These days most moms-to-be know that a good pregnancy diet involves much more than just eating for two. In fact, a recent Penn State study found that women with the eating for two mentality are more likely to gain too much pregnancy weight. This is definitely not the time to throw your diet out the window and indulge every craving you have. Although Jessica Simpson gained more than the suggested 25-35 pounds during her first pregnancy, she wasn’t off the charts. But she became the poster child for how not to eat when she told Extra’s Mario Lopez, “I had a buttered Pop Tart this morning. I’m eating a lot of stuff that I ate in my childhood. Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, Pop Tarts, Cap’n Crunch. Everything’s filled with sugar. I give in to my cravings. I’m like ‘Yeah, I can do it. We’ll worry about the rest afterwards.” Most first-time moms learn this lesson the hard way and, like Simpson, pay much more attention to being healthy the second time around.
It seems like almost every day a new study comes out with more evidence confirming the importance of getting the right balance of nutrients and following a healthy pregnancy diet. Last year the Journal of Nutrition published an Australian study showing that eat lots of fatty, sugary food before conceiving can increase your risk for premature birth. In addition, the University of Cambridge released research showing that poor nutrition in utero may be linked to diabetes in grandchildren. When you look at it that way, you could be eating for generations.
The first step in determining what to eat when pregnant is knowing how many more calories you need. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends no increase during the first trimester, an extra 340 calories a day during the second and an extra 450 during the third. The second step is knowing what you and your growing baby’s nutritional requirements are.
Much like healthy eating in general, a healthy pregnancy diet is all about getting a good mix of all the major food groups. You just need to pay a little more attention to ensure you’re getting the right amounts of everything. Aim to eat 2-4 servings of fruit and at least four servings of veggies a day. Carbs provide much-needed energy to keep your body going. Sorry, sugar doesn’t count. Instead try to eat 6-11 oz of whole grains a day. You need three servings a day of lean protein, which is a great source of iron and B vitamins. And we can’t forget calcium. If your baby isn’t getting enough, your body will take it from your bones. Four servings of dairy each day will provide you with the necessary 1000 mg of calcium.
It’s recommended that women get 400-800 micrograms of folic acid in the early stages of pregnancy and that all women who may get pregnant should take a daily supplement. Folic acid helps you produce blood cells and getting too little in the first month of pregnancy increases your baby’s risk of developing spinal or brain defects. You can take a supplement, but it’s even better to eat foods like leafy greens, beans, cereal, rice and pasta which are rich in this vital nutrient.
Choline is vital for your baby’s brain development (and possibly yours too!) and can help prevent spinal defects. It may also help mom prevent breast cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women need 450 mg a day and 550 mg if they are breastfeeding. Eggs, meat, fish and spinach are all great sources of choline.
So what about those cravings? Some women have intense, and sometimes bizarre, pregnancy cravings and aversions. Hence the pickles and ice cream cliché. There are different theories about what causes this—some say you crave nutrients your body isn’t getting enough of and some blame it on the raging hormones. If you are craving unhealthy foods, it’s okay to indulge now and then. A pregnant woman who also feels deprived isn’t good for anyone but a recent study linked eating sugary high fat junk food with premature birth. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing severe morning sickness or food aversions that are making it difficult for you to meet your nutritional requirements.
Finally, there are a few foods that moms-to-be should avoid entirely. Raw or undercooked meat can contain dangerous bacteria. Deli meat, smoked meat, soft cheeses and raw eggs may contain listeria, a bacteria which can be life threatening to you and your baby. Although it’s a great source of protein and omega-3s, some seafood contains high levels of mercury, leading to birth defects and brain damage. The FDA and EPA agree that pregnant women can eat 12 ounces of fish a week but you should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Don’t consume more than 200 mg a day of caffeine and don’t drink alcohol at all if you’re expecting.