At no other time in life is nutrition as important as before, during, and following pregnancy. On the other hand, women can still eat foods that come in a box or a bag, eat out several times a week, or order pizza to go as long as they also follow a few simple eating-for-two dietary guidelines.
A Pregnant Woman Should Include in Her Daily Diet at Least:
- Five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables (including at least one serving of a dark orange vegetable, two servings of dark green leafy vegetables, and one serving of citrus fruit)
- Six servings of enriched, whole-grain breads and cereals. Three servings of nonfat or low-fat milk or milk products
- Two to three servings of extra-lean meats, chicken without the skin, fish, or cooked dried beans and peas
- Eight glasses of water
The guidelines for eating well for a healthy pregnancy are simple and easy to follow. When, where, and how much she eats is flexible, and often is governed by necessity. A pregnant woman in her first trimester might choose a snack for breakfast and a large evening meal if she suffers from morning sickness, but select a larger breakfast and a light evening meal in the last trimester when heartburn is more of a problem. Avoid or limit caffeine (such as coffee, tea, and colas) and avoid alcohol and tobacco. Since no safe limit has been established for alcohol, abstinence is a woman's best bet.
A Weighty Issue
If a woman does not gain enough weight, her baby also won't gain enough weight, which places the newborn at high risk for health problems. Optimal weight gains of 25 to 35 pounds in a slender woman helps ensure a healthy-sized baby. Underweight women should gain more weight, or approximately 28 to 40 pounds. Overweight women should not attempt to use pregnancy as a way to use up extra body fat, since stored body fat is not the stuff from which babies are made. A modest weight gain of between 12 to 25 pounds is recommended for these women.
Further weight gain beyond recommended amounts will not make bigger or healthier babies. It will make regaining a desirable figure more difficult after delivery. The secret is to pace the gain, with weight gain increasing from very little in the first trimester to as much as a pound a week in the last two months of pregnancy.
Folic Acid: It's a Must
Nutrition experts agree that the best place for the mother-to-be to get all the essential nutrients, including ample amounts of vitamins and minerals, is from her diet. The trick is getting enough. For example, the MRC Vitamin Study at the Medical College of St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London found that women taking folic acid supplements around conception had significantly lower risks for giving birth to babies with neural tube defects (NTD), a type of birth defect where the embryonic neural tube that forms the future brain and spinal column fails to close properly.
Luckily, in 1996 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a regulation requiring that all enriched grain products, including breads and pasta, be supplemented with folic acid. Every woman during the childbearing years should make sure she gets at least 400 micrograms of folic acid from food or supplements.
The Post-Pregnancy Diet
Whether a woman breastfeeds or not, the secret to post-pregnancy nutrition is to gradually regain a desirable figure, while maintaining or restocking nutrient stores. In addition, since some babies are planned and others are surprises, it's never too late to start nourishing the next baby by continuing to eat a diet based on fresh fruits and vegetables, nonfat milk products, whole grains, and protein-rich beans and meats.