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When I ordered shrimp rolls at a tapas bar 12 weeks into my pregnancy, one of my friends reacted as if I’d ordered a double martini. “You can’t have shrimp when you’re pregnant!” she insisted. When I asked her why not, all she could offer was, “Well, I’m not sure, but I know you can’t.” Turns out, she was mistaken (phew! I ordered the shrimp anyway), a common phenomenon when it comes to prenatal nutrition.
Yes, certain foods and eating patterns can compromise a baby’s development in utero, and every mom-to-be should know about them. But it’s equally important to focus on the nutrient-rich foods and healthy habits that will keep you and your baby thriving for the whole nine months. Here, in a nutshell, is the lowdown on prenatal nutrition.
1. DO LOAD UP ON THE “BIG 5” NUTRIENTS: FOLATE, CALCIUM, IRON, ZINC AND FIBER
Before conception and in the first six weeks of pregnancy, no nutrient is more vital than folate (the synthetic form is folic acid). This B vitamin can reduce the risk of neural-tube defects, such as spina bifida, by a whopping 70 percent.
You can get your daily minimum of 400 micrograms (600 micrograms is recommended in the first trimester) from beans and legumes, citrus fruits and juices, whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, poultry, pork, fish and shellfish, but folate from foods is not as well absorbed as folic acid, so pop a prenatal vitamin or folic acid supplement for insurance.
Your daily dose of calcium—1,200 milligrams from low-fat dairy products, dark green vegetables and fortified orange juice and soy products—plays a key role during the second and third trimesters, when your baby’s bone and tooth development reaches its peak. Because the fetus leaches calcium from your body, getting enough of this mineral can protect your own bones, too. Iron, important for supporting your 50 percent increase in blood volume, is crucial in the third trimester. Aim for 30 milligrams per day.
“Iron is difficult to get from the diet, so take an iron supplement or prenatal vitamin with iron,” advises Hope Ricciotti, M.D., an associate professor of OB-GYN at Harvard Medical School and co-author of I’m Pregnant! Now What Do I Eat? (DK Publishing). To boost iron absorption, combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C sources.
Your zinc requirement increases by 50 percent to 15 milligrams per day when you’re pregnant. Zinc deficiencies have been linked with birth defects, restricted fetal growth and premature delivery, Ricciotti says. Although nuts, whole grains and legumes are good sources, the mineral is best absorbed from meat and seafood.
Fiber (found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains) is particularly essential for your own health. It helps prevent reduce constipation, a common pregnancy complaint that can lead to hemorrhoids, and it makes you feel fuller longer; aim for 25 milligrams to 35 milligrams a day.
2. DO EAT A RAINBOW OF FOODS
Not only does a varied diet provide you and your baby with all the important nutrients, but an eclectic mix also introduces your little munchkin to new tastes via the amniotic fluid. Of course, if bananas and saltines are the only foods you can stomach in the first trimester, don’t stress about it. “But as soon as you start feeling better, aim for more variety,” says Orlando, Fla., nutritionist Tara Gidus, M.S., R.D. Deep-hued fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, carrots and spinach, tend to be richest in antioxidants.