Pregnant women have special dietary needs. They need to follow a healthy diet not only for their body, but more importantly for the development of their unborn child. The expression “eating for two” plainly describes this need for greater nutrient intake during pregnancy. Some women unfortunately interpret this as gorging on as much food as they can stomach. While pregnant women are expected to gain a certain amount of weight during pregnancy, it can be dangerous to gain too much weight from eating too much food. Eating for two does not mean increasing one’s food intake, but refers to improving the quality of one’s diet. What pregnant women must keep in mind is that the baby is not as big as a full grown adult, so his/her dietary consumption is greatly different.
Pregnancy is governed by several complex processes that require women to increase their body’s supply of vitamins and minerals in order to meet the demands of an expanding blood supply, the growth of maternal tissues, a developing fetus, loss of maternal tissues at birth and preparation for lactation. Nutrient deficiency may lead to problems during pregnancy, and these can generally be averted or helped if the mother follows a sensible diet. Among these health issues are anemia, fluctuating blood pressure, preeclampsia, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and diabetes in pregnancy.
During pregnancy the basic principles of healthy eating remain the same — plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and lean sources of protein. This is aided by the fact that during pregnancy, your body becomes more efficient at absorbing nutrients in the digestive system. Instead, the body doesn’t excrete nutrients to build up stores of vitamins and minerals. However, certain nutrients must be emphasized in the diet. These nutrients, such as folate (folic acid), calcium, vitamin D, iron, protein and essential fatty acids (EFAs), are essential for the baby’s growth and development.
l Women need more folate, a B vitamin, during pregnancy to support their expanding blood volume and the growth of maternal and fetal tissues, and to decrease the risk to the fetus of neural tube defects (NTDs). NTDs are serious abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord. Lack of folate also may increase the risk of preterm delivery, low birth weight and poor fetal growth. Among the best sources of folate are leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, and dried beans and peas, while the synthetic form of folate found in supplements and fortified foods (such as cereals) is known as folic acid.
l Pregnant and lactating women need calcium and vitamin D to maintain the integrity of their bones, while providing for the skeletal development of the fetus and the production of breast milk. Vitamin D increases intestinal absorption of calcium and is essential for the body to use calcium efficiently. Calcium helps the circulatory, muscular and nervous systems run normally. If there’s not enough calcium in the pregnant woman’s diet, the calcium the baby needs will be taken from the mother’s bones. The best sources of calcium and vitamin D are dairy products.
l Additional iron is needed during pregnancy to increase the maternal red blood cell mass and to supply the growing fetus and placenta. The body uses iron to make hemoglobin, a protein in the red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body’s tissues. During pregnancy the need for iron doubles, because the blood volume expands to accommodate changes in a woman’s body and the baby must make his or her entire blood supply. Lack of iron in the blood may result not only in fatigue and increased susceptibility to infections, but may also increase the risk of pre-term delivery and low birth weight. Iron can be found in abundantly in lean red meat, poultry and fish.
l Protein is crucial for your baby’s growth, especially during the second and third trimesters. Getting enough protein is important for both mother and baby to build muscle and other tissues, enzymes, hormones, and antibodies. Good sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, and low- or non-fat dairy products.
l It is important that pregnant women consume adequate amounts of essential fatty acids (EFAs) in their daily eating patterns for proper fetal neural and visual development.
Women are also encouraged by their doctors to keep track of what they are eating in a diary, to make sure that their diet encompasses all the required nutrients. Having a sensible diet coupled with mild exercise will help ensure that both mother and baby are healthy and happy.