Getting the nutrients you and your baby need requires knowing how to read a food label. Here's what to look for.
It’s tempting to think that taking a daily prenatal vitamin covers all your nutritional needs while you’re expecting, but nutrition experts say that for your body to properly absorb those vitamins and minerals, eating the right foods is essential. Your best guide? Food labels. Here’s a quick reference.
calories You need to add 340 calories per day in the second trimester and 452 a day in the third trimester, says Stephanie Atkinson, Ph.D., R.D., a professor of nutrition at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Check serving sizes: A container may contain more servings (and, thus, more calories) than you think.
sugars Eating too much is likely to translate into weight gain above the 25 to 35 pounds normal-weight women should add over nine months. That could put you at increased risk for gestational diabetes. Strive to limit your intake of all types of sugars to 10 percent of daily calories (about 63 grams for a 2,500-calorie-a-day diet).
calcium This mineral protects your teeth and bones, forms your baby’s skeleton and may help lower his blood pressure later. To get the 1,000 milligrams you need daily, look for foods with 300 to 400 milligrams per serving (30 to 40 percent DV). Good sources include one cup of the following: yogurt (372 milligrams), calcium-fortified orange juice (253 milligrams) and 2 percent milk (285 milligrams).
folate All women need 400 micrograms daily of this B vitamin, which significantly decreases the risk of neural-tube defects such as spina bifida. Folate is prevalent in leafy green vegetables, legumes, citrus fruits and juices, whole grains and some fortified cereals; concentrated sources include Total Corn Flakes (300 micrograms per cup) and Honey Nut Cheerios (200 micrograms).
fat “Pregnancy is no time to be on a low-fat diet,” says Miami dietitian Claudia Gonzalez, M.S., R.D. “Your baby needs fat for brain and vision development.” That said, strive to keep fat intake at less than 30 percent of daily calories (about 83 grams for a 2,500-calorie-a-day diet) and focus on getting them from brain- and vision-building DHA and omega-3 fatty acids (see “What You Won’t Find on Labels,” pg. 60). Limit saturated fat to 10 percent of calories (25 grams), maximum.
sodium Pregnant women can enjoy salt in moderation (2,000 to 3,000 milligrams daily). Studies show no evidence that restricting sodium alleviates or prevents toxemia (a dangerous condition whose symptoms include high blood pressure and fluid retention).
protein is essential to create the placenta and amniotic fluid as well as the baby’s muscle tissue; lean meats, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs, low-fat dairy products and lentils are all good sources. During pregnancy, your requirement increases from 50 grams to 60 grams per day. Just 1 1¼4 cups of milk will give you those 10 extra grams.
iron Aim for 30 milligrams daily. “Animal foods (particularly red meat) are the most concentrated sources of absorbable iron,” Atkinson says. Fortified cereals such as Total are the next best source for vegetarians. To enhance absorption, eat iron-rich foods along with those high in vitamin C. When reading labels, realize that the DV for nonpregnant women is only 18 milligrams.
Don’t forget fiber
Up to 38 percent of pregnant women experience constipation during pregnancy, Atkinson says. Fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help prevent constipation and the painful hemorrhoids that often result. Check labels with the goal of getting 25 to 35 grams of fiber daily. Excellent and easy sources include one cup of Kellogg’s All-Bran cereal (17.6 grams) or black beans (15 grams).
What you won’t find on labels
Caffeine While recent studies have found no association between caffeine intake and birth defects, some studies suggest that drinking more than two or three cups of coffee daily increases the chances of low birth weight. If you must drink sodas, look for “caffeine-free” on the label.
DHA/omega-3 fatty acids Prevalent in fish, flaxseed, tofu, walnuts and canola oil, omega-3s are critical for a baby’s brain and spinal cord development. And preliminary research suggests that a diet rich in omega-3s may help decrease the risk of preterm birth.
Nitrates These chemicals, most often found in cured and processed meats, such as salami and hot dogs, can be difficult to detect on food labels, often traveling under the names nitrites or nitrosamines. Foods containing these chemicals should be avoided. A few studies suggest that prenatal exposure to nitrates might increase type I diabetes risk in children.
Trans fats These fats, which raise “bad” LDL cholesterol levels the way saturated fats do, often go unrecognized. Until new labeling rules go into effect in 2006, check ingredient lists for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated”; these indicate that a product has trans fats.