13 Things You Should Know About Food If You’re Pregnant
1. Congrats! You’re pregnant. A healthy diet is now more important than ever.
Whether or not you’re used to eating a healthy diet, you probably know that now, it’s not just about you anymore. Your doctor can offer specifics about what this means for you but in general, you’ll want to eat plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins — specifics will vary from woman to woman, depending on her age, height, weight, physical activity level and stage of pregnancy. Variety is important, too, because different foods have different nutrients, and you want all of them.
Check out the USDA’s Daily Food Plan for Moms to get a better idea of what your diet should look like and, of course, be sure to discuss any questions with your doctor.
2. Eat plenty of folate-rich foods like spinach, beans, and cantaloupe for your baby’s healthy brain development.
It’s super important for women to get enough folate — even before they get preggers. So if you’re ~trying~ to stick a bun in the oven, start upping your folate intake ASAP. Folate, also called folic acid, is an essential nutrient for developing fetuses. “Folate is used to develop brain and spinal cord in the first four weeks of pregnancy,” says Dr. Afua Mintah, a New York City-based obstetrician-gynecologist. “So before [a woman] even misses her cycle, she needs that folate on board.”
Women should consume 400–800 micrograms each day even if they’re not trying to get pregnant. That way, if they do end up pregs, the babies are less likely to have birth defects. Women who have had babies with these conditions before, who are taking certain medications, or who have conditions including sickle cell disease and liver disease, need even more. Click here to find out if you do.
Most prenatal vitamins include folate, but you can also get it from your diet pretty easily. Spinach (58 micrograms/cup), broccoli (57mcg/cup), beans (170mcg/cup), and cantaloupe(37mcg/cup) are all good sources, as are many breakfast cereals.
3. Make sure you’re getting plenty of iron.
Blood is very important during pregnancy because it brings oxygen, hormones and vitamins from your body to the baby, and carries waste away. And since women will lose blood during birth, keeping blood counts up becomes even more vital.
Anemia — when a person has either too few red blood cells or red blood cells that aren’t functioning at their optimum level — during pregnancy has been linked to poor fetal growth, low birthweight and pre-term birth. “Mild anemia is normal during pregnancy due to an increase in blood volume,” according to the American Society of Hematology. “More severe anemia, however, can put your baby at higher risk for anemia later in infancy.”
Dr. Mintah recommends that women consume 27 milligrams of iron every day, whether through their diet or through supplements. Lean red meat, poultry, fish, dried beans, green leafy vegetables and hard and pasteurized soft cheeses are all good sources, she says. But no blood-red steaks or rare burgers — you want to cook meat until any bacteria is good and dead.
If you don’t eat meat, you’ll probably need to take an iron supplement. “Almost all my vegetarian and vegan patients aren’t going to get enough iron through eating red meat,” says Dr. Mintah, “and so I definitely have a discussion with them about getting green leafy vegetables and almost always supplementing with an iron tablet.”
4. Avoiding beer, wine, and any other alcoholic beverages is probably your safest bet.
“Any alcohol at all should be avoided,” says Mintah. When a mother consumes alcohol, it is passed to the baby through the umbilical cord and can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which can include facial deformities, low body weight, learning disabilities, problems with vital organs, and other conditions.
“There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Therefore, many experts say the safest plan is not to consume any.
However, not everyone agrees. A 2013 U.K. study that followed more than 10,000 children concluded “that light drinking during pregnancy is not linked to developmental problems in mid-childhood.”
Whether or not you decide to have a drink on occasion is ultimately up to you, but it’s difficult to say how much is too much. “The important conclusion of the 2013 study is that the safest option is for pregnant women to avoid drinking alcohol during their pregnancies,” National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome spokesman Tom Donaldson told BuzzFeed. “Forty years of research definitively shows that alcohol is a teratogen, a neurotoxin that interferes with human development. While the risk to a woman’s offspring is correlated to the quantity, timing and pattern of maternal alcohol consumption, the risk is only eliminated if a woman abstains completely.”
If you had a drink (or several) before you found out you were pregnant, talk to your doctor. “I often get a lot of patients that come in, they’re 6 weeks pregnant, they didn’t know they were pregnant and they had a glass of wine last week with friends,” says Mintah. “That you can deal with and manage. Going forward I tell them not to drink anything further.”
5. Cravings for ice, dirt, cigarette ashes or other non-food substances could be a sign of a condition called pica.
Pica is identified by cravings for non-food, non-nutritive substances like ice, clay, dirt, and cigarette ashes. Pica is not unusual. While no one knows for certain why women sometimes develop pica cravings in pregnancy, studies have connected it to an iron deficiency.
It’s usually wise to resist the urge: Eating non-food items, even dirt, can be toxic and potentially dangerous to you and your baby’s health. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, let your doctor know.
6. Most pregnant women are getting enough calcium in their diets, but vegans need to make an extra effort.
Adult pregnant and lactating women should consume at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. (Teens need even more — 1,300mg per day.) Calcium is especially important in the last three months of pregnancy, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Most people get enough calcium through their diet,” says Mintah, “but my vegan patients are not eating cheese or having yogurts during the day, so sometimes they do need the extra calcium.”
Dark green vegetables like spinach and broccoli are good sources of calcium, as are vegan mainstays like tofu and nuts. Lots of milk alternatives and juices are also fortified with calcium, so check the labels on your favorite brands.
7. Eating foods with probiotics, like yogurt and homemade kimchi, may stave off yeast infections.
Yeast infections are common during pregnancy. While you can treat them safely with over-the-counter anti-fungal creams and suppositories, you may also be able to prevent them with probiotics. These live microorganisms, often referred to as “friendly bacteria,” may help your body fight off infections caused by “bad” bacteria, including yeast infections. The evidence that they can do this is still inconclusive and the FDA has not yet approved health claims for foods made with probiotics, but some women report positive results and they are generally considered safe, even for pregnant women and their fetuses.
Probiotics are often added to yogurts and naturally occur in fermented foods like homemade sauerkraut and kimchi. Store-bought versions of these foods, though, are often pasteurized and therefore do not have probiotics.
8. You can still have your morning cup of coffee, but doctors recommend sticking with just the one.
Good news, pregnant coffee lovers: It’s not off the menu. While there were once concerns that caffeine was dangerous to pregnancies, the most recent studies conclude that consuming low levels of caffeine — under 200 milligrams per day — isn’t likely to contribute to miscarriage or preterm birth.
“Moderate amounts of caffeine are considered safe,” says Mintah. But the key word there is “moderate.” A single 8 ounce cup of brewed coffee has an average of 137mg of caffeine, so pregnant women should limit their intake to one per day. Click here to see caffeine levels in other foods.
It’s still unclear if higher levels of caffeine might impact a pregnancy. “A final conclusion cannot be made at this time as to whether there is a correlation between high caffeine intake and miscarriage,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated in 2010.
9. Eating fish is good for you, but some fish have too much mercury — so pick your fishes carefully.
Almost all human exposure to methylmercury — the most toxic form of mercury — is through the fish we eat. It can affect the immune and nervous system, and is especially toxic to developing embryos, which are five to ten times more sensitive than adults to its effects. Low-level exposure to the toxin during the mother’s pregnancy “has been associated with…poor performance on neurobehavioral tests, particularly on tests of attention, fine-motor function, language, visual-spatial abilities (e.g., drawing), and verbal memory,” according to an extensive 2001 report by the National Research Council.
But not all fish have high mercury levels and many can be healthy for you and your baby. It all depends on the kind of fish you’re eating. “Women need to know that nutrients in fish are good for the brain of a developing fetus,” said Dr. Sharon Sagiv of the Boston University School of Public Health, one of the leaders of a 2012 study that found low-level prenatal mercury exposure was connected to ADHD. “But high mercury levels in some fish pose a risk.”
“Women should eat shrimp, salmon, catfish, and pollack,” says Mintah. They should avoid long-living, large, high-mercury fish at the top of the food chain, notably shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tile fish. Tuna fish is tricky: Canned light tuna (but not cans labeled “white”) is low in mercury and can be eaten as part of the FDA’s recommended limit of 12 ounces of fish per week. Albacore tuna (which means most tuna steaks or “white” tuna), however, is higher in mercury and pregnant women are advised not to eat more than 6 ounces per week.
Sorry, sushi lovers: “Raw fish should be avoided,” says Dr. Mintah. Same goes for smoked fish because of Listeria concerns. (More on that below.)
Don’t eat fish? Mintah says to get the important omega-3 fatty acids from other sources, like avocados or supplements. Flax and canola oils are also good plant-based sources of omega-3s.
10. Pregnant women need to be extra careful about salmonella.
For most people, salmonella poisoning can cause unpleasant symptoms like nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. For pregnant women, though, salmonella can cause sepsis in the uterus and even the death of the fetus. Other populations at higher risk include children, older adults, and transplant recipients.
