After the initial shock and excitement of your new pregnancy dies down a bit, then comes the realization that– gasp!– you can eat whatever you want! Chocolate, donuts, pizza, French fries and more, all for your pleasure to scarf down with reckless abandon.
But sadly, we know that’s not the truth. After the buzz of new baby settles a bit, and you realize that hamburgers falling from the sky is just a pipe dream, you start to consider what you actually should be eating, and how much. As you explore your options further, it can appear to be a vast expanse. Some sites advise adding 300 extra calories a day, right off the bat. Others say not until your second trimester. And then there’s the question of how much to eat in the third trimester. We all know what superfoods are, but what superfoods, specifically, should we be focusing on for our little guy on the inside?
Planning and sticking to a nutritious diet for you and your baby can be a bit overwhelming, but thankfully, Selva Wohlgemuth, MS, RDN, owner of Happy Belly Nutrition and an expert in prenatal nutrition, has mapped it out for us. She emphasizes the importance of whole foods, a phrase we are seeing more and more lately. Focusing on eating “whole foods” means eating “a diet rich in whole foods, including organic fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, bean and legumes, grass fed meats, wild caught low mercury seafood, organic grass fed full fat dairy, pasture-raised eggs, and fermented foods,” says Wohlgemuth.
And variety is more important than you think, according to Wohlgemuth, because it increases the density of the diet. “Sticking with only a handful of fruits and veggies will limit the vitamins and minerals you will get from each,” she says.
It’s important to avoid eating refined grains, sugary products, vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, corn, soy, and canola oils), and low-fat foods, all of which are heavily processed.
You also want to focus on getting enough protein, complex carbs (fruits, whole grains, beans, and potatoes), and healthy fats at every meal and snack. While many women prefer eating six smaller meals throughout the day versus three larger ones, Wohlgemuth says that either frequency is fine, as long as the meals and snacks are balanced.
There isn’t a universal prescription for daily recommended caloric intake, but Wohlgemuth says that most women don’t need any extra calories during the first trimester, per standards released by the Institute of Medicine. Women should aim to increase their daily diet by 340 calories in the second trimester, and 450 calories during the third. Of course this depends on the activity level of the woman and what her pre-pregnancy weight was, so if you have specific concerns you should consult your doctor or a licensed dietitian.
The Fine Print
Aside from monitoring your caloric intake and focusing on eating whole foods, Wohlgemuth also recommends incorporating the following into your diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are vital in brain and eye development. They also help reduce inflammation. According to Wohlgemuth, fetal demands for omega-3 increase during the 3rd trimester, when Baby’s brain is growing quickly. “A recent review in the journal Nutrients found that infants born to mothers consuming seafood throughout pregnancy had significantly improved language and social activity scores as well as a reduced rate of suboptimal IQ scores,” says Wohlgemuth. She recommends eating 2-3 servings of wild caught, cold water fatty fish per week. Walnuts and flaxseed are great sources of plant-based omega-3 acids, however Wohlgemuth points out that they are not as effectively converted into EPA and DHA as fish-based sources.
“Demand for choline is very high in pregnancy as it plays an important role in the development of the fetus’s brain and memory development,” says Wohlgemuth. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 450mg/day. She recommends egg yolks (150 mg/egg), liver (356mg/3oz), wheat germ (200 mg/1 cup), shrimp (150mg/4oz), and collard greens (70 mg/1 cup).
*Amount of choline for each listed food is estimated and may vary.
According to Wohlgemuth, two-thirds of the population may not be getting enough magnesium (RDA 350-400mg/day) in their diet. “Magnesium is needed in over 300 enzymatic reactions, including supporting blood sugar and muscle relaxation,” she says. Magnesium also helps reduce the risk of gestational diabetes and the intensity of uterine cramping. Consuming whole grains, nuts, and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds) are all excellent ways to ensure you’re getting enough magnesium in your diet.
Iodine is extremely important for thyroid functioning, and deficiencies can lead to retardation in offspring, says Wohlgemuth. Organic, grass fed dairy is an excellent source of iodine, as are seafood and seaweed. But Wohlgemuth cautions against too much iodine, which can be taxing on your thyroid.
