Eating for Two: Before, During and After a Pregnancy

by Eric Sabo

Eating healthy is one of the most important things you can do for your baby. During pregnancy, a developing child may require expectant moms to double some of their normal nutrient needs. But proper nutrition is also something to strive for even before you conceive. Low levels of iron and folic acid, even months before you become pregnant, have been linked to premature births and stunted growth.

If you are eating a balanced diet already, you may only need to make a few, simple changes. Although cravings may rule your appetite, it is important to learn how to make the most of your meals and effectively eat for you and your baby.

Eating Before a Pregnancy

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the originators of the food pyramid, women should focus on a balanced diet, including:

  • Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free or low-fat milk or dairy
  • Lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts
  • Foods and oils low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt and added sugars

The total amount of calories you need depends on your height and how much you exercise, but in general, women should consume between 1,600 to 2,200 calories a day.

A proper diet for any woman should include all of the important nutrients. But you may want to pay particular attention to the following:

  • Folate. Consuming about 400 µg daily of folic acid both before and during pregnancy is recommended to prevent birth defects. Foods like orange juice, strawberries, spinach and broccoli are high in folic acid.
  • Iron. Foods rich in iron include red meat, fish, poultry, dried fruit and fortified cereals. Getting 15 mg of iron a day can help prevent anemia during a pregnancy and low birth weight.

Eating During a Pregnancy

You can stick to your same healthy diet during the first trimester of pregnancy, but after that, women should add an extra 300 calories a day, totaling 1,900 to 2,500 calories. Throughout your pregnancy, avoid alcohol, raw fish, soft cheeses and large amounts of caffeine. If you are already at a reasonable weight, you should strive to gain about 25 to 30 pounds during pregnancy. Women who are very thin to begin with may need to gain more weight, while those who are obese should look to only gain 15 pounds, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA) . Excess weight during pregnancy may increase the risk of transferring weight-related problems to infants.

The ADA recommends the minimum daily servings (6 ounces) for each during pregnancy:

  • 9 servings of breads, cereal or pasta
  • 4 servings of vegetables
  • 3 servings of fruit
  • 2-3 servings of milk, yogurt or cheese
  • 2 servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs or nuts

Women should up their folic acid to 600 µg a day and double their intake of iron and protein. Pregnant women often crave dairy and sweets and have an aversion to meat. Other good sources for protein also include peanut butter and eggs.

A multi-vitamin supplement is generally recommended to help women meet their extra nutrient needs, which also includes vitamins A, B-6 and B-12. Calcium is better absorbed during pregnancy, but women should continue to get 1,000 mg of this nutrient a day to build strong bones for both mother and child. Iron can interfere with the absorption of other minerals, so women should take supplements containing 15 mg zinc and 2 mg of copper.

Eating After Pregnancy

Women who are breast feeding will need to maintain about 200 more calories than normal until the child moves on to regular food. Pediatric groups generally recommend breastfeeding because it can reduce the rate of serious infections for the baby. However, breast milk does not provide enough vitamin D, so children who are breast feeding should also receive vitamin D drops (200 IU) to prevent rickets.

After you deliver your baby, your health will be improved by returning to a normal weight. But work at it gradually. Strive to lose about a pound a week, while enjoying your new life with your growing family.