Proper pregnancy nutrition can be hard to maintain when you're constantly feeling hungry, craving "bad" foods and "eating for two." But many healthy foods can fulfill those pesky cravings and help you control weight gain during pregnancy. Maintaining a healthy diet and knowing what to eat and what not to eat during pregnancy are important not only to avoid excessive weight gain but also because what you eat affects the overall health of you and your baby.
"As moms-to-be embark on this exciting phase of their lives and bring a new life into the world, your health and managing a healthy weight gain during pregnancy is of the utmost importance," says Dr. Liz Applegate, nationally renowned nutrition and fitness expert. "Research reveals that excessive weight gain can set the stage for weight struggles for mom persisting well beyond 'baby years.'"
Weight gain during pregnancy is different for every mom, but the optimal amount of weight gain for women who have a healthy body mass index — defined as between 18.5 and 24.9 — is 25 to 35 pounds. If a woman starts out underweight, the amount of gain should be more; if she is overweight, the amount should be less.
A common misconception about eating while pregnant stems from the idea that a woman is "eating for two." A pregnant woman does not have to double her caloric intake and portions. Women should only consume an extra 200 to 300 calories per day — and that's only during the second and third trimesters.
"Proper weight gain promotes normal development of the developing baby," Applegate says. "Being overweight or obese during pregnancy can increase the risk of developing gestational diabetes, problems with blood pressure and complications with delivery, such as preterm birth."
Managing sweet cravings
Sweet cravings are common during pregnancy because of changes in hormonal levels, and research shows that women with gestational diabetes experience more intense cravings.
"Incorporating low- and no-calorie sweeteners is a safe and helpful way to satisfy sweet desires without unwanted calories," Applegate says.
The FDA has deemed some low- or zero-calorie sweeteners, including sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low), and stevia (Truvia), safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Applegate recommends using one of these sweeteners in iced tea or a sugar-free yogurt topped with berries, which includes calcium, vitamin C and other nutrients.
Approximately 200 milligrams or less of caffiene is safe to consume daily, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. This is equivalent to a 12-ounce brewed coffee or four cans of Diet Coke.
"A mom-to-be can feel comfortable about enjoying this moderate amount of caffeine during the day but should avoid caffeine intake later in the day so as not to disrupt sleeping," Applegate says.
Another key aspect of staying healthy during pregnancy is exercise. The goal for all adults, whether they are pregnant or not, is 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise. The most important thing to remember is that you can continue with the same level of activity you performed before becoming pregnant, but pay attention to what your body is telling you.
"Women who are very athletic, such as serious runners and dancers, can continue with their activities, but should modify according to how they feel," Applegate says. "Any cramping, dizziness or nausea should signal a woman to slow down or stop the activity." Contact sports, though, should be avoided.
Seafood during pregnancy
Another misconception is that pregnant women should steer clear from fish and seafood because of mercury, a metal contaminant found in fish. However, Applegate believes you should view fish as a "critical part" of your pregnancy diet.
Fish supplies omega-3 fats, which are essential for brain and eye development in babies, improve heart health, and possibly reduce anxiety and depression for moms.
"The best fish and seafood to consume are salmon, shrimp, catfish, pollock and canned fish, such as light tuna and wild-caught salmon. [They] can provide a convenient option," Applegate says. "Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid four exotic fish: shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, which are not commonly eaten or available in the U.S., as these fish tend to contain higher amounts of mercury."
Dangerous foods during pregnancy
Foods that present risk for food-borne illness, such as raw seafood, sprouts and certain dairy and meats, should not be consumed. When consuming dairy, Applegate advises to check the label to make sure the items are made with pasteurized milk and milk products.
"Soft cheeses, such as Brie, Camembert and Mexican-style cheeses, are typically unpasteurized and may pose a risk for food-borne illness called listeriosis," Applegate says. "Pregnant women are more susceptible to this form of food-borne illness than the general population. This illness may result in miscarriage and premature delivery."
Some everyday foods with a risk for bacterial contamination and listeriosis include meats such as hot dogs and cold cuts; eggs; raw seafood; and sprouts.
Eating healthy during pregnancy also makes for an easier weight-loss journey after delivery. Maintaining a proper diet doesn't have to stop after your baby is born.
"Your eating habits during pregnancy and after childbirth set the stage for your new baby and family," Applegate says. "Establishing healthy eating patterns now will benefit all your loved ones."