Ideas to help pregnant women meet their daily nutrition needs

Pregnant woman preparing a sandwich
The idea that “you are what you eat” is especially true during pregnancy. A mother and her growing baby need proper nutrition to sustain growth and development. Poor nutrition can result in potential negative outcomes, such as low birth weight or a baby’s premature birth.

The average pregnant woman needs an additional 300 calories per day, or 2,500 to 2,700 total calories per day, depending on her size and activity level. Doctors usually recommend a weight gain of 25 to 30 pounds, but it may be more or less, depending on body weight before pregnancy and other factors.

Pregnancy is a time to choose a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods for the health of the baby and mother. Some ideas to consider:
  • Get adequate folic acid before and throughout pregnancy. Folic acid is a B vitamin found in some foods and vitamin pills. Adequate folic acid helps prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, such as spina bifi da. The spinal column begins to form before a woman may realize she is pregnant. Nutrition experts recommend that all women of childbearing age take a multivitamin containing folic acid every day. Folic acid or its natural form, folate, also is found in many different foods. Folic acid is found in fortified breakfast cereals, pasta, pieces of bread, and cereals. Read the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods to learn about the nutrients in your food choices. Folate is present naturally in cooked dry edible beans, citrus fruits and leafy greens, such as spinach and broccoli.
  • Get adequate calcium. Calcium is a bone-building mineral found in milk, cheese, yogurt, and cottage cheese, as well as some leafy vegetables, such as broccoli and spinach. A pregnant woman over age 18 needs at least 1,000 milligrams per day; pregnant women under age 18 need 1,300 milligrams per day. Milk contains about 300 milligrams of calcium per cup, plus it is fortified with vitamin D to aid in calcium absorption. Calcium, vitamin D, and other bone-building nutrients are found in prenatal supplements, too.
  • Meet your protein needs. Meat, poultry, seafood, legumes, and nuts are good sources of protein and also contain other nutrients, such as zinc, magnesium, and iron. You and your growing baby need about 60 grams of protein daily, or about the amount in two 3-ounce servings of meat. 
  • (A note about fish: Some types of fish contain high amounts of mercury, which could affect your baby’s nervous system. Avoid eating shark, swordfish, and king mackerel during pregnancy. Limit your intake of “white” or “albacore” tuna or tuna steak to 6 ounces per week. For more information about consumption advisories in your area, check with your state game and fish department.)
  • Get adequate iron. Your health-care provider will monitor your blood for iron levels to detect anemia or iron-poor blood. To meet iron needs, eat a healthy diet with iron-containing foods, such as lean meat, poultry, fish, whole-grain pieces of bread, and fortified cereals. Prenatal supplements also contain iron.
  • Enjoy seven or more total servings of colorful fruits and vegetables daily. Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins C, A, and folate, plus fiber and many other “phytochemicals” (plant chemicals) to keep you and your developing baby healthy. The fiber and water content in fruits and vegetables also helps prevent constipation.
  • Meet your fluid needs. Water and other fluids carry nutrients through the body and help prevent constipation and often preterm or early labor. Aim for about six to eight cups of fluids, such as water, juice, and milk, on a daily basis. Since caffeinated beverages can affect the baby’s heart rate and breathing, most nutrition experts recommend minimizing the consumption of caffeinated beverages, such as coffee and cola, during pregnancy, or avoiding caffeine altogether. Doctors do not advise pregnant women who suffer from mild swelling o limit fluid intake.
  • Take a prenatal vitamin supplement as directed by a health-care provider.
  • Avoid alcohol during pregnancy. Pregnant women who drink alcoholic beverages increase their baby’s risk of birth defects and lifelong learning disabilities. No amount of alcohol is considered “safe” during pregnancy.
Follow safe food handling recommendations. Pregnancy is a time when women are more vulnerable to food-borne illness, which can affect both mother and baby. By following some precautions, expectant mothers can help ensure their own health and that of their baby.

Handling Food during Pregnancy

Choose only pasteurized (heat-treated) milk, cheese, and yogurt. Unpasteurized or “raw” products may contain harmful bacteria. The food label will tell you if a product is pasteurized.
Avoid buying soft cheeses, such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, queso fresco, queso blanco, and Panela, which sometimes are made from raw milk. Instead, select hard cheeses, pasteurized cheeses, and spreads, pasteurized soft cheeses, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and mozzarella.
Avoid buying seafood salads found in deli cases or on a salad bar. Many ingredients in seafood salads support the growth of bacteria. Also, long storage times (even when properly refrigerated) allow Listeria (a harmful bacteria) to grow.
Avoid buying raw sprouts, including alfalfa, clover, radish, and broccoli sprouts. Washing sprouts may not make them safe to eat if the seeds they grew from containing harmful bacteria.
Select only pasteurized fruit juices. Check the label to be sure the product is pasteurized. Frozen, concentrated, and canned juices have been heat-treated and are safe to drink, but may not be labeled. Fresh-squeezed juices are not pasteurized and may contain harmful bacteria.
Heat hot dogs, lunch meats, and deli meats to steaming hot before eating. If you prefer lunch meats cold, heat them, and then cool them before eating.
Use a food thermometer to check whether food is done. Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the food, away from bone, fat, or gristle. Hamburgers and ground beef should reach an internal temperature of 160 F. Cook all poultry to 165 F. Beef, veal, pork, lamb steaks, roasts, and chops should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145 F. Allow three-minute rest time.
Don’t handle cat litter. It may contain an organism linked to the development of toxoplasmosis, an infection that can damage a fetus.

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