eat right now

Making sense of the myths and realities of prenatal nutrition

You just found out you’re pregnant. What is it you’re supposed to do again ... eat more meat? Stop drinking coffee? Good nutrition is critical during pregnancy, but myths abound concerning what is safe and what isn’t. Here are some common misconceptions and the facts about what you should and shouldn’t eat during the next nine months.

I need more calcium during pregnancy.

Not true. In 1997, the Institute of Medicine published new dietary recommendations for calcium, which were the same for pregnant and nonpregnant women: 1,000 milligrams for ages 19 through 50 (1,300 milligrams through age 18). Based on an extensive review of calcium research, the institute determined that because calcium absorption actually improves during pregnancy, there was no need to recommend additional calcium.

“You may still have to up your calcium intake since so many women fall short of that 1,000-milligram recommendation,” points out Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., author of Pregnancy Nutrition: Good Health for You and Your Baby (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1998) and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. And don’t rely on your prenatal multivitamin, which usually has very little calcium. The best sources of calcium are yogurt, milk, cheese (avoid soft and unpasteurized types, such as brie, feta, camembert and Mexican varieties), calcium-fortified orange juice and tofu made with calcium salts.

Pregnant women need to eat meat.

Not necessarily. Meat is rich in iron and zinc, two minerals that you need more of when you’re pregnant. In fact, your iron requirement doubles in pregnancy. But you’re likely to be getting extra iron and zinc in your prenatal vitamin, so eating meat is not essential. A carefully planned vegetarian diet with foods like legumes (kidney beans, chickpeas), soy foods, dairy products and eggs can supply more than enough protein and other essential nutrients. Prenatal vitamins are especially important for vegetarians, whose diets may be lacking in key pregnancy nutrients.

Pregnancy, however, is not the best time to switch to a vegetarian diet, advises Roberta Duyff, R.D., author of the ADA’s Complete Food & Nutrition Guide (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1998). “There’s a lot to learn about putting together a nutritionally balanced vegetarian diet,” she says. “Pregnancy can be a busy time, without having to learn an entirely new way of eating.”

I should start taking folic acid as soon as I find out that I’m pregnant.

Yes, but it’s best to start taking 400 micrograms of folic acid two months before you try to get pregnant. This B vitamin helps prevent certain types of birth defects that develop within the first few weeks of pregnancy, before many women even realize they’re pregnant. After conception, the recommended daily value for folate is 600 micrograms.

It’s OK to have a beer or glass of wine once in a while.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has been linked to birth defects, but it is not yet known how much alcohol increases the risk. For this reason, pregnant women are discouraged from drinking any alcohol during pregnancy.

Now that I’m pregnant, fish is not safe to eat.

Not all fish are dangerous, but check with your local health department regarding the safety of pregnant women eating fish caught in your area. Health officials may suggest that pregnant women avoid types of fish that are more likely to contain trace amounts of chemicals or heavy metals.

It does make good sense to avoid uncooked fish when you’re pregnant. “In addition to risking contracting a serious illness such as hepatitis, you’re more susceptible to food poisoning because your immune system is not as strong,” notes Ward. If sushi is a favorite, stick with California rolls (which contain cooked crab), cucumber rolls or other types of all-vegetable or cooked-fish sushi.

I can eat all I want now because I’m eating for two.

Not true. “While women often begin eating for two when they find out they’re pregnant, the extra calories needed per day in the first trimester are slight — the equivalent to about an 8-ounce glass of low-fat milk,” says Bridget Swinney, R.D., author of Eating Expectantly (Meadowbrook Press, 1996). “For the second and third trimesters, energy needs increase about 300 calories per day — the amount in a turkey-and-Swiss-cheese sandwich.”

Artificial sweeteners are dangerous to my baby.

Numerous studies have shown that artificial sweeteners, such as those used in diet sodas, yogurt and other foods, are safe for pregnant women and their babies. “It’s important to avoid filling up, however, on artificially sweetened beverages, especially if they are taking the place of milk and other more nutritious beverages,” says Duyff.