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Nutritional Needs During Pregnancy

Your body goes through numerous physical and hormonal changes during pregnancy. The way you nourish your body during this time will affect your health and your baby’s. You must eat a healthful, balanced diet to help ensure you stay healthy throughout your pregnancy. The food you eat is your baby’s main source of nourishment, so it’s critical to consume foods that are rich in nutrients. Proper nutrition can help promote your baby's growth and development.

By following some fairly easy nutrition guidelines, you can be on your way to a healthy pregnancy.

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Increased nutrients

Your body has increased nutritional needs during pregnancy. Although the old adage of "eating for two" isn't entirely correct, you do require more micronutrients and macronutrients to support you and your baby.

Micronutrients are dietary components, such as vitamins and minerals, that are only required in small amounts. Macronutrients are nutrients that provide calories, or energy. These include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

You need to consume more of each type of nutrient during pregnancy.

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Nutrient Daily requirements for pregnant women
calories additional 300, in second and third trimesters
calcium 1200 milligrams
folate 600–800 micrograms
iron 27 milligrams
 

Most pregnant women can meet these increased nutritional needs by choosing a diet that includes a variety of healthy foods. A simple way to ensure you’re getting all the necessary nutrients is to eat different foods from each of the food groups every day. In fact, all meals should include at least three different food groups.

Each food group has something to offer your body. For example:

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  • Grains are a good source of energy.
  • Fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, fiber, and water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Meats, nuts, and legumes provide your body with protein, folate, and iron.
  • Dairy products are great source of calcium and vitamin D.

What and how much to eat

Your body can’t function properly if it’s missing the nutrients from any of these food groups. Remember that your goal is to eat a wide variety of foods during pregnancy. Whenever possible, choose natural, low-fat foods over processed junk foods. Chips and soda, for example, contain no nutritional value. You and your baby will benefit more from fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, such as chicken, fish, beans, or lentils.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to avoid all of your favorite foods during pregnancy. However, you must balance them with nutritious foods so that you don't miss any important vitamins or minerals.

Including the following nutrients in your daily diet will help ensure that you satisfy your body’s nutritional needs during pregnancy.

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Protein

Protein is critical for ensuring the proper growth of fetal tissue, including the brain. It also helps with breast and uterine tissue growth during pregnancy. It even plays a role in your increasing blood supply, allowing more blood to be sent to your baby.

You should eat three servings of protein per day. Good sources include:

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  • lean beef and pork
  • beans
  • chicken
  • salmon
  • nuts
  • peanut butter
  • cottage cheese

Calcium

Calcium helps build your baby’s bones and regulates your body’s use of fluids.

Pregnant women need at least three servings of calcium per day. In pregnant teens, the recommendation is five servings. Good sources of calcium include:

  • milk
  • yogurt
  • cheese
  • cabbage
  • tofu
  • eggs
  • pudding

Folate

Folate, also known as folic acid, plays an important part in reducing the risk of neural tube defects. These are major birth defects that affect the baby’s brain and spinal cord, such as spina bifida and anencephaly.

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When you’re pregnant, you need 600 to 800 micrograms of folate. You can get folate from these foods:

  • liver
  • nuts
  • dried beans and lentils
  • eggs
  • dried beans and lentils
  • nuts and peanut butter
  • dark green leafy vegetables

Iron

Iron works with sodium, potassium, and water to increase blood flow. This helps ensure that enough oxygen is supplied to both you and your baby.

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You should be getting 27 milligrams of iron per day. Good sources of this nutrient include:

  • dark green, leafy vegetables
  • citrus fruits
  • enriched breads or cereals
  • lean beef and poultry
  • enriched breads or cereals
  • eggs
  • dried fruits

Other considerations

Aside from eating well, it’s important to drink at least eight glasses of water each day and to take prenatal vitamins. It’s difficult to obtain sufficient amounts of certain nutrients, including folate and iron, from food alone. Make sure to speak with your doctor about which prenatal vitamins you should take to ensure that you and your baby stay healthy.

Cravings and food aversions

During pregnancy, many women experience aversions to particular foods, meaning the never want to eat them. They may also have cravings for at least one type of food. It’s unclear why women develop food cravings or aversions during pregnancy. However, researchers believe hormones play a role.

