Facts and figures about prenatal nutrition

prenatal nutritionA healthy woman carrying a single child should gain between 25 and 35 pounds over the entire nine months of pregnancy

Eating well and gaining the proper amount of weight are two of the best things that a woman can do during her pregnancy to safeguard her health and that of her baby.

The responsibility of bearing new life is a powerful impetus to maintain a well-balanced diet and to eat the right nutrients in proper measure. Gaining a healthy amount of weight is important, as well. Too little makes it hard for the fetus to grow and could create developmental problems; too much makes it more likely that the labor will be longer and the delivery more difficult. There could be additional complications such as diabetes, high blood pressure and backaches.

When it comes to weight and pregnancy, it's good to remember a variation on the Goldilocks formula: not too little, not too much just right is best for both mother and child.

How much weight should I gain?

America's fixation on weight has led to lots of discussion about how much weight gain is appropriate for a normal pregnancy. A healthy woman carrying a single child should gain between 25 and 35 pounds over the entire nine months of pregnancy. Twins should result in a 35 to 45 pound weight gain for the same woman.

The best thing to do is to talk to your health care provider about how much weight you should gain during your pregnancy, taking in account each of the different factors.

So how much more can I really eat?

Though "eating for two" has become a part of the pregnancy lexicon, it's a misconception that you really have to eat that much more to nurture a growing fetus. In fact, daily caloric intake should increase only by about 10 to 15 percent. For the average woman, this translates to about 300 calories a day. That's the equivalent of one glass of milk, or one cup of non-fat fruit yogurt and a medium apple, or two tablespoons of peanut butter on one piece of whole wheat toast.

What special nutritional needs do I have when I am pregnant?

Ideally, good nutrition should start before conception. A balanced diet and a healthy amount of rest and exercise provide the best environment for new life to begin.

It's a good idea to get enough folic acid before pregnancy, as well as during, to prevent neural tube defects. There are certain foods that are naturally high in folic acid, including orange juice, strawberries, spinach, broccoli and beans. If necessary, prenatal supplements containing at least 400 micrograms (0.4 milligrams) are recommended to reduce the chances of problems with neural tube development.

What are the nutrients I may be missing if I am a vegetarian?

Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, protein and iron are some of the common nutrients that may be lacking in a vegetarian diet. Anyone who follows a strict diet with no animal products, especially anyone who is pregnant, should consult a registered dietitian. Supplements such as a prenatal vitamin may be prescribed to fill in any nutritional gaps.

Are there foods I shouldn't eat?

Alcohol can cause birth defects. Severe alcohol abuse during pregnancy can result in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can cause lifelong mental and physical disabilities. Certain types of ocean fish, including shark and swordfish, may have high levels of mercury that can damage the nervous system of the developing fetus.

Avoid raw fish, such as sushi, as this may carry harmful bacteria. Raw or undercooked meat can harbor E. Coli bacteria or salmonella. Make sure that hamburger or chicken is thoroughly cooked. Eggs should not be eaten with a runny yolk as they can also be infected with salmonella.

Many soft cheeses such as Feta, Brie and goat cheese may contain bacteria called listeria that are harmful to unborn babies. It is also found in lunch meats and hot dogs, so it's a good idea to avoid eating these as well unless they're cooked to high enough temperature to kill any existing bacteria.

Caffeine is a stimulant that can get to the fetus across the placenta. If you drink lots of coffee, tea or soda throughout the day, it's a good idea to cut back and substitute decaffeinated beverages or, better yet, water or skim milk.

What if I suffer morning sickness?

Morning sickness occurs in as many as 80 percent of pregnancies. The nausea and vomiting that happen most frequently in the morning was thought to be the result of drastic hormonal changes during the first trimester, but now researchers say morning sickness may have evolved as a way to purge the body of harmful food toxins that might hurt the baby. Since morning sickness strikes most often when the stomach is empty, those who suffer it should eat small amounts of food frequently.

Healthy eating tips when you're pregnant:

  • Don't skip breakfast. If you wake up to morning sickness, eat a slice of whole-wheat toast or whole-grain crackers to relieve your nausea.
  • Stay well-hydrated and try to drink at least 8 to 12 cups of water a day. Don't overdo it on fruit juices that have a lot of nutrition but also carry lots of calories.
  • Eat high-fiber foods such as whole-grain cereals, vegetables, fruit and beans. Combined with plenty of water and exercise, these foods can help prevent constipation that is common during pregnancy.
  • Keep healthy foods within easy reach. Have cut-up vegetables ready to grab by the handful from the refrigerator. Keep your fruit bowl filled with colorful fruits like plums, strawberries and grapes, all of which are full of antioxidants.
  • Avoid the sugar rush by staying away from candy bars and other empty calories.

To find out more about prenatal nutrition or to find an obstetrician with the Princeton HealthCare System, visit www.princetonhcs.org or call (888) 742-7496,

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