Prenatal nutrition made easy
If you’re like many pregnant women, you vowed to eat healthier the minute you found out you were expecting. You may even have started making a mental list of nutritional do’s and don’ts: Eat more calcium-rich foods, get more protein, cut out the caffeine and junk foods. Good thing: Developing healthy eating habits will set the stage for your baby to grow into a strong child and adult, as well as ultimately reduce his risk for certain diseases. In fact, scientific research increasingly shows that a prenatal diet rich in nutrient-dense foods is key in preventing heart disease, diabetes, obesity and many types of cancer. Here’s expert advice on what to eat—and what to avoid—for a healthy pregnancy.
DO choose foods that do double duty. “Nutrient-dense foods, such as yogurt, peanut butter, chicken, beef, eggs and dairy products, are higher in protein, calcium and iron, all the nutrients your baby needs to grow and develop,” says Rose Ann Hudson, R.D., L.D., co-author of Eating for Pregnancy: An Essential Guide to Nutrition With Recipes for the Whole Family (Marlowe & Co., 2003). Milk provides calcium and plenty of protein. Lean pork and beef contain protein, along with B vitamins, iron and zinc. Orange juice offers folate plus vitamin C; and vitamin C helps you absorb iron from foods such as fiber-rich black beans and spinach. Whole grains are filled with fiber, B vitamins, magnesium and zinc.
DON’T fill up on empty calories. Candy, cake, cookies and ice cream definitely don’t count as double-duty, nutrient-rich foods. It’s OK to have them during pregnancy—but in moderation, Hudson says. “One of the ways we enjoy life is to eat foods that aren’t high in nutrition, like desserts,” she says. “Limit these foods to once a day, in the portion listed on the label; you won’t feel deprived and you also won’t overeat.”
DO remember that you’re not really eating for two while you are pregnant. “I recommend that women ‘eat to appetite,’” says Karen Nordahl, M.D., a clinical associate instructor in the department of family practice at the University of British Columbia. This means you should eat until you are not hungry rather than until you are full. “Make healthy food choices and reduce or eliminate processed food,” Nordahl adds. “Excessive weight gain is associated with longer labor, pregnancy-induced hypertension and gestational diabetes.” Indeed, many moms-to-be don’t realize that they need only 300 extra calories a day—and only in the second and third trimesters.
DON’T forget to take your prenatal vitamin. A daily prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement acts as a safeguard, providing nutrients—vitamins, folate, iron and more—beyond what you’ll get from meals and snacks. “In a perfect world, you’d get all your nutrients from foods,” says Suki Hertz, M.S., R.D., a nutritionist and chef in New York. “But since our lives are often a little less than perfect, you should take a supplemental prenatal vitamin that contains 100 to 200 percent of the recommended dietary intakes.”
DO focus on nutritional variety. Along with taking your prenatal supplement, the best way to make sure that you’ll get all the proper nutrients is to eat the following daily: 9 servings from the whole-grains group (bread, cereal, rice and pasta) 2–3 servings of protein-rich foods from the meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts group 4 servings from the vegetable group 3 servings from the fruit group 3 servings from the milk, yogurt and cheese group. DON’T neglect water and fiber-rich foods. Drink plenty of liquids—at least eight glasses of water daily—to help prevent dehydration. “Without enough water, many of our regular body functions can’t take place, including cell respiration, digestion and absorption of nutrients,” Hudson says. But stay away from alcohol while pregnant; even small amounts have been linked to serious birth defects. Drinking fluids also can help prevent constipation, as can eating high-fiber foods such as whole-wheat and whole-grain breads and pastas, and lots of fruits and vegetables. Aim for at least 25 to 35 grams of fiber every day (3¼4 cup of bran cereal, for example, contains an average of 5 grams of fiber).
DO avoid unpasteurized and certain uncooked foods. Don’t eat unpasteurized soft cheeses such as brie, Camembert, feta, blue-veined and Mexican-style cheeses. They can harbor listeria, a bacterium that can cause a serious infection and lead to premature delivery, infection in the newborn, miscarriage or stillbirth (for more on this danger, see “Listeria Warning” on pg. 22). Eating pasteurized cheeses is considered safe. Deli meats also may pose a risk, so buy prepackaged cold cuts rather than those from the deli counter, or heat deli-counter meats to steaming hot before eating them. "To minimize the risk of listeriosis, cook all leftovers and deli foods to at least 140 F," Hertz says.