Common cravings during pregnancy include:

  • chocolate
  • spicy foods
  • fruits
  • comfort foods, such as mashed potatoes and pizza

It’s fine to give in to these cravings sometimes, especially if you crave foods that are a part of a healthy diet. However, you should try to limit your intake of junk food and processed foods.

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Food aversions may only be problematic if they involve foods that are important for the baby’s growth and development. Talk to your doctor if you have adverse reactions to foods you should be eating during pregnancy. Your doctor can suggest other foods or supplements to compensate for the lack of certain nutrients in your diet.

Pica

Pica is a disorder that causes cravings for items that contain no nutritional value. Pregnant women with pica may want to eat clay, cigarette ashes, or starch, among other strange substances. When a woman has pica during pregnancy, it may indicate a lack of a specific vitamin or mineral.

It’s important to notify your doctor if you crave nonfood items or have eaten nonfood items. Eating such items can be dangerous for you and your baby.

Healthy weight gain during pregnancy

Many women are concerned about weight gain during pregnancy. They fear they will gain too much weight and never get back to their prepregnancy size. However, some weight gain is normal during pregnancy, and it shouldn’t be cause for concern. The extra weight provides nourishment to the baby. Some of it is also stored for breastfeeding after the baby is born.

Women gain an average of 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy. It's normal to gain less weight if you start out heavier or to gain more weight if you were underweight before pregnancy. You can speak with your doctor about the appropriate amount of weight for you to gain during your pregnancy. The chart below provides some general guidelines.

Recommended weight gain during pregnancy

Starting weight Body mass index* Recommended weight gain
underweight < 19.8 28 to 40 pounds
normal weight 19.8 to 26.0 25 to 35 pounds
overweight 26.0 to 29.0 15 to 25 pounds
obese >29.0 0 to 15 pounds
 

*Body mass index can be calculated using the following equation: weight (in pounds) / height (in inches)2 x 703.

Don’t worry too much about the number on the scale. Instead of focusing on your weight, you should concentrate on eating a variety of nutritious foods. Healthy eating is incredibly important, and dieting to lose weight or prevent weight gain is harmful to you and your baby.

Healthy exercise

Besides eating a nutrition-focused diet, exercising during pregnancy can help you manage your weight. Swimming and walking are good choices. However, you should avoid any extreme sports or contact sports, such as rock climbing and basketball.

If you didn’t exercise before your pregnancy, start out slowly and don’t overdo it. It’s also important to drink plenty of water so that you don't get dehydrated. Make sure to talk to your doctor before you start a new exercise routine.

Takeaway: Evaluate your diet

Make sure you’re eating a balanced and nutritious diet during your pregnancy so you and your growing baby can be as healthy as possible. Think about nutritional value, and limit your intake of high-fat, high-sugar, and high-sodium foods.

Eat these:
  • at least three servings of protein per day
  • six or more servings of whole grains per day
  • five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day
  • three or more servings of dairy products per day
  • foods with essential fats
  • prenatal vitamins
Avoid these:
  • alcohol
  • excessive caffeine
  • raw meats and seafood
  • high-mercury fish
  • uncooked processed meats
  • unpasteurized dairy

You can work with your doctor and dietitian to create a more specific meal plan based on your age, weight, and medical history.

  • Are there any foods that should be avoided during pregnancy?
  • Coffee is sometimes debated, as is fish.

    Many studies have looked at coffee consumption during pregnancy, but it’s unclear whether or not drinking coffee increases your risk of miscarriage. It’s currently considered safe to drink up to one 12-ounce cup of coffee per day during pregnancy.

    While essential fatty acids found in fish oil are important for baby’s brain development, fish may contain the metal mercury, which is known to cause birth defects. To avoid this, avoid eating shark, swordfish, and king mackerel. You should also limit any white tuna you eat to six ounces or less per week. Shrimp, salmon, catfish, and pollock are generally considered safe.

    Avoid all alcohol and tobacco products during pregnancy. These are known to interfere with the baby’s development and cause problems after birth.

    - Healthline Medical Team
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