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Prenatal Eating Strategies/Caloric Needs

By Jaime Guillet ; Updated June 13, 2017

The old saying that a pregnant woman should be eating for two — essentially doubling her food intake — was invalidated by experts some years ago. But since you're growing another human being, proper nutrition is even more important than it was before.

Determining the Goldilocks “just right” amount of calories to consume during pregnancy can seem mystifying, but it's actually rather simple, said Priya Rajan, M.D., a professor of maternal-fetal medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. Keep reading for the best way to fuel your baby's growth while keeping yourself healthy throughout your pregnancy.

Three hundred calories of ice cream are not the same as calories derived from, say, high-fiber foods.

Priya Rajan, M.D., professor of maternal-fetal medicine, Northwestern University

1. Apply a Caloric Rule of Thumb

The chief factors determining your caloric needs and appropriate weight gain during pregnancy is a woman's starting height, weight, build and physical activity level, Dr. Rajan says.

A pregnant woman’s age has no bearing on her caloric needs, says Dr. Rajan. A healthy 42-year-old woman has the same dietary needs as a healthy 22-year-old woman.

For average-weight women in good health, an additional 350 calories a day is a wise rule of thumb, she says. “That number can certainly be mitigated by conditions such as diabetes or by [carrying] twins,” Dr. Rajan adds.

Or look at it a different way: As a baseline, Medline Plus recommends about 1,800 calories per day during the first trimester, about 2,200 calories during the second trimester and about 2,400 during the third.

All calories are not equal, though. “Three hundred calories of ice cream are not the same as calories derived from, say, high-fiber foods,” she says.

2. Calculate Your Ideal Weight Gain

A woman should gain in the neighborhood of 25 to 35 pounds by the end of her pregnancy, Dr. Rajan says.

“You have lower weight-gaining goals if you are obese,” she says. “For larger patients, I often recommend 15 pounds — no more.” Or if you're underweight, you can expect to gain between 35 to 45 pounds.

The National Institutes of Health advises pregnant women to gain weight gradually: two to four pounds during the first trimester, followed by three to four pounds per month for the second and third trimesters.

3. Avoid Certain Foods

Pregnant women experience more glucose, or sugar, intolerance, which contributes to conditions like gestational diabetes. Doctors have seen a correlation between gestational diabetes and the overall rise of adult obesity in the United States.

Recent studies also have indicated that a mother’s weight and nutrition may affect the child’s long-term risk for conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, Dr. Rajan says. “[The data] is still evolving, but we are paying attention to it a little more and a little better,” she says.

But that doesn't mean pregnant women have to give up sugar altogether. During pregnancy, no foods are off-limits to healthy women for caloric reasons and we generally tell women to eat a healthy, balanced diet, says Dr. Rajan.

The only foods women should abstain from include those that may expose them to toxins: unpasteurized milk, juice or soft cheese; raw or undercooked fish; high mercury-level fish; raw eggs or foods that contain raw eggs, such as cookie dough; store-prepared salads; raw shellfish; undercooked meats; and raw or undercooked sprouts.

4. Stock Up on the Good Stuff

Keeping your pantry full of delicious, nutrient-dense foods will help you stay on track during your pregnancy. That doesn't mean you can't indulge your craxy pregnancy cravings every once in a while. But that should be the exception, not the rule to avoid an unsafe amount of weight gain and minimize the risk of gestational diabetes.

Look for foods high in protein, rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fats and lower in trans fats and saturated fats. When possible, choose foods lower in sugar (it's just empty calories) and refined carbohydrates that are higher in fiber.

Here are some best bets for your prenatal grocery list:

  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Citrus fruits (like oranges)
  • Melons
  • Berries
  • Bananas
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Lean meat
  • Cheese (like cheddar and mozzarella)
  • Eggs
  • Oatmeal
  • Nuts
  • Nut butters
  • Tofu
  • Dried fruit

5. Take a Prenatal Vitamin

While it's best to get all of your nutrition from whole-food sources, most doctors advise pregnant women to take a prenatal vitamin. But this also applies to women trying to get pregnant or who've just given birth.

They differ slightly from a regular multi-vitamin, as they contain more folic acid and iron. That's important for moms-to-be because folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects and iron supports the baby's growth and development. Many doctors also recommend taking an omega-3 supplement to further aid your baby's eye and brain development.

But if you can't stomach the thought of swallowing a bunch of pills every day, try gummy ones from brands like Smarty Pants and Vitafusion. Or if you want to drink your vitamins (with a healthy portion of added protein), try something like Baby Booster prenatal protein formula.

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