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Healthy Diets for Pregnant Women

Entire books have been written on healthy eating during pregnancy, and these certainly cannot be thoroughly replicated here.  Extensive research has provided pregnant women with a lot of guidelines for what to eat and what to avoid both while pregnant and if able to breastfeed or pump and provide breastmilk after birth. This article will simply provide an overview of the importance of diet to a healthy pregnancy and fetal development.

Important Ingredients for a Healthy Diet During Pregnancy

A woman’s caloric requirements increase by about 300 calories per day during first trimester, 350 during second trimester, and 500 during the final few weeks before birth (These numbers differ depending on the individual’s lifestyle and whether the woman is carrying a singleton or multiple pregnancy).  It is important to eat lots of fruits and vegetables to acquire a wide range of nutrients as well as foods with high iron and calcium content.  In the first few weeks of pregnancy, Vitamin B9 (folic acid) is needed to prevent spina bifida in the developing baby; if you are planning to conceive, you should be taking a prenatal vitamin or a folic acid supplement, or getting sufficient folic acid in your diet (discuss your options with your obstetrician).  Protein is especially important during the second and third trimesters when the baby is growing rapidly, and pregnant women should be consuming at least 70 grams of protein each day, which may be slightly more difficult for women attempting to maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet.  Additionally, research has indicated that omega-3 fatty acids – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in particular) – help with vision and brain development in the fetus and may have other long-term protective benefits as well.  These can be obtained from foods with alpha-linolenic acid (LnA), which the body converts to EPA and DHA.

Foods to Avoid When Pregnant

Although many pregnant women cannot be told that a chocolate milkshake is more of an enemy than a friend (too much sugar can cause gestational diabetes [which puts the mom at a higher risk for getting diabetes later], preeclampsia, and high-birth-weight babies [increased likelihood of a c-section]), most do recognize the importance of avoiding other dangerous foods.  Seafood, for example, contains varying levels of mercury, which can impair neurological development in a fetus. Salmon, shrimp, and tilapia can be safely eaten twice a week (6 ounce servings) during pregnancy whereas fish like tilefish, ahi tuna, orange roughy, and shark, for example, should be avoided at all costs. A complete list of seafood and corresponding mercury content can be found on the Food and Drug Administration’s website by clicking here.  Caffeine consumption should be limited to reduce the risk of miscarriage and negative effects on the fetus. During pregnancy, a woman’s immune system is weakened to ensure that her body will not reject the fetus; however, this can leave a pregnant woman more vulnerable to infection.  In addition to frequent hand washing and avoiding situations in which disease transmission may be greater (environments with many children or people who may be ill or carrying illnesses), proper food choices, storage, and preparation are important. Because they are moist and not acidic, soft cheeses (like brie, chevre, and camembert) as well as stilton and Danish blue cheese – even if they are made from pasteurized milk – can facilitate the growth of listeria bacteria , which can lead to listeriosis. Listeria can also be found in unpasteurized milk, products made from unpasteurized milk, and some precooked deli meats, which is why women are advised to thoroughly cook such ready-to-eat products. Although generally not harmful if treated, if left untreated, a listeriosis infection can cause premature birth, stillbirth, or miscarriage as well as eye infections, jaundice, meningitis, and pneumonia in babies that have the infection at birth. Raw fish (including raw fish in sushi) and undercooked meats are more likely to contain bacteria or parasites; a healthy adult is often able to fight off any associated illness, but the pregnant woman’s immune system is, again, not fully functional, which, again, leaves her more vulnerable to infection.  Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause birth defects, mental retardation, early birth, low birth weight, and a condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS); but research has not been able to determine exactly where the “safe line” is.  Clearly, binge drinking or daily consumption of alcohol has been shown to cause problems, but the effects of light or even moderate drinking are not as well known.  Still, most doctors discourage pregnant women from drinking alcohol (as well as consuming other substances like nicotine, unnecessary prescription medicines, and illegal drugs).