Nutrition for Planning and Preparing for Pregnancy

There is so much advice out there; how do I choose what to eat?

Why are folic acid (or folate) and iron so important?

What is considered "healthy eating" for women who are planning to become pregnant?

What is a serving size?

What foods should I be careful about eating?

As part of a healthy diet, what should I drink?

Is it ok to drink alcohol while I am planning to get pregnant?

There is so much advice out there; how do I choose what to eat?

Choosing what to eat should be based on a balanced diet and the amount of calories you need to carry out your daily activities. Avoid fad diets and those that over-emphasize or downplay any of the six main dietary nutrients: water, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Healthy eating will help you function at your best and achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. 

Why are folic acid (or folate) and iron so important?

As part of the revised FDA national dietary guidelines for healthy eating, there are two specific recommendations for pre-pregnant women that relate to iron and folate (folic acid):
  • Consume adequate synthetic folic acid daily (from fortified foods or supplements) AND food forms of folic acid from a varied diet.

Whether you are planning to get pregnant or not, you must be sure to get enough folic acid (sometimes called folate).

Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps a baby's neural tube -- the part of the embryo that becomes the brain and spinal cord -- develop properly. It is critical to start taking it before conception and to continue taking it through the third month of pregnancy, when the baby's neural tube is developing, to prevent birth defects in the spine and skull.

You can get folic acid by taking a multivitamin with 400 micrograms (mcg) of it daily. You will also find it in fortified breakfast cereals; citrus fruits and juices; dried peas and beans; and green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, collard and turnip greens, and broccoli.

  • Eat foods high in heme-iron, iron-rich plant foods, iron-fortified foods, or foods that facilitate iron absorption, such as vitamin C-rich foods.

Iron is important during pregnancy as it prevents anemia, a condition in which the body isn't able to produce enough healthy red blood cells. Developing infants need a high level of red blood cells in order to receive enough oxygen. And, anemia in the mother can be passed on to her baby.

You can get heme-iron by eating food such as red meats, fish, and poultry (basically, food from animal sources).  Iron-rich plant foods include cooked beans, lentils, and enriched pasta.  Many breakfast cereals are also iron-fortified.

Foods that help iron absorption consist of fruits (oranges, orange juice, cantaloupe, strawberries, grapefruit) and vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, tomato, tomato juice, potatoes, and green and red peppers), and are effective when eaten with iron-rich foods like meat, fish, and poultry.

What is considered healthy eating for women who are planning to become pregnant?

With two exceptions, healthy eating for pre-pregnant women is the same as healthy eating for most people of the same age, gender, and physical activity level. Those exceptions are iron and folate/folic acid.

New national dietary guidelines and a revised Food Pyramid were released April 2005 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Reviewed and revised as necessary every five years, the guidelines' purpose is to provide advice for healthy Americans about food choices that promote health and prevent disease.

Current national dietary guidelines are:
  • Focus on fruits. Eat a variety of fruits--whether fresh, frozen, canned, or dried--rather than fruit juice for most of your fruit choices. For a 2,000-calorie diet, you will need 2 cups of fruit each day (for example, 1 small banana, 1 large orange, and 1/4 cup of dried apricots or peaches).
  • Vary your veggies. Eat more dark green veggies, such as broccoli, kale, and other dark leafy greens; orange veggies, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and winter squash; and beans and peas, such as pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, garbanzo beans (chick peas), split peas, and lentils. Frozen produce is often as good for you as fresh since it's frozen immediately after harvest.
  • Get your calcium-rich foods. Get 3 cups of low-fat or fat-free milk--or an equivalent amount of low-fat yogurt and/or low-fat cheese (1-1/2 ounces of cheese equals 1 cup of milk)--every day. If you don't or can't consume milk, choose lactose-free milk products and/or calcium-fortified foods and beverages. The recommended daily allowance is 1,000mg.
  • Make half your grains whole. Eat at least 3 ounces of whole-grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice, or pasta every day. One ounce is about 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of breakfast cereal, or 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta. Look to see that grains such as wheat, rice, oats, or corn are referred to as "whole" in the list of ingredients.
  • Go lean with protein. Choose lean meats and poultry. Bake it, broil it, or grill it. And vary your protein choices with more fish, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.
  • Nosh on nuts. Five ounces a week of nuts is a healthy addition to any diet – unless you're allergic to them. Stick to almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts as they have less fat and have more nutrients. Eat them raw and'll get used to the taste!
  • Know the limits on fats, salt, and sugars. Read the Nutrition Facts label on foods. Look for foods low in saturated fats and trans fats. Your body needs a certain amount of fat, so you should not eliminate it totally. Plant oils from nuts, nut butters, olives, and avocados are good for you. Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little salt (sodium) and/or added sugars (caloric sweeteners). Remove the skin and fat from meats and fish.
  • Understand your fats. Look for foods low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol to help reduce the risk of heart disease. Five percent of the daily value (DV) or less is low; 20% of the daily value (DV) or more is high. Most of the fats you eat should be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Keep total fat intake between 20% - 35% of all the calories you take in each day.
  • Reduce sodium (salt), increase potassium. Research shows that eating less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium (about 1 teaspoon of salt) per day may reduce the risk of high blood pressure. Most of the sodium people eat comes from processed foods, not from the saltshaker. Also, look for foods high in potassium (such as bananas), which counteracts some of sodium's effects on blood pressure.
  • Don't sugarcoat it. Since sugars contribute calories with few, if any, nutrients, look for foods and beverages low in added sugars. Read the ingredient list and make sure that added sugars are not among the first few ingredients. Some names for added sugars include sucrose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, maple syrup, and fructose.
  • Check servings and calories. Look at the serving size and how many servings you are actually consuming. If you double the servings you eat, you double the calories and nutrients, including the percent of daily values.
  • Make your calories count. Look at the calories on the label and compare them with the nutrients you are also getting. Decide whether the food is worth eating. When one serving of a single food item has over 400 calories per serving, it is high in calories.

