Many factors affect a fetus's development. Some of those you can't change, such as their genetic makeup, hormone levels, and even environmental factors like the air quality where they live. However, other factors can impact the health and development of the fetus, and a big one is nutrition.
An expectant mother's diet provides the essential building blocks for the baby's growth. A healthy diet also gives the mother energy, helping her body adjust to the demands of pregnancy.
But what does it mean to have a healthy diet when you're pregnant? Nutritional needs shift while carrying a baby, and it's important to focus on certain foods to ensure you meet those needs.
Food Groups To Eat During Pregnancy
We'll dig into specific nutrients later, but here are some essential food groups that support healthy pregnancies.
According to nutrition experts, pregnant women should eat between 75 and 100 grams of protein per day. That should come from high-quality sources, which will also contribute to other nutritional goals. Look for protein sources that are low in saturated fat.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Produce is a rich source of nutrition and fiber, which supports good digestion. Just about any fruit or vegetable adds to a healthy diet, so enjoying a wide variety is always a good idea, especially during pregnancy.
Whole grains are another great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. For full benefits, pick unrefined whole grains, like raw oats and millet. However, for a great snack food, popcorn is a whole grain you can enjoy freely if you're careful about the toppings.
Beneficial Fats like Olive Oil and Avocado
The baby's entire body forms during pregnancy, including the brain. This vital organ is made primarily out of fat, so getting high-quality fats is crucial. You can find quality oils in foods like avocado, nuts, chia seeds, and olive oil.
When choosing oils, whether it's olive oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil, you want to get them from quality brands to ensure they're the least processed. Extra-virgin and virgin olive oils simply crush olives to extract the oil. They are less processed and higher in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols, which provide most of the oil's health benefits. However, you'll find health benefits regardless of whether you get the highest quality oils or store brand at your local Fred Meyer.
Nutrients for Pregnancy
The previous categories provide an idea of the kinds of foods to focus on, but what specific nutrients are important? Let's take a closer look at the nutrients needed for a healthy pregnancy and some examples of foods that are rich in these nutrients.
You may notice that some of these foods fit into multiple categories, which indicates that food is especially nutritious.
Folate and Folic Acid
These are two forms of the same B vitamin, and they're essential before and during pregnancy because they support the development of the brain and spinal column.
You can find great sources in these foods:
- Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale
- Fortified breakfast cereal
- Whole grain bread
Not only do you need extra calcium to build the baby's bones, but pregnant women also need to be sure they get enough of this important mineral to preserve their bones. Milk and other dairy products are excellent sources, but you can also find calcium in other foods, such as these:
- Dairy products, including milk, yogurt, and cheese
- Dark leafy greens
- Calcium-fortified orange juice
- Canned sardines with bones
- Chia seeds
Vitamin D works together with calcium to build strong bones. Your body can manufacture vitamin D when your unprotected skin has sunlight exposure. That said, doctors don't recommend spending time in the sun without protection because it raises the risk of skin cancer. It's safest to concentrate on maintaining healthy levels from food.
You can get Vitamin D by eating the following foods:
- Fortified milk with Vitamin D added
- Fortified orange juice
- Fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, and tuna (more about fish in the next section)
- Fortified cereal
This powerhouse macronutrient helps support the mother's muscle strength and wound healing ability. It helps them feel satisfied between meals. It also contributes to the fetus's growth and development.
Lean proteins are in the following foods, with multiple options for whether you want a vegetarian or vegan diet:
- Lean beef
- Cottage cheese
A quick note on fish. Because of high mercury levels, experts recommend pregnant women stay away from high-mercury fish, such as swordfish, and limit other kinds of fish to no more than eight to 12 ounces per week. Fish is a great source of protein, but it's best to choose which to eat carefully. Salmon and anchovies are great options that are low in mercury but high in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids.
It's not uncommon for women to experience anemia during pregnancy because their blood volume expands by about 45%. If the body doesn't have enough red blood cells, it can't transport oxygen efficiently, leading to exhaustion and poor fetal growth.
Getting enough iron in your diet will help the body keep up with red blood cell production. Eating foods rich in both vitamin C and iron will help improve its absorption.
These foods are:
- Fortified cereal
- Dark leafy greens
Learn More about Nutrition for Pregnancy at PCC!
A healthy diet is only one part of the puzzle for a vibrant pregnancy. It's important to avoid processed meat, especially deli meats because they can harbor listeria. Limiting caffeine as much as possible will help you maintain even energy levels and good sleep patterns. Alcohol and tobacco are strongly discouraged during pregnancy because they can harm the baby.
Most of all, the lifestyle habits that support a healthy baby will also help the mother feel her best. Try to get regular exercise and enough sleep. Stress-reduction strategies, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, can help reduce anxiety for a peaceful pregnancy.
A pregnant woman's health needs can be complex, and there are important things to know to support her and the baby's health. If you want to know more about this topic, we invite you to learn more at Portland Community College. Our classes dig into the details in ways that are interesting and accessible. Contact us today for more information!