Eating right during pregnancy shouldn’t be a guessing game. What fish is safe to eat? Should I cut caffeine from my diet? It should be more about fine-tuning an already-healthy diet filled with lean proteins, certain vitamins and minerals (such as folic acid and iron), and calories (for energy). If there’s room for improvement in your prenatal diet, eating nutrient-dense meals and foregoing risky food options are some of the best things you can do for you and your baby’s health.
To help you navigate the prenatal nutrition waters, we’ve asked Kelly Hughes, M.S., R.D., L.D., clinical inpatient and outpatient dietitian at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Allen, to weigh in.
Foods for a Balanced Pregnancy Diet
If you start off at a healthy weight and don’t experience significant morning sickness, you shouldn’t have to worry about taking in additional calories in the first trimester of your pregnancy but you don’t need to diet either. In the second trimester, Hughes recommends about 340 extra calories a day with protein accounting for around 25 grams of that daily increase and about 450 extra calories a day in the third trimester. If you’re underweight or overweight to start, you’ll need more or less than this, depending on your weight gain goal.
For women who are having difficulty gaining weight properly due to morning sickness, multiple gestation, poor dietary pattern, or a history or recent diagnosis of a chronic disease, Hughes recommend that they see a dietitian for caloric recommendations.
To keep you on a good path for a healthy pregnancy, Hughes suggests keeping these items on hand for a nutrition-dense diet:
- Skinless chicken and turkey and lean cuts of beef and pork
- Low-mercury seafood (such as shrimp, crab, halibut, cod, rainbow trout, herring, sardines, yellow fin tuna, salmon and canned light tuna)
- Fresh fruits and vegetables of the leafy dark green, yellow and orange varieties
- Whole grains (at least ½ coming from brown rice, 100% whole wheat/grain bread/pasta or oatmeal)
- Easy to digest foods to help with any nausea (such as low-salt crackers/pretzels/nuts, popsicles, frozen fruit, raw vegetables and dry cereal)
- Plenty of water (at least 8 glasses per day) or ginger ale for nausea
- Hard cheese (including cheddar, Monterey Jack and Swiss)
- Low-fat or non-fat dairy products
- Less than 10 percent of daily caloric intake coming from added sugar
Hughes admits that even without morning sickness or food aversions, it can be difficult to meet the nutritional values necessary for proper fetal development with a well-balanced diet alone.
“A prenatal vitamin-mineral supplement helps you get the nutrients you and your baby need to thrive,” she says. “Make sure the prenatal vitamin you choose contains folic acid. Your obstetrician can help guide you in the right supplement and amount to take.”
Items to Limit or Avoid
Some foods and beverages can be dangerous when you’re pregnant. Hughes recommends staying away from or going easy on the following due to certain risks they can present, including food-borne illnesses that may harm you and your unborn child.
- Raw seafood (such as oysters or uncooked sushi)
- Unpasteurized, or raw, milk (and cheeses made from unpasteurized milk)
- Soft cheese (such as Brie or Camembert)
- Mexican cheese (including queso blanco and panela)
- Undercooked meat and poultry
- Cold cuts or deli meats (unless they’re cooked until they’re steaming hot)
- Prepared salads (especially those containing eggs, chicken or seafood)
- Unpasteurized apple cider and fruit juices (avoid more than 1 cup of fruit juice per day)
- Refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads
- Alcoholic beverages
“Experts agree that it’s best to give up alcohol for your entire pregnancy due to the risk of birth defects and learning disabilities,” according to Hughes. “Caffeine is another consideration. Aim to get less than 200 milligrams per day, or about 12 ounces of coffee, and get permission from your doctor before indulging. Decaffeinated tea and sodas, or healthier drinks such as skim milk, 100 percent fruit juice or water with a squeeze of lemon, are good alternatives.”
“Avoid making processed foods, packaged snacks and sugary desserts the mainstay of your diet as well. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up all your favorite goodies just because you’re pregnant. Try smart and tasty alternatives such as a banana smoothie, frozen all-fruit nonfat sorbet or trail mix.
And don’t beat yourself up if you cave in to temptation now and again. The occasional cookie or piece of cake is okay,” she adds.
When it comes to seafood, nearly all fish contain traces of methylmercury — a metal believed to be harmful in high doses to the growing brains of fetuses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends limiting consumption of fish to less than 12 ounces a week, which is the equivalent of about two servings.
Create a Meal Plan You Can Live With
If morning sickness, food aversions, heartburn or indigestion make eating full-size meals uncomfortable, try eating small, frequent meals throughout the day. As your pregnancy progresses and your baby increasingly crowds your stomach and other digestive organs, you’ll have less space in your body for big meals anyway. Eating in a pattern that works for you will help you meet your nutritional needs while you’re eating for two, or more.