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Prenatal Nutrition: The Importance of a Balanced Diet for Mom and Baby

Congratulations—you’re expecting! The eight and a half to nine months of pregnancy are beautiful and exciting, but let’s face it, they can make you a little anxious too. And if you’re like me, you may be a bit nervous about “eating for two.” That’s why this article will explore the basics of prenatal nutrition, so you can be empowered to make good choices for your growing baby and yourself. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to give up everything you enjoy, you may even discover some new favorites!

The Basics of Prenatal Nutrition

The great thing about prenatal nutrition is that if you’re already eating a balanced diet, there’s not very much you’ll need to change while you’re pregnant. Your baby needs lean protein and a variety of nutrients for healthy growth and development. Your pregnancy diet is unique to your preferences and needs, but here are some staples for the next nine months:

  • Leafy greens like spinach and kale
  • Other veggies, like carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and asparagus
  • Beans, lentils, and peas (hummus is a great source of healthy legumes)
  • Your favorite fruit, fresh or frozen
  • Milk, pasteurized cheese, and yogurt
  • Chicken, turkey, and salmon
  • Whole-grain breads and cereals

Need some inspiration? You can check out some of these great sample meals for a healthy mom and baby.

You may not always be hungry at meal times while you are expecting, and that’s totally normal.  If that’s the case, make the most of your snacks by loading up on the most nutritious (and delicious) options.  Snack time is a great way to make sure you’re chowing down superfoods for pregnancy, such as:

  • Pasteurized string cheese or Babybel cheese with a handful of nuts, like almonds, walnuts, cashews, or pecans
  • Hummus with baby carrots, sliced celery, and whole-grain crackers (or a whole-grain pita)
  • Apple slices with peanut butter (sure, it sounds like kiddie food, but as a new mom, you’re about to be eating kiddie leftovers galore!)
  • A small bowl of whole-grain cereal with blueberries or sliced strawberries
  • A slice of whole-wheat or rye toast with avocado (or guacamole, if it doesn’t give you indigestion!) and pasteurized cheddar cheese 
  • A hard-boiled egg with salt and pepper
Pregnant woman with bowl of vegetable salad in bedroom

Your baby needs a variety of nutrients for healthy growth. (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Sometimes pregnancy hunger can sneak up on you. You may find that pregnancy causes you to suddenly and spontaneously become ravenously hungry at seemingly random times. It’s smart to keep quick and easy nonperishable snacks with you so that you’re always able to eat if you start feeling a little unsteady (or hangry). This is great practice for when you’re a parent, as small children have seemingly boundless enthusiasm for snacks (or at least mine do).

Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy

Now that you know what you can enjoy—what about all the stuff pregnant women aren’t supposed to eat? Some good news first: you don’t have to quit your coffee or tea habit cold turkey. Medical experts recommend that you limit your daily caffeine intake to around 200 mg while pregnant. As long as your OB/GYN gives you the thumbs-up, you can start your day with a cup of the good stuff (or two small cups).

Foods to Eat and Avoid During Pregnancy – Baylor Scott & White Health

Your doctor should review the latest dietary recommendations with you when you come in for your first appointment, and you should feel free to ask any questions you may have. Here are the foods your practitioner will most likely tell you to avoid while pregnant:

  • Fish high in mercury, like bigeye tuna, mahi-mahi, swordfish, and shark: Stick to lower-mercury options like cod, salmon, shrimp, and tilapia, two or three servings per week. 
  • Raw or undercooked fish, meat, and poultry: Skip the sushi (unless it’s vegetable and prepared on its own surface), and order your burger or steak well done.
  • Raw or underdone eggs: Make sure your eggs are firm, not runny, and avoid aioli and salad dressings prepared with raw eggs (the shelf-stable ones at the supermarket are safe).
  • Cold cuts or deli meats: Avoid them unless you heat them until they’re steaming.
  • Unpasteurized dairy products: These include raw milk, cheese, or yogurt. Look for products from pasteurized milk—you’ll see it on the label.
  • Unpasteurized juice or cider
  • Herbal tea: Black or green is fine as long as you stay under 200 mg/day of caffeine.
  • Unwashed fruits and veggies: Give ‘em an extra rinse.
  • Raw sprouts of any kind
  • Alcohol: Experts recommend you avoid alcohol completely while pregnant. No amount has been proven safe for fetal development.

In addition to the foods you should avoid while pregnant, you’ll want to be mindful of your sugar and salt intake. I know, it’s easy to give into your cravings for sweet and starchy treats when your hormones are driving you crazy, but enjoy them in moderation. Consuming too many sugary foods can lead to excess weight gain, and you may have trouble losing that weight in the postpartum period. If you’ve been diagnosed with gestational diabetes or are at risk of developing it, you should be especially careful about how much sugar and high-carb food you’re eating.

Overdoing it on salty snacks like chips and pretzels can lead to water retention and can increase your risk of hypertension (high blood pressure). If you’re prone to bloating and dehydration, ditch the cheese puffs (I know it’s hard) and swap in some lightly salted popcorn. Likewise, if you struggle with acid reflux (heartburn), a common pregnancy complaint, you’ll want to avoid carbonated drinks, citrus fruit, vinegar, bottled tea, and anything made with tomatoes.

Should You Take Prenatal Vitamins?

If you visited your doctor for a preconception checkup, he or she may have recommended you begin taking a prenatal vitamin before getting pregnant. Prenatal vitamins are available by prescription and over the counter, so you can begin taking them as soon as you’re ready to start trying to conceive. Much like a healthy diet and gentle pregnancy exercise, taking your prenatal vitamin every day is an important part of caring for yourself and your developing baby. The folic acid in prenatal vitamins can help prevent serious neural tube defects, and the other key ingredients help your little one to grow strong and healthy.

Taking your prenatal vitamin is an important part of caring for yourself. (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Choosing a prenatal you can tolerate—nothing that makes you nauseated or constipated—makes it easier to remember to take it. I took prescription vitamins when I was pregnant with my first two babies, but with my third, my doctor said I could take an OTC gummy version. I loved the raspberry-lemonade flavor of Vitafusion’s PreNatal Support Gummies, so I looked forward to popping two each day.

I know firsthand that all this new information can be overwhelming for a first-time mother.  When I was expecting my first baby, I lived in a perpetual state of panic that I had eaten a tainted lettuce leaf or a crumb of undercooked meat. (My poor husband!) Breathe, relax, pat your belly, and hang in there—and remember that your doctor or nurse practitioner is just a phone call away if you have any questions or concerns. You’ll meet that precious baby sooner than you think, and it will all have been worth it.