PRO TIP: Wohlgemuth recommends using Eden’s Gomasio seasoning, which is made from seaweed flakes and sesame seeds.
According to Wohlgemuth, zinc is used for 100+ enzymatic reactions in the body. It also contributes to folate metabolism and gene expression. Foods high in zinc include oysters, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, beans and legumes, and liver.
With a 50% diagnosis rate, iron deficiency is a common occurrence in pregnant women, and vegetarians/vegans are even more at risk. Animal proteins (liver), beans and legumes, and dark leafy greens (parsley and spirulina) are are all excellent sources of iron. If you are a vegetarian/vegan, Wohlgemuth says to “make sure to pair vitamin C rich foods (citrus, kiwi, tomatoes, broccoli, bell peppers) with iron rich foods to increase absorption.”
PRO TIP: Cooking with a cast iron pan can help increase the iron content of meals.
Vitamins A, C, E
“Reducing oxidative stress (which promotes inflammation) is very important during pregnancy, as the fetal brain is very sensitive to free radical damage,” Wohlgemuth says. Vitamins A, C and E are powerful antioxidants that help rid the body of free radicals. Focus on eating plenty of the following: carrots, squash, papaya, cantaloupe, egg yolks, liver, nuts and seeds, avocados, and extra virgin olive oil.
On Exercise and Stress
Wohlgemuth stresses the importance of incorporating regular “joyful movement” throughout your pregnancy, which will help maintain healthy blood sugar levels, increase circulation, maintain flexibility, and reduce stress. She recommends 30-45 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. Women who engaged in high intensity physical activity prior to pregnancy can often continue throughout their term.
She also advises finding ways to manage daily stresses, which “can cause an imbalance in hormones, increase inflammation, promote blood sugar swings, reduce the absorption of nutrients, and increase food cravings.” Wohlgemuth suggests exercise, journaling, soaking in a bath, and meditative breathing techniques. “Take the time to see how you react to stress and mindfully alter your approach to one that reduces the stress load, rather that increases it,” she adds.
We asked Wohlgemuth what FAQs she gets from her pregnant clients and those looking to conceive. Her response: Many women are concerned about fat. I always recommend quality high fat foods, including high fat dairy. Research has found that women consuming low fat dairy foods are less likely to conceive than those consuming full fat dairy foods. Fat is important, every cell has a fatty membrane that acts as a protective barrier, and the body needs cholesterol in order to make hormones! Plus fat soluble vitamins need fat in the diet to be absorbed.
Wohlgemuth offers up her own favorite foods for pregnant women to eat regularly:
- pasture-raised eggs
- organic grass-fed liver (1x/week)
- 2-3 servings of cold water fish
- organic grass-fed dairy (especially probiotic rich yogurt and kefir)
- plenty of leafy greens, beans, and legumes
- avocados, nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds)
- fresh, seasonal fruit
She also adds that “most pregnant women (and even the general public) are not okay with eating grass fed pasture-raised liver. However, since liver is a very nutrient dense food, I often encourage them to try liver pate. See the recipe in my blog. This spread is delicious and creamy, and doesn’t come with the typical liver texture.”
IOM’S Guidelines for Pregnancy Weight Gain
- Underweight (BMI less than 18.5): 28 to 40 lbs
- Normal (BMI of 18.5 to 24.9): 25 to 35 lbs
- Overweight (BMI of 25 to 29.9): 15 to 25 lbs
- Obese (BMI equal to or greater than 30): 11 to 20 lbs
PRO TIP: Use the EWG.org Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Produce Guide when shopping. This is a great tool to help make better choices when shopping for produce. The dirty dozen are those highest in chemicals and pesticides and should be purchased organic. The one that tops the list this year is strawberries. The clean fifteen are fine to purchase conventional as they have the least amount of chemical/pesticide residue.
About Selva Wohlgemuth
Selva Wohlgemuth, MS, RDN is the owner of Happy Belly Nutrition, where she integrates functional and holistic nutrition therapy to help patients work towards their unique health goals. Selva loves creating healthy recipes, as well as sharing evidence based nutrition information. See her newest kitchen creations at her blog Poppies and Papayas or visit her website www.happybellynutritionist.com for nutrition counseling information.