7 Nutrition Tips to Fuel a Healthy Pregnancy
When asked which nutrients are important for women to consume during pregnancy, Aubrey Phelps, a registered dietitian (and expert in our pregnancy community) in Cleveland, has a simple answer: “All of them!” After all, fueling your body well can help both you and your baby get the best start possible. However, getting all the essential nutrients when you feel crummy from morning sickness, acid reflux, or other common pregnancy symptoms isn’t always easy.
Every pregnant person will have slightly different needs and priorities during pregnancy—some may have health conditions that necessitate certain nutrients in their diet, while others just need to focus on keeping food down. Here are seven pregnancy nutrition tips that can help most people find the right path.
1. Get Enough Protein
Phelps explains that during pregnancy, it’s important to focus on getting enough protein (60 grams, or two servings a day), approximately 25% of your recommended total daily caloric intake), which helps with your expanding blood supply, fetal brain development, and the growth and development of your uterus and breasts to support and nourish your baby. In addition, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests eating more protein to help reduce morning sickness.
It’s common to have food aversions in pregnancy, particularly to meat. So, focusing on other protein sources, such as eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts, and legumes, can be helpful.
And for those without meat aversions, Phelps recommends eating a variety of good protein sources, like low-mercury fish and lean grass-fed meat.
Mascha Davis, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles, recommends protein-rich snacks and foods such as:
- String cheese
- Small, fatty fish like canned herring, mackerel, and sardines, which are also an excellent source of high-quality omega-3 fatty acids
- Dairy or fortified nondairy foods high in protein, vitamin D, and calcium
2. Think Nutrients, Not Calories
You’ve likely heard the phrase “eating for two.” Phelps clarifies that the expression is less about calories and more about getting enough micronutrients (a term referring to the major vitamins and minerals your body needs) for you and your baby.
The truth is that pregnant people only need an additional 200–300 extra daily calories (think: a hefty scoop of peanut butter with an apple) in the second and third trimesters (and no extra calories in the first trimester). So, rather than adding meals or snacks throughout the day, Phelps recommends focusing on getting as much nutrition as possible out of your current ones.
Phelps explains that it’s common for pregnant people to struggle to get enough choline, vitamin D, iron, preformed vitamin A, and, of course, protein, so some food recommendations include eggs, chicken liver (after that first-trimester nausea settles a bit), and cruciferous veggies like kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. “All of these are crazy nutrient-dense, offering lots of good nutrition for mom and baby, but not a lot of excess calories,” she says.
If chicken liver doesn’t exactly sound appealing right now, Davis suggests trying plant-based sources of iron, like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. She also notes that smoothies with various fruits and veggies are a great way to get important micronutrients like folate, vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and fiber, all of which contribute to healthy pregnancy nutrition.
Additionally, you want to focus on iron and folate as well as calcium, zinc, choline, proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins A, D, C, and B6. “All play an important role in pregnancy,” says Derek Ballas, D.O., a board-certified ob-gyn at Summa Akron City Hospital in Uniontown, Ohio.
3. Don’t Worry Too Much About Cravings
When it comes to those longings for certain foods, Ballas gives you the all-clear to give in (assuming it’s not something you should avoid in pregnancy, such as runny eggs or deli meat).
“Your tastes and cravings may change during pregnancy to meet what your body senses it needs,” he explains. “I’d listen to your body, and if it’s telling you it wants something, it’s okay to stock up on that item. Just keep in mind that it’s best to add only an extra 300 calories per day during your pregnancy.”
4. Choose the Right Prenatal Vitamin
Phelps says that choosing the right prenatal vitamin may require looking carefully at labels. “I always want to see choline, preformed vitamin A (the kind found in meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products as opposed to fruits and vegetables—look for retinyl acetate or retinyl palmitate on the label), a minimum of 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid and a minimum of 2,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D, ideally,” she says.
Gummy vitamins can be a good option for those struggling with nausea, though they often don’t contain iron, so if you already have anemia, this may not be the best choice. With any vitamin you choose, it’s best to review it with your provider to get their take and suggestions.
5. Plan for Postpartum Nutrition
Although pregnancy might get all the attention, it’s actually the postpartum period that requires the most nutrients and calories, especially if you’re planning on nursing your baby, Phelps says. “Nutrition needs are higher postpartum when breastfeeding than at any point during pregnancy,” she says.
Phelps recommends avoiding calorie counting during the postpartum period. “It’s an added stress that postpartum parents really don't need, and a fixation on calories rather than the actual quality of the diet isn’t helpful,” she points out. Instead, she encourages postpartum parents, especially those who are chest/breastfeeding, to plan for a diet similar to the healthy pregnancy diet. In other words, one full of protein, veggies, and healthy fats and with plenty of hydration.
“Most breastfeeding parents are likely to be hungrier than they were during pregnancy,” she explains. “Three good meals and two to three snacks are a great place to start. Focus on nutrient-dense foods and try to avoid those easy snack foods that won't keep you full, such as chips, pretzels, Goldfish crackers, or cookies. These foods won’t provide the nutrition you need to help your body replenish.”
6. Keep the End Goal in Mind
Of course, enjoying food that you love is part of a healthy (and happy) life, so Phelps encourages you to enjoy a treat here or there during pregnancy.
It can also be helpful to keep the end goal of nutrition during pregnancy in mind: keeping both you and your baby going strong. Eating the right nutrients can help mitigate the risk of complications like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, reduce the baby's risk of heart disease and obesity later in life, and even decrease the risk of certain mood disorders, such as perinatal depression.
7. Reach Out for Help
Last but not least, Davis encourages anyone who is struggling with their nutrition during pregnancy, or who just has additional questions, to reach out to their doctor and/or a dietitian for professional help.
“Pregnancy is such an exciting time, but all of the conflicting nutrition information out there can be confusing. The best way to get a clear and personalized plan is to consult with a registered dietitian,” Davis says. Your insurance plan may even cover one, so start by asking your pregnancy care provider for recommendations.
“Healthy eating is the goal during pregnancy, and it’s essential to meet the recommendations for healthy weight gains and nutritional demands,” adds Ballas. Above all, he says, it’s important to communicate. “Just as there are certain nutrients that are essential for a healthy pregnancy, there are certain foods that pose dangers, and discussions about these should occur either before pregnancy or as early as possible during pregnancy.”
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