Nutritional Needs

Your body goes through numerous physical and hormonal changes during pregnancy. The way you nourish your body during this time will affect the health of both you and your baby. You must eat a healthful, balanced diet to help ensure you stay healthy throughout your pregnancy. The food you eat is also the main source of nourishment for your baby, 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.

Nutrition requirements during pregnancy

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, which are only required by the body in small amounts. Macronutrients, on the other hand, are nutrients that provide calories or energy. Examples of macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. You need to consume more of each type of nutrient during pregnancy.

NutrientAdditional daily requirements for pregnant women
calories300 (in the second and third trimesters)
protein60 milligrams
calcium1200 milligrams
folate (folic acid)15 milligrams
iron30 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. Grains are a good source of energy. Fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, fiber, and water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins. The food groups that include meats, nuts, and legumes provide your body with protein, folate, and iron. Dairy products are the best source of calcium and vitamin D.

Your body is unable to 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:

  • 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.
  • Calcium: Calcium helps build your baby’s bones and regulates your body’s use of fluids.
  • 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.
  • Folate: Folate, commonly 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. Examples of neural tube defects include spina bifida and anencephaly.

You can find these nutrients in the following foods:

Protein sources (3 servings per day)Calcium sources (4 servings per day for pregnant women, 5 servings per day for pregnant teens)
lean beef and porkmilk
beansyogurt
chickencheese
salmon cabbage
nutstofu
peanut buttereggs
cottage cheesepudding
Sources of folate (400 to 800 micrograms)Sources of iron (27 milligrams per day)
liverdark green, leafy vegetables
nutscitrus fruits
dried beans and lentilsenriched breads or cereals
eggslean beef and poultry
dried beans and lentilsenriched breads or cereals
nuts and peanut buttereggs
dark green leafy vegetablesdried fruits

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 (never wanting to eat them), or 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 OK to give in to these cravings sometimes, especially if you crave foods that are a part of a healthy diet. However, if you find yourself wanting more junk food and processed foods during pregnancy, try to limit your intake of these foods.

Pica

Pica is a disorder that causes cravings for items that contain no nutritional value. Pregnant women with pica may have a desire 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 have cravings for nonfood items or have eaten nonfood items. Eating such items can be dangerous for both you and your baby.

While some pregnant women may crave certain foods, others may have an aversion to particular foods. This may only be problematic if women have an aversion to foods that are important for the baby’s growth and development. Talk to your doctor if you’re having adverse reactions to foods you should be eating during pregnancy. Your doctor can suggest other foods to eat or supplements to take to compensate for the lack of certain nutrients in your diet.

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 gained during pregnancy provides nourishment to the baby. Some of it is also stored for breast-feeding 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, and 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

If your normal range is:And your body mass index* is:You should gain:
underweight< 19.828 to 40 pounds
normal weight19.8 to 26.025 to 35 pounds
overweight26.0 to 29.015 to 25 pounds
obese>29.00 to 15 pounds

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

You may become self-conscious about your weight at some point during pregnancy, but you shouldn’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 both you and your baby. You can buy new clothes that flatter your figure if you feel self-conscious about the weight you’ve gained.

Exercising during pregnancy can also help you manage your weight. Swimming and walking are particularly good choices of exercise. However, you should avoid any extreme sports or contact sports, such as rock climbing and basketball. If you didn’t exercise before 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.

Evaluating your diet

Now that you're familiar with your nutritional needs during pregnancy, it’s important to reevaluate your diet. Make sure you’re:

  • getting at least three servings of protein per day
  • eating nine or more servings of whole grains per day
  • eating seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day
  • eating four or more servings of dairy products per day
  • eating foods with essential fats
  • limiting your intake of high-fat, high-sugar, and high-sodium foods
  • taking your prenatal vitamins every day

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

You Asked, We Answered

  • Are there any foods that should be avoided during pregnancy?
  • There have been many studies on coffee consumption during pregnancy, but it is unclear at this time as to whether or not drinking coffee increases your risk of miscarriage. It is currently thought that drinking one 12-ounce cup of coffee per day or less is safe during pregnancy.

    Essential fatty acids found in fish oil are important for development of the baby’s brain. However, fish may contain the metal mercury, which is known to cause birth defects. To avoid this, avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and limit white tuna to 6 ounces or less per week. Shrimp, salmon, catfish, and pollock are generally considered safe.

    Avoid all alcohol and tobacco products, including cigarettes, during pregnancy, as these are known to interfere with the baby’s development and cause problems after birth.

    - University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine