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Eating for Two Doesn't Mean Overindulging

May 07, 2013

Washington Hospital Dietitian Offers Nutrition Tips for a Healthy Pregnancy

While eating a healthy diet is important for everyone, it is critical for pregnant women. A nutrient-rich diet supports the baby's growth and development and will improve the chances for a healthy pregnancy.

"Pregnant women need to make sure they eat a variety of foods to get all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients they need," said Danielle Moore, a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital. "It's also important to gain the correct amount of weight."

She said a well-balanced diet should include whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lean protein, as well as healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados. Recommended daily amounts include six to 11 servings of breads and grains, two to four servings of fruit, four or more servings of vegetables, four servings of dairy products, and three servings of protein (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or nuts).

It is common for women to crave certain foods during pregnancy. Moore said it is fine to splurge on sweets and other "junk food" on occasion, but she cautions pregnant women not to overindulge.

"Eating for two doesn't mean you can eat whatever you want whenever you want," she added. "Women should not try to lose weight, but they do need to keep weight gain within healthy limits. Pregnant women should consume an additional 300 calories per day when they are pregnant. That's not a lot, so they still have to watch what they eat and focus on eating the right foods."

Important Vitamins and Minerals

Although there is no specific pregnancy diet, there are some key vitamins and minerals that are particularly important. These nutrients can help to reduce the risk for birth defects and other complications.

Folate or folic acid can help to prevent serious abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord, according to Moore. Lack of folate during pregnancy may also increase the risk of low birth weight and preterm delivery.

"Good sources of folic acid include fortified cereals, spinach and other green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, peas, and lentils," she said. "The spinal cord forms in the first few weeks of pregnancy, usually before women know they are pregnant. That's why women who are trying to conceive should increase their intake of folic acid."

Calcium is needed to build strong bones and help muscles, nerves, and the heart to function properly. Moore said babies need a considerable amount of calcium to develop. If women don't consume enough, their bodies will take calcium from their bones, decreasing bone mass and putting them at risk for osteoporosis. Good sources of calcium include dairy products and leafy green vegetables, she added.

Iron is needed to prevent anemia, when the blood lacks enough hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells that carries oxygen to the tissues. The body uses iron to make hemoglobin and during pregnancy, more iron is needed to help the mom and baby's expanding blood supply - increasing the need for iron, Moore explained. If pregnant women don't get enough iron, they can feel weak and fatigued.

"Good sources of iron include lean red meat, poultry, and fish," she said. "Also good are beans, spinach, and fortified cereals."

Supplements Provide Key Nutrients

"Even if you eat a healthy diet, you can miss out on key nutrients," Moore said. "Pregnant women should take a prenatal vitamin daily throughout their pregnancy and while they are nursing."

She said women should consult with their doctor to determine which prenatal vitamin they should take. The physician can recommend an over-the-counter brand or prescribe a prenatal vitamin.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also essential nutrients for pregnant women, but the only way to obtain them is through diet and fish oil supplements. They promote brain and eye development, according to Moore. Most pregnant women likely do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids because the major dietary source, seafood, is restricted to two servings a week, she added. Other sources include flaxseed and canola oil as well as walnuts.

"Eating a nutrient-rich diet not only promotes the baby's healthy development, it also helps pregnant women keep weight gain within healthy levels," Moore said. "Weight gain should range between 11 and 40 pounds depending on what women weigh at the beginning of the pregnancy. Women should consult their physician to determine how much weight they should gain for a healthy pregnancy."

To learn about Comprehensive Pregnancy and Newborn Services at Washington Hospital, visit whhs.com/womens-health. For information about Washington Hospital's Nutrition Counseling program, visit whhs.com/nutrition.

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