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Nutrition is quickly becoming recognized as one of the most important ways to prevent pregnancy complications (both fetal and maternal). The foods pregnant women eat set the stage for growth and development during pregnancy, because they provide vitamins, minerals and overall nutrition that can impact fetal and maternal health for decades after birth.

What are the elements of basic nutrition?

When we talk about basic nutrition, we’re talking about food and what it supplies for the body. These include protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals. Carbohydrates, proteins and fats provide calories, which are the source of energy for the body. There is a dietary reference intake (DRI) for each. The DRI for pregnant women may be higher for some elements of basic nutrition.

How many calories do I need during pregnancy?

Women of normal weight who become pregnant can eat the same amount of food or calories they consumed before becoming pregnant; slightly increasing caloric intake by 300 calories is important to support fetal growth. As the pregnancy progresses, stomach sizes tend to shrink making it more difficult to consume three meals and snacks. Some pregnant women choose to eat multiple snacks in place of meals. 

If an expecting woman is overweight or obese, she does not need to consume any extra calories during pregnancy. The body will use stored calories as a source of energy, but it is still important to eat a well-balanced diet with lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats.

Do pregnant women need additional vitamins and minerals?

Yes, pregnant women do need extra iron and folate. Both can be consumed through diet, but often diet is not diverse enough to supply the needed DRI for pregnant women. Prenatal vitamins are specially formulated to supply the extra iron and folate pregnant women need.

What is folate?

Folate is another word for folic acid. Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects. Women of reproductive age should take folic acid supplements daily before becoming pregnant to ensure optimal fetal health. The neural tube develops during the first trimester and some women don’t find out they are pregnant until the latter half of the first trimester or later.

The recommended daily intake of folic acid for pregnant women is 0.4 mg (milligrams) or 400 mcg (micrograms). Women who take certain medications or have a history of neural tube defects may be required to take up to 400 mg of folic acid. There are no prenatal vitamins or multivitamins that supply this amount of folic acid, so a standalone supplement is suggested.

Pregnancy Nutrition Guide

Why do pregnant women need more iron?

During pregnancy, blood volume grows to accommodate fetal growth and oxygen demands throughout the body. Iron is responsible for supporting increased blood production and fetal health. It is recommended that women increase iron intake to 27 mg per day while pregnant. Diet can provide the additional iron, but as is the case with folic acid, most diets are deficient in iron so the recommended daily intake is included in prenatal supplements. If more iron is needed, a separate supplement is often prescribed. 

How do I plan nutritional meals during pregnancy?

The My Pyramid program was designed by the United States Department of Agriculture. The program provides a series of recommendations for optimal nutrition when planning meals. Pregnant women follow a slightly different set of rules, thus the Daily Food Plan for Moms was created. The program is designed to offer advice and support for both pregnant and breastfeeding moms. 

Is there a minimum or maximum weight gain during pregnancy?

The suggested weight gain used to be a prescribed number for all pregnant women, but recent medical research proves old concrete standards are no longer applicable. Women with a normal BMI are asked to keep weight gain between 25 and 35 pounds, but this is a soft number as some women gain less and others gain more. Overweight and obese pregnant women can safely lose weight during pregnancy, according to new research and underweight women should gain more than the suggested 35 pounds.

Are there pregnancy complications associated with being overweight or obese during pregnancy?

Yes, research shows that overweight and obese pregnant women are at increased risk of pregnancy complications like gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, hypertension and c-section delivery. Each of these conditions come with another list of possible complications – some severe. Infants born to overweight and obese mothers are also at risk of complications, including delivery complications, congenital health problems and long-term weight problems.

Is caffeine safe during pregnancy?

There is much debate surrounding the impact of caffeine on the fetus. Currently, pregnant women are advised to consume no more than 200 mg of caffeine per day during pregnancy. Depending on the source of the caffeine, that could mean just two average cups of coffee or it could mean several glasses of iced tea. Reading labels for caffeine content in beverages is extremely important as some beverages, like energy drinks, can contain more than 100 mg of caffeine per serving. Foods like chocolate also contain caffeine. Consuming too much caffeine can alter sleep patterns and prevent deep sleep. Caffeine is also a diuretic, which means it could cause increased urination and dehydration.

Do I need to alter my vegetarian diet during pregnancy?

Vegetarian diets are completely safe during pregnancy, but it is important to maintain healthy lean protein intake and take a prenatal vitamin with vitamin B12, Vitamin D and iron, which may be missing in a vegetarian diet.

Is eating fish during pregnancy safe?

Yes, consuming certain species of fish during pregnancy is safe and may be associated with increased fetal brain growth, according to a new clinical study. There are two basic categories of fish for pregnant women – safe and unsafe. Safe species of fish include salmon, catfish, shrimp and canned tuna (skip the albacore). These species are lower in mercury, so pregnant women can consume up to 12 ounces per week. Fish that should not be consumed during pregnancy include swordfish, mackerel, shark and tilefish.

Why do I hear so much about listeriosis during pregnancy?

Listeriosis is a bacterial illness that can be deadly for a pregnant woman and fetus. The bacterium is typically found in cheeses that have not been pasteurized, undercooked or raw meats, lunch meats, shellfish and poultry. The bacteria do NOT survive high temperatures, which makes it extremely important to cook meat fully before consuming. Foods that may contain Listeria should be avoided during pregnancy.

Why do women crave non-foods during pregnancy?

Pica is condition of pregnancy characterized by a need to consume a non-food item. Common non-food items that pregnant women with pica crave include cornstarch, clay, ice and laundry starch, but this list is not all inclusive. There have been reports of women craving dirt and cigarette butts, among other items. This condition can cause harm to the pregnant woman and the fetus, so talk with an obstetrician or healthcare provider if these cravings are occurring.