What is a serving size?

A serving size is usually described in terms of numbers of cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, ounces, or slices. A serving is not what you are served! Our tendency to severely misjudge serving size has been dubbed "portion distortion." Though the name is cute, the problem is not. In fact, it is cause for serious concern since it leads many of us to overeat.

Here are healthy one-portion servings for women:
  • Whole grains
    • breads: 1 slice of bread, 1/2 English muffin, 1/2 hamburger bun, 1/2 bagel, 1 tortilla 
    • pasta: 1/2 cup cooked 
    • rice and other grains: 1/2 cup cooked
    • cereal: 1 ounce ready-to-eat cereal, 1/2 cup cooked 
  • Plant oils
    • oils: 1 tablespoon
    • fatty plant foods: about 15 nuts, 1 tablespoon nut butters, about 20 medium olives, 1/3 of an avocado 
  • Vegetables and Fruit
    • raw: 1 piece or 1 cup
    • canned or cooked: 1/2 cup
    • dried: 1 ounce 
    • juice: 6 ounces 
  • Legumes
    • 3/4 cup cooked
  • Nuts
    • about 15
  • Poultry, fish and eggs
    • poultry: 3 ounces
    • fish: 3 ounces
    • eggs: 1
  • Dairy
    • milk: 1 cup
    • cheese: 1 ounce
    • yogurt: 1 cup
    • soy milk: 1 cup
    • calcium fortified orange juice: 1 cup
    • tofu: 3 ounces
  • Red Meat
    • 3 ounces
  • Sweets
    • occasional treats

What foods should I be careful about eating?

Be careful about eating certain fish, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Sometimes these fish have levels of methylmercury that can damage the nervous system of a fetus.

Although almost all fish and shellfish contain small amounts of mercury, you can enjoy some with lower mercury levels (shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish) in moderation (no more than 12 ounces a week, according to the FDA and EPA). Because albacore (or white) tuna or tuna steaks are higher in mercury than canned light tuna, it's recommended that you eat no more than 6 ounces a week.

Do not eat raw or undercooked seafood, poultry and meat.

Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables.

As part of a healthy diet, what should I drink?

You should drink about 8 cups of non-alcoholic, noncaffeinated liquids each day.

Plain water is best, but you can also get the liquid you need from soups and juices (though, be careful…you'll add calories with these options!).

Drinks that have caffeine, and that includes many sodas, have a diuretic effect – meaning they will cause increased urine output. This is true of alcohol as well.

Is it ok to drink alcohol while I am planning to get pregnant?

It is best not to drink alcohol while you are planning to get pregnant. The first 8 weeks of your pregnancy are a particularly vulnerable time for your fetus as its vital organs are being developed. Because you may not know you are pregnant for a few weeks, or sometimes months, after conception, it is best to abstain from alcohol and avoid this serious risk. In addition, evidence shows alcohol may inhibit ovulation, perhaps making it more difficult to conceive.
      Most recent page update: 10/26/2012

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