with beet and pumpkin, for example.
The majority of vegetables are safe to eat during pregnancy. It would be useful to consider how much of each nutrient a specific vegetable contains. This will help a woman develop a program where she ensures she gets enough of each vitamin and mineral.
Vegetables are also excellent sources of plant-based protein. Kale, for example, offers a balanced dose of fiber and protein, along with several essential nutrients (7).
Similar to vegetables, it is also important for women to eat a variety of fruit too. These foods are delicious and make for a perfect snack. A fruit salad can be made, or fruit can be consumed individually. A combination of different fruits should be consumed, as this would contribute to a better nutritional profile.
Apples are known to be rich in fiber. This is a type of carbohydrate that promotes a healthier digestive system. During pregnancy, digestive discomfort and related problems are common. Additionally, hemorrhoids also seem to be a common problem among pregnant women. According to one study, as many as 85% of women may experience hemorrhoids at some point during pregnancy (8). The fiber in apples may help to reduce the risk of hemorrhoids.
Other fruits that are also good for pregnant women include:
When including fruit, it is important to consider sugar content. Some fruits, such as grapes, tend to be rich in natural sugars. These sugars can still contribute to increased blood glucose levels – something that should be avoided during pregnancy.
Whole-grain foods should also become a priority during pregnancy. These foods should ideally replace food like white bread and cereals that contain a lot of added sugar.
The major benefit of whole-grain foods would be the high fiber content, As previously mentioned, fiber is important for women who are pregnant. It helps to reduce abdominal discomfort and gastrointestinal distress. The inclusion of fiber in a diet also limits the risk of hemorrhoids.
There are many options when looking at including more whole-grain foods in a diet. According to one publication (9), whole-grain foods provide an effective way of optimizing nutrition during pregnancy.
Whole-grain bread is readily available at local supermarkets. Instead of buying regular rice or pasta, there are whole-grain alternatives also available. Wild barley is a great choice too. This whole-grain food is an ideal addition to casseroles, stews, and even soup.
During pregnancy, women will have an increased need for protein. This is a compound that is made up of amino acids. High-quality protein helps to promote stronger muscles and contributes to healthy muscle function. Protein also plays a variety of other roles in the body.
During early gestation, about 14% of daily calories need to be in the form of protein. Later on, as the woman reaches a later stage of gestation, the protein need tends to increase. At this point, about 17.5% of daily energy intake needs to consist of protein (10).
It is advisable to keep these suggestions. Too little protein can be a disadvantage during pregnancy. At the same time, a woman also wants to avoid adding too much protein to her diet.
Some of the best foods that can help a pregnant woman load up on high-quality protein include:
- Greek yogurt
- Whole eggs
- Chicken breast
- Cottage cheese
- Lean beef
Foods To Avoid During Pregnancy
While there is a variety of foods that can be used to prepare healthy meals during pregnancy, women need to realize some foods may be bad for them – and their baby. With this in mind, we will not only focus on food groups that should be included in a pregnant woman’s diet. Additionally, we also want to point out some foods that women are better off avoiding.
Saturated fats are generally not advisable during pregnancy. There are a lot of foods that contain saturated fats – and these can lead to adverse health effects. The consumption of these foods may also contribute to excessive weight gain – which is something women want to avoid when pregnant.
Foods that are rich in sodium also need to be avoided as much as possible. Sodium is known to increase blood pressure and can also interfere with health in general.
Hypertension has been identified as a problem among pregnant women (11). It can cause problems with blood circulation, which means oxygen supply to the baby may be reduced.
At the same time, consider sugar too. A woman needs to ensure she does not consume too much sugar while she is pregnant. Gestational diabetes mellitus is a complication that has been identified among pregnant women (12). This form of diabetes can have adverse effects on both the woman and her unborn baby. Maintaining normal blood glucose levels during pregnancy is important. This could help to prevent the onset of insulin resistance or diabetic symptoms.
There are also a few foods that should be avoided by women during these nine months. Some of these foods may expose the woman’s body to dangerous chemicals, such as the mercury found in certain fish species. These chemicals could have a negative effect on the fetus.
Some of the most important food that women need to avoid during their pregnancy include:
- Deli meats
- Hot dogs
- Milk that is not pasteurized
- Unpasteurized feta or goat cheese
- Uncooked shellfish
- Uncooked fish, like sushi
- Sprouts that are not cooked, such as radish and clover
- Prepared salads at a local store, especially seafood salad
- Raw eggs
- Raw poultry
- Undercooked meat and poultry
When looking at what not to consume during pregnancy, we need to focus on beverages too.
Alcohol is something that a woman needs to avoid at all costs if she is pregnant. This means ciders should also be avoided. Alcohol can have detrimental effects on a developing fetus. One study explains that alcohol use remains a major cause behind birth defects in the United States, as well as other regions of the world (13). When a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy, she puts her baby at risk of fetal alcohol syndrome (14). This condition is life-threatening and may reduce the chances of the baby’s survival.
Caffeine is another thing that women should consider avoiding. While it may not have the same effect as alcohol, the caffeine content in coffee can still cause complications. This does not mean women can’t have coffee at all. There are decaffeinated options available. These can be enjoyed without risking the well-being of an unborn baby.
Calorie Requirements Throughout Pregnancy
Weight gain is to be expected during pregnancy (15). It is generally considered normal – as a living being is developing inside the pregnant woman.
At the same time, it is important for women to avoid gaining too much weight. When there is an excessive amount of weight gain during pregnancy, it may restrict the space a baby has to grow. A high concentration of fat in the abdominal region may also cause other complications – while also increasing the woman’s risk of complications.
With this in mind, a pregnant woman should ensure she understands her new calorie requirements.
During the initial 12 weeks of pregnancy, a majority of women do not need to eat more than they usually do. Simply switching over to healthier foods and removing any food that could be harmful to the baby will usually be enough.
Once pregnancy reaches 13 weeks, there will usually be an increased need for daily calories. At this time, the average woman will only need to eat 340 calories more than they are used to eat. This is an average, however, and may differ depending on a few factors – such as the woman’s current body weight. From the 26th week of pregnancy until birth, it is usually advised to increase calorie consumption by 450 above what the woman would usually consume.
Nutrition becomes more important than ever before during pregnancy. Women who fail to consume the right nutritional content while pregnant may put their own and the unborn baby’s health at risk. Vitamins, minerals, protein, and fatty acids all play an important role in helping to provide a reduced risk of complications during this time. Understanding what to eat and what food to avoid should be important for any pregnant woman.