NOTE: If you have specific questions about your pregnancy nutrition plan, please consult your physician to best address your specific needs or concerns.
You’re pregnant – congratulations! Now you can sit back and enjoy your favorite foods. After all, you’re eating for two. And with the hard work your body’s going through, you deserve it, right?
Not so fast. While it’s true that your body is going through an amazing transformation, there’s a little more to consider when thinking about pregnancy nutrition. There are potential uncomfortable side effects to tend to, foods to avoid, and nutrients to prioritize.
First Things First: Caloric Needs in Pregnancy
If you were hoping to spend these nine months indulging your most decadent cravings and sending your loved ones running to the store for more ice cream at all hours of the night, we hate to burst your bubble, but that’s not the best plan. You really only need to consume an extra 300 calories per day to maintain healthy weight gain in pregnancy, according to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and the American Pregnancy Association specifies that’s just in the second and third trimesters. Not only that, but it’s important that most of your calories come from a balanced diet, with sweets kept to a minimum. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially if some of the less pleasant side effects of pregnancy leave you craving unhealthy or comforting foods.
Combatting Pregnancy Nutrition Pains
There’s a lot of beauty in pregnancy, but there can certainly be some challenges. Nutritionally, this can mean nausea or morning sickness, heartburn, and/or constipation.
If you started experiencing nausea or vomiting around the sixth week of your pregnancy, you’re not alone. “Morning sickness” (which doesn’t always occur in the morning) occurs in about 70% of pregnancies. While nobody knows exactly what causes morning sickness, the leading theories are low blood sugar or the rise in pregnancy hormones, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The problem may also be exacerbated by stress, lack of sleep, certain foods, or motion sickness.
Regardless of the cause, morning sickness or general nausea can really mess with your nutritional goals. Some women think that if they don’t eat, they’ll feel better. Others may rely heavily on starchy, high-carbohydrate foods and neglect other nutritional needs. Neither is an ideal scenario.
There are a few solutions to try for morning sickness relief, including eating five or six smaller meals per day, avoiding spicy or fatty foods, and staying hydrated.
For most women, morning sickness subsides between the end of the first trimester and about 22 weeks. However, many women find that the nausea gives way to heartburn, which can last much of the second and third trimesters. Heartburn occurs when acidic stomach juices or even food and fluids come back up your esophagus after you’ve eaten, and it creates an unpleasant “burning” sensation along your breastbone. As with morning sickness, it’s not known exactly why heartburn is so common in pregnancy, but scientists believe hormones are again to blame.
Heartburn is typically made worse by foods that don’t digest well. This means larger meals or spicy, greasy, or fatty foods might make you uncomfortable. (So much for those burger-and-ice-cream cravings!)
To reduce heartburn, try taking steps that generally prevent acid production or reflux, like avoiding the above foods that make heartburn worse, eating multiple, small meals throughout the day, and elevating your upper body when you go to bed. On the bright side, heartburn during pregnancy is usually mild and goes away after you deliver your baby!
Nearly half of all pregnant women experience constipation, according to the American Pregnancy Association. While constipation typically occurs due to stress, inactivity, or a low-fiber diet, in pregnancy, it can be blamed on – you guessed it – hormones. The increase in progesterone during pregnancy slows down digestion, often leading to this unpleasant abdominal discomfort.
You can both help prevent and ease constipation through the same steps: eat a high-fiber diet, stay hydrated, exercise regularly, and avoid iron supplements, which can make constipation worse. If the problem persists, you can talk to your health care provider about over-the-counter options that might be safe during pregnancy.
Foods to Avoid or Limit
You likely already know that alcohol is a no-go during pregnancy, but beyond that, the details of what you can’t or shouldn’t eat might be a little murky. Let’s clear things up a bit.
You may find yourself especially tired during your pregnancy and itching for a cup of coffee for a little energy boost. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says this is ok, as long as you limit your daily caffeine consumption to less than 200 mg per day (which is about a 12 oz cup of coffee).
Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the Listeria bacteria that can sometimes be found in unpasteurized foods like soft cheeses (feta, Brie, queso fresco, etc.), lunch meats and cold cuts, and store-bought deli salads. This has been known to cause miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm labor, illness, or death in newborns in the most extreme cases, according to the CDC. Therefore, it’s best to avoid these foods (or at least heat up lunch meats to steaming) until after your baby is born.
Fish with high levels of mercury, like swordfish, shark, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughly, and tilefish, should be avoided during pregnancy, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The mercury in these fish can pass through the placenta and be potentially harmful to the development of your baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system.
Raw Meat and Fish
Rare, raw, and undercooked meats, fish, and poultry could lead to an infection that could cause problems later in your baby’s life, according to the CDC. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid rare, raw, or undercooked meats, eggs, and shellfish and raw fish, such as sushi. It’s also best to avoid foods that contain uncooked eggs, like raw cookie dough and cake batter, tiramisu, chocolate mousse, and homemade eggnog.
It may seem like there’s nothing left that you can eat while pregnant, but if you’re following a nutritionally balanced diet, you shouldn’t have to worry too much as there is a wide variety of food choices. There are a few nutrients that are especially important during pregnancy, though:
- Folate and folic acid – 400 to 1,000 micrograms each day throughout pregnancy can help prevent neural tube defects and brain and spinal cord abnormalities. Your prenatal vitamin should contain enough folic acid to cover this requirement, but you can also try fortified cereals, leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, and dried beans and peas, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Calcium – 1,000 milligrams each day throughout pregnancy can strengthen your and your baby’s bones and teeth while supporting your circulatory, muscular, and nervous systems, the Mayo Clinic says. Try dairy products, broccoli, or kale to reach your daily calcium goal.
- Vitamin D – 600 IU per day also helps strengthen your baby’s bones and teeth. Fatty fish or fortified milk or orange juice are great sources of vitamin D.
- Protein – 71 grams per day is important to your baby’s growth and can be reached by eating lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, and soy products.
- Iron – 27 milligrams per day (double the amount you needed before pregnancy) helps ensure you produce enough blood to supply oxygen to your baby, according to the Mayo Clinic. Your best sources for iron include lean red meat, poultry, fish, and iron-fortified cereals.
Finally, it’s important to stay hydrated throughout your pregnancy. The recommendation from ACOG is to drink 8 to 12 cups (or 64 to 96 ounces) of water each day to help aid digestion, circulate nutrients through your body, and form the amniotic fluid that protects your baby throughout your pregnancy.
You may not be able to sit around all day eating ice cream and pickles throughout your pregnancy, but as long as you avoid the few foods that can be detrimental to your baby and eat a nutrient-rich, well-balanced diet, you should be able to enjoy many of your favorite foods as you anticipate the arrival of your new bundle!
Johns Hopkins Medicine: Nutrition During Pregnancy
American Pregnancy Association: Pregnancy Nutrition
Cleveland Clinic: Morning Sickness (Nausea and Vomiting of Pregnancy)
Live Science: Pregnancy Diet & Nutrition: What to Eat, What Not to Eat
Healthline: When Will This Ever End? How Long Morning Sickness Lasts
Stanford Children’s Health: Pregnancy and Heartburn
American Pregnancy Association: Constipation in Pregnancy
ACOG: Moderate Caffeine Consumption During Pregnancy
Mayo Clinic: Pregnancy Diet: Focus on These Essential Nutrients
ACOG: How Much Water Should I Drink During Pregnancy