According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a pregnant woman needs more calcium, folic acid, iron and protein than a woman who is not expecting. Here are the reasons why these four nutrients are important.
It is known as folate when the nutrient is found in foods, and it is a B vitamin that is crucial in helping to prevent birth defects in the baby’s brain and spinal cord, known as neural tube defects.
It may be hard to get the recommended amount of folic acid from diet alone. For that reason the March of Dimes, an organization dedicated to preventing birth defects, recommends that women who are trying to have a baby take a daily vitamin supplement containing 400 micrograms of folic acid per day for at least one month before becoming pregnant. During pregnancy, they advise women to increase the amount of folic acid to 600 micrograms a day, an amount commonly found in a daily prenatal vitamin.
Food sources for folic acid include leafy green vegetables, fortified or enriched cereals, breads and pastas, beans, citrus fruits.
This is a mineral used to build a baby’s bones and teeth. If a pregnant woman does not consume enough calcium, the mineral will be drawn from the mother’s stores in her bones and given to the baby to meet the extra demands of pregnancy, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Many dairy products are also fortified with vitamin D, another nutrient that works with calcium to develop a baby’s bones and teeth.
Pregnant women age 19 and above need 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day; pregnant teens, ages 14 to 18, need 1,300 milligrams daily, according to ACOG.
Food sources include milk, yogurt, cheese, calcium-fortified juices and foods, sardines or salmon with bones, some leafy greens (kale, bok choy).
Pregnant women need 27 milligrams of iron a day, which is double the amount needed by women who are not expecting, according to ACOG. Additional amounts of the mineral are needed to make more blood to supply the baby with oxygen. Getting too little iron during pregnancy can lead to anemia, a condition resulting in fatigue and an increased risk of infections.
“To increase the absorption of iron, include a good source of vitamin C at the same meal when eating iron-rich foods,” ACOG recommends. For example, have a glass of orange juice at breakfast with an iron-fortified cereal.
Food sources are meat, poultry, fish, dried beans and peas, iron-fortified cereal.
“More protein is needed during pregnancy, but most women don’t have problems getting enough protein-rich foods in their diets”, says Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman on prenatal nutrition for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in St. Petersburg, Florida. She described protein as “a builder nutrient,” because it helps to build important organs in the baby, such as the brain and heart.
Food sources include meat, poultry, fish, dried beans and peas, eggs, nuts, tofu.
What Foods to Eat During Pregnancy
During pregnancy, the goal is to be eating nutritious foods most of the time, Krieger told Live Science. To maximize prenatal nutrition, she suggests emphasizing the following five food groups: fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and dairy products.
When counseling pregnant women, Krieger recommends they fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables, a quarter of it with whole grains and a quarter of it with a source of lean protein, and to also have a dairy product at every meal.
1. Fruits and vegetables
Pregnant women should focus on fruits and vegetables, particularly during the second and third trimesters, Krieger said. Get between five and 10 tennis ball-size servings of produce every day, she said. These colorful foods are low in calories and filled with fiber, vitamins and minerals.
2. Lean protein
Pregnant women should include good protein sources at every meal to support the baby’s growth, Krieger said. Protein-rich foods include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, cheese, milk, nuts and seeds.
3. Whole grains
These foods are an important source of energy in the diet, and they also provide fiber, iron and B-vitamins. At least half of a pregnant woman’s carbohydrate choices each day should come from whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta or breads and brown rice, Krieger said.
4. Dairy Foods
Aim for 3 to 4 servings of dairy foods a day, Krieger suggested. Dairy foods, such as milk, yogurt and cheese are good dietary sources of calcium, protein and vitamin D.
What Foods to limit During Pregnancy
Consuming fewer than 200 mg of caffeine a day, which is the amount found in one 12-ounce cup of coffee, is generally considered safe during pregnancy, according to a 2010 ACOG committee opinion, which was reaffirmed in 2013. The committee report said moderate caffeine consumption during pregnancy does not appear to contribute to miscarriage or premature birth.
Fish is a good source of lean protein, and some fish, including salmon and sardines, also contain omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy fat that’s good for the heart. It is safe for pregnant women to eat 8 to 12 ounces of cooked fish and seafood a week, according to ACOG. However, they should limit albacore or “white” tuna, which has high levels of mercury, to no more than 6 ounces a week, according to ACOG. Mercury is a metal that can be harmful to a baby’s developing brain. Canned light tuna has less mercury than albacore “white” tuna and is safer to eat during pregnancy.
What Foods to Avoid Completely During Pregnancy
Avoid alcohol during pregnancy, Krieger advised. Alcohol in the mother’s blood can pass directly to the baby through the umbilical cord. Heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy has been linked with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, a group of conditions that can include physical problems, as well as learning and behavioral difficulties in babies and children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
2. Fish with high levels of mercury
Seafood such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy and tilefish are high in levels of methyl mercury, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and should be avoided during pregnancy. Methyl mercury is a toxic chemical that can pass through the placenta and can be harmful to an unborn baby’s developing brain, kidneys and nervous system.
3. Unpasteurized food
According to the USDA, pregnant women are at high risk for getting sick from two different types of food poisoning: listeriosis, caused by the Listeria bacteria, and toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by a parasite.
Every pregnant woman is expected to take advantage and participate in the antenatal classes and hospital visits where she can receive professional advice from her health care team concerning the pregnancy. Pregnant women should also ask their health care providers questions that they may have concerning what to eat and what not to eat. All these is to ensure that both mother and baby are safe and healthy even after delivery.