During my first class ever in my masters program at Columbia University, I discovered my passion for prenatal nutrition. I came to the program interested in nutrition, but had never even considered the importance of nutrition during pregnancy. I quickly learned the critical role that nutrition played throughout a pregnancy. Now, as a registered dietitian, I focus on women’s health, including nutrition for fertility, prenatal, and postpartum.
Throughout pregnancy, proper nutrition is important to meet the increased nutrient needs to support a developing baby. Pregnancy nutrition matters for appropriate weight gain and to avoid consumption of foods and non-foods that could potentially cause harm to the growing baby.
Increased Nutritional Needs During Pregnancy
You may have heard that during pregnancy, you’re eating for two. While you do have increased calorie needs, you are not actually eating double your usual calorie intake. For a single pregnancy, calorie needs vary based on the trimester. During the first trimester, there is no increase in calorie needs from the pre-pregnancy time. During the second and third trimesters, calorie needs may increase by about 340 and 450 calories per day respectively (1). I say “may need” because calorie needs and weight gain during pregnancy are individualized. An additional 340 or 450 calories looks something like an extra snack or small meal during the day.
In addition to energy needs, nutrient needs also increase when pregnant. It is important to consume adequate amounts of the right nutrients to give the baby what he or she needs to develop. When I say nutrients, I’m referring to both macro and micro-nutrients.
Increased Macronutrient Needs
Macronutrients refer to protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
Since pregnancy is a time characterized by rapid growth and development, it’s no surprise that protein intake is particularly important. The body is growing an entire human plus an organ! Protein supports both growth and maintenance and is a key part of a healthy diet during pregnancy. Focusing on having a source of protein at every meal and snack, especially during the second and third trimesters, can help meet pregnancy protein needs.
DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is a key nutrient during pregnancy because it plays a role in fetal brain and retina development (2). DHA can be found in fatty fish, like salmon, tuna (skipjack), herring, and sardines. It’s important to consume fish that are high in DHA, but low in mercury. For more information about the levels of mercury in various fish as well as servings sizes of fish during pregnancy, visit https://www.fda.gov/food/consumers/advice-about-eating-fish
Since pregnancy is a time that nutrient needs are particularly important, it’s best to limit consumption of refined, highly processed, and sugary carbohydrates to make room for more nutrient-dense, whole foods in the diet. Whole food sources of carbohydrates (like fruit, whole grains, winter squashes, and potatoes) are nutrient-dense and contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber in addition to other beneficial substances.
Increased Micronutrient Needs
Micronutrients refer to vitamins and minerals.
Certain micronutrients become especially important when pregnant. Because of this, it’s important to make your food choices count to ensure you are obtaining all of the nutrients that your body needs to support your developing baby.
While a prenatal vitamin helps fill in nutritional gaps from the diet, it is not likely that all of your nutrient needs will be met by a prenatal vitamin alone. Because of this, nutrition is particularly important during pregnancy.
Obtaining nutrients from a healthy, well-balanced diet is ideal, however, some nutritional needs are difficult to meet during pregnancy with diet alone. This is why taking a high-quality prenatal vitamin in conjunction with eating a nutrient-dense diet is important during pregnancy. Note: always consult your physician or health care provider prior to making any diet or supplement changes.
Foods To Eliminate or Avoid When Pregnant
Certain foods and non-food items should be avoided during pregnancy like alcohol, certain herbs, and high mercury fish. Additionally, consumption of caffeine should be limited. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) advises pregnant women to limit caffeine consumption to less than 200mg per day (3).
Avoid Foods Likely To Cause Sickness
You may have heard of a long list of foods to avoid during pregnancy. However, you may not have been told why certain foods should be avoided when pregnant. Pregnant women are at a higher risk for foodborne illness. It is more difficult for pregnant women to fight off harmful foodborne bacteria, which can cross the placenta and harm the fetus (4).
Foods that have a higher likelihood of causing foodborne illness include:
- Raw or undercooked seafood, meat, poultry, eggs
- Unpasteurized milk and milk products
- Unpasteurized juices
- Prepared meat or seafood salads
- Raw sprouts
- Unwashed or pre-cut fruits and vegetables, salad kits
During pregnancy, the body has increased energy and nutrient requirements to support the growth and development of the baby. Proper nutrition is more important during pregnancy than ever. While you may not be eating for two, you are certainly nourishing for two. It’s important to eat a nutrient-dense diet as well as be knowledgeable of what should be limited or avoided during pregnancy in order to support a healthy pregnancy.
The content of this website is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional nutrition advice, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. I am a dietitian, but I am not your dietitian. Always refer to your professional health care provider for your specific nutrition and health needs. Consult your physician or health care provider prior to making any diet or supplement changes. If you have dietary or supplementation questions, consult your professional healthcare provider.