Salmonella causes an estimated 1.2 million illnesses in the United States each year, according to the CDC. The major sources are undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, raw eggs, and unwashed fruits and vegetables. But it can also show up in unlikely places like peanut butter and spices.
Make sure to cook meat until it’s well done, wash your cutting boards, counters and hands with soap when handling raw foods (including fruits and vegetables!), and store everything properly. You should also stay away from yummy things like runny eggs, cake batter, Hollandaise sauce, custard, homemade mayo, and anything else made with raw eggs (sorry).
For more tips to keep salmonella out of your life, click here. And don’t forget to pay extra attention to salmonella-related recalls, like the recent one for peanut and almond butters. You can check all current recalls here.
11. Listeria is also extra dangerous for pregnant women.
“Pregnant women are 13 times more likely to get [Listeriosis] than the general population,” says Mintah. Listeriosis, which is an infection usually caused by eating foods contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, can be passed to an unborn baby and have serious adverse impacts on your pregnancy. “It can increase your risk of miscarriage, still birth, or premature delivery,” Mintah says.
The good news is that listeriosis is nowhere near as common as salmonella poisoning: The CDC estimates that there are approximately 1600 illnesses and 260 deaths from listeriosis annually in the U.S. Still, Listeria is a very dangerous, highly adaptable bacterium that can live just fine — and even grow — in your refrigerator. And it can show up in everything from cantaloupe to ready-to-eat meats.
To steer clear of this guy, thoroughly rinse all raw produce — even things you’ll peel later — before eating, cutting or cooking. Cook meat, poultry and fish to safe temperatures. The CDC recommends that you only eat hot dogs, cold cuts, and deli meats if they’re heated to an internal temperature of 165°F, and only eat soft cheeses like feta, brie and blue-veined cheeses if the label clearly states they were made from pasteurized milk.
Do not eat smoked fish unless it has been cooked. (Canned fish is okay.) Pregnant women should also steer clear of raw or unpasteurized milk or any dish made with it. And while most juices sold commercially are pasteurized, the ones sold or made fresh at juice bars often are not, so check the label to be sure. More prevention tips from the CDC available here.
If you believe you may have been exposed to Listeria or experience any Listeriosis-like symptoms — fever, aches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting — contact your doctor immediately.
12. Doctors recommend pregnant ladies only eat an extra 300 calories a day.
Sure, you have to pee every ten minutes, your hormones are all out of whack, and you just let one rip in a business meeting — but at least you can eat anything you want, right?
Well, no, not really.
While you may theoretically be eating for two, you shouldn’t actually double your food consumption. “In general, to support a normal, healthy pregnancy, you need to increase your caloric intake by about 300 calories a day,” says Mintah. “That’s about half a sandwich.” That will come out to a weight gain of 25–35 pounds, with a gain of about half a pound per week in the first twenty weeks, and then a pound per week after that.
“Pregnant women can take indulgences,” Mintah says. But, she cautions, “Gaining too much during the pregnancy increases your risk of having a really big baby or developing gestational diabetes, and increases your risk of needing a C-section. So you definitely want to not go crazy just because you’re pregnant.”
13. If you’re overweight, obese or had excessive weight gain during pregnancy, a weight-loss diet can be healthy for both you and your baby.
Being overweight or obese, or gaining excessive weight during pregnancy, can have adverse impacts on your health and the baby’s. But a healthy diet can both help you lose weight and reduce your risk of pregnancy complications like pre-eclampsia, diabetes, high blood pressure and early delivery, according to a 2012 study published in online medical journal The BMJ. The study also found no connections between the mother’s weight-loss diet and the birth weight of the baby.
“Women may be concerned that dieting during pregnancy could have a negative impact on their babies,” said Dr. Shakila Thangaratinam, the lead researcher. “This research is reassuring because it showed that dieting is safe and that the baby’s weight isn’t affected.”
It’s important to remember, though, that women should expect to gain 25 — 35 pounds over the course of their pregnancies and there’s no need to stress out about normal weight gain. You’re carrying a fetus in there, after all! But if you’ve put on more than what’s considered normal, talk to your doctor about your best weight loss strategy.
Remember: When you’re pregnant, everybody is going to have advice for you. (BTW, it’s only gonna get worse once the baby arrives.) Keep in mind that recommendations are just recommendations. Take ‘em or leave ‘em and listen to your doctor.
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