What You Eat = Your Baby's Future

Good or bad, prenatal nutrition affects your baby well into adulthood.

pregnant-woman-eating-healthy-food-for-baby_700x700_corbis-42-21581254.jpg Photo: corbisimages.com

You are what you eat. That's old news. So is the fact that your diet during pregnancy affects your newborn's health. But the new news is that what you eat in the next nine months can impact your baby's health, as well as your own, for decades to come. Here are easy nutrition tips that will help you both.

1. Get enough folic acid. Ideally, you need 400 micrograms of this B vitamin daily before conceiving. Because sufficient intake in the first trimester reduces neural-tube defects such as spina bifida by 50 to 70 percent, you should increase the dose to 600 micrograms when pregnancy is confirmed. New research suggests that supplementing with folic acid for a year before pregnancy and in the second trimester can also dramatically reduce the risk of preterm delivery.

2. Don't "eat for two." Some 46 percent of women gain too much weight during pregnancy. The upshot: an increased risk for preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and delivery of either a preterm or a too-large baby. Prenatal weight-gain standards may soon be revamped. Meanwhile, ask your doctor and go to fitpregnancy.com/weightgain.

3. Eat your fish. Getting enough DHA (found in abundance in seafood and flaxseed) is one of the most important things you can do for your and your developing baby's health, nutritionists say. DHA is the omega-3 fatty acid that can boost your baby's brain development before birth, leading to better vision, memory, motor skills and language comprehension in early childhood. Eat at least 12 ounces a week of low-mercury fish, or take a DHA supplement (they're safe). For more information and a list of safe fish, go to fitpregnancy.com/mercuryrising.

4. Avoid alcohol. Behavior problems, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity and aggressive behavior in children can result when mom drinks during pregnancy. No amount is safe.

5. Get adequate iron. During pregnancy, your iron needs nearly double, to about 30 milligrams per day, to support your 50-percent increase in blood volume and to promote fetal iron storage. Iron transports oxygen, and your baby benefits from a healthy supply. To boost absorption, combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C, such as loading your chicken burrito with salsa.

6. Ban bacteria. To protect your baby from harmful bacteria such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli, any of which can, in severe cases, cause miscarriage or preterm delivery, steer clear of soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, as well as raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood or eggs. Keep your fridge below 40*F, and dump leftover food that's been sitting out for more than two hours.

7. Limit caffeine. About 300 milligrams of caffeine per day, the amount in about two cups of coffee, has long been considered acceptable during pregnancy. But a Kaiser Permanente study recently found that consuming 200 milligrams of caffeine per day increased miscarriage risk. "There's no magic cut-off point, but the less the better," says the study's lead author, perinatal epidemiologist De-Kun Li, M.D., Ph.D.

8. Trash junk food. If you constantly indulge in fries and shakes now, your child might clamor for Dairy Queen in the future, new research on animals suggests. "Somehow a salty, sugary, high-fat, low nutrient-dense diet seems to program a baby's taste preference," says Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy (Henry Holt).

9. Bone up on calcium. Aim to get at least 1,000 milligrams a day; your baby needs it for tooth and bone development in the second and third trimesters. Plus, if you don't get enough calcium in your diet, the fetus will leach it from your bones, which may increase your osteoporosis risk later in life.

10. Buy organic foods whenever possible. Pesticide exposure has been linked to miscarriage, birth defects, preterm birth, growth restriction and some childhood cancers and immune disorders. Eating organic foods can result in lower pesticide levels in adults and in children, whose immune systems are not yet fully developed.

11. Focus on fiber. A diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains helps prevent constipation and hemorrhoids and keeps you feeling full so you are less likely to overeat. High-fiber foods also are packed with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals essential to your baby's development. Aim to get at least 25 to 35 milligrams of fiber a day, about twice what most Americans consume.