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Prenatal Nutrition: How to Give Your Unborn Baby a Healthy Diet

by Kati Raymer

Every woman who has experienced pregnancy remembers the often unusual cravings and the insatiable appetite that accompany it. While there's nothing wrong with satisfying that appetite, it's important for mothers-to-be to remember that "eating for two" doesn't just mean eating more than normal… it should also mean eating the right kinds of foods that the baby needs for healthy development. Remember, your baby is growing inside you, and depending upon you to feed him or her properly!

According to iSpecialist Dr. Walt Larimore, it's vitally important for mothers to eat a healthy diet during pregnancy. The Institute of Medicine has recently released updated weight-gain guidelines for pregnancy which suggest the following:

  • Women with a healthy body mass index (BMI) of 18 to 25 are advised to gain 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy
  • Overweight women with a BMI of 25 to 29.5 should gain about 25 pounds 
  • Underweight women, with BMIs below 18.5, should gain about 40 pounds

Gaining an excessive amount of weight, or not gaining enough weight during pregnancy can have serious adverse effects. Larimore states that extreme pregnancy weight gain can lead to a greater risk of requiring a C-section; of the baby being born prematurely, or being born with extra fat. Not gaining enough weight during pregnancy can result in a premature birth, or an underweight or under-developed baby. It's best for the baby if the mother is at a healthy weight at the time of conception. According to Larimore, "Women who are overweight to begin with also have a greater risk of developing pregnancy-related high blood pressure and diabetes."

While it is undoubtedly important to be wary of gaining too much or too little weight, pregnant mothers should be more concerned with the healthiness of their diet than they are with their weight gain. Even if you're not used to eating a healthy, balanced diet, it's critical that you do so for your baby's sake.

How Much to Eat

Believe it or not, during the first trimester, the mother doesn't need any extra calories in her diet. During the second trimester, she should add about 350 calories to her normal daily intake, and another 450 on top of that during the third trimester.  

What to Eat 

  • Calcium. Be sure to reach the 1,000 milligram-a-day quota of calcium for your baby's growing bones. This amount can be found in three eight-oz. glasses of milk. Other foods that are loaded with calcium are 100% orange juice, yogurt and cheese.
  • Iron. While pregnant, the body produces more iron-rich blood cells for the developing baby, so it's crucial that the mother keep up her iron level. Iron can be found in fortified grains, beef, poultry, pork and seafood. A pregnant woman needs 27 milligrams of iron a day.
  • Multivitamins. Easy-to-take multivitamins or prenatal supplements should be taken to compensate for any lacking nutrients. But be careful, it can be tempting to rely solely on these for all nutrition needs – but they are called supplements for a reason. These can be taken alongside natural calcium and iron-rich foods, but should not be the only source of essential vitamins and minerals. According to Dr. Larimore, you should consider taking prenatal vitamins if your diet was poor when the pregnancy started, if your diet was inadequate in the months before conception, or if you are carrying more than one baby.
  • Protein. Having eggs for breakfast is a great way to start the day out strong and healthy. Eat meat at every meal, which will also help with your iron needs. Keep lots of nuts around to satisfy your hunger during the day.
  • Vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. Eating a balanced diet is more important now than it's ever been. When you're choosing what to eat, think of your baby growing inside you, and the fact that everything you eat is contributing to the strength of that little developing body.
  • Suggested daily diet:
    • 4 servings of dairy
    • 2 eggs
    • 2 additional proteins
    • 2 servings of vegetables
    • 4 servings of whole grains
    • 1-2 fruits

What Not to Eat

  • Of course, completely avoid alcohol. According to Larimore, "Heavy drinking during pregnancy increases the risk of mental retardation, learning disabilities, birth defects and emotional and behavioral problems." There is no safe or acceptable amount of alcohol during pregnancy.
  • Limit caffeine intake to 200 milligrams a day (amount in about 10 ounces of coffee). In some studies, caffeine has been found to lead to a higher risk of miscarriage.
  • Be careful not to fill up on carbs, because they can make you less hungry for foods that have nutrients you really need.
  • Stay away from too many processed foods or sweets. But a little every now and then won't hurt!

What to Do

  • Exercise. Exercising not only helps prevent excessive weight gain that can lead to health issues for you and your baby, it will also make you feel better during your pregnancy. Even a small amount of exercise each day can reduce stress, keep blood pressure under control, improve circulation and build strength. Be careful not to overdo it, however – talk to you doctor about the right amount of exercise and the right kind of workout for you at your stage of pregnancy.
  • Eat small meals throughout the day, rather than filling up on one or two huge ones. This will prevent fatigue and weakness from hunger, will give you more time to digest the food, and will continue giving your body nutrients throughout the day.
  • Indulge every now and then. Hey, you're pregnant. You deserve some indulgence. If you're craving something, no matter how unusual it is, treat yourself to it. Just be careful not to go overboard!

Medical information within this site is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of any health condition. Please consult a licensed health care professional for the treatment or diagnosis of any medical condition.  

References: Dr. Walt Larimore. "How to Feed Your Baby Right, Even Before Birth" Dr. Walt's Health Blog. July 2nd, 2009.

Dr. Brewer. "Dr. Brewer's Pregnancy Diet."

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