It’s never too soon to adopt a healthy eating plan for you and your baby.
By Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD
Without a doubt, providing a well-balanced diet is one of the greatest gifts a mother can give her child. Making wise dietary choices for the health of your child actually should begin long before the baby’s birth. As a registered dietitian and first-time mom-to-be, I know choosing nutrient rich foods during pregnancy delivers more vitamins and minerals per bite, and fewer calories that can lead to excessive weight gain. But even more importantly, adopting a healthy pre-natal eating plan helps to deliver essential nutrients for the baby’s growth and development, and is critical for the overall health of your child.
According to the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines, pregnant women should eat a variety of foods to meet nutritional needs for both mother and baby. Protein, iron, and calcium are three important nutrients, long known to support healthy fetal growth. Evolving scientific research now shows the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in both the development of a healthy baby and in the health of the mother.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that are not made by the human body and must be obtained from diet or supplements. Research indicates that the two most beneficial omega-3s are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA supports the heart, immune system, and inflammatory response, while DHA supports the brain, eyes, and central nervous system.
For women who are pregnant, dietary omega-3s should be increased at the onset of pregnancy. Given the concerns for mercury toxicity with over-consumption of certain fish, pregnant women should consume omega-3 fatty acids from three sources: vegetable oils, fatty fish and omega-3 fatty acid supplements containing EPA and DHA or DHA alone. It is wise to read prenatal vitamin labels and consult your obstetrician about omega-3 consumption and sources.
Expectant moms should consume a wide range of protein rich foods such as seafood, nuts and beans, as well as lean beef, poultry and eggs. Don’t forget low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt, which provide a unique combination of protein and eight other essential nutrients.
Dietary iron helps prevent anemia, a common problem during pregnancy. Iron can be found in red meats, low fat dairy, beans and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach.
In the womb, a fetus requires calcium for the formation of bones and teeth. If a mother doesn’t consume enough during pregnancy, the baby will rob calcium from it’s mother’s bones – increasing the risk of osteoporosis later in life. Whether on the plate or in a glass, low-fat dairy foods should be a part of any expectant mother’s meal. If a woman is lactose sensitive, lactose-free milk is another option to provide critical nutrients that dairy foods provide without gastrointestinal discomfort.
According to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines (DG) specific to pregnant women, there are some primary points for moms-to-be (and women of childbearing age who are considering starting a family) to remember:
• Healthy weight: If you are of childbearing age or are trying to become pregnant, you should achieve a healthy weight before conception. Starting pregnancy at a healthy weight, and gaining the right number of pounds during pregnancy (which is based on your pre-pregnancy Body Mass Index), reduces your chance of pregnancy complications, and improves your health and your child’s, possibly for a lifetime.
• Iron: If you’re pregnant, take an iron supplement. Even if you’re not pregnant, choose foods rich in heme iron, the form of iron most easily absorbed by the body. Animal foods, such as lean beef, pork, and seafood, are rich in heme iron. Another DG recommendation: include foods with non-heme iron, such as cereal, bread, rice, and pasta, and consume foods with vitamin C, such as orange juice, mango, tomatoes, and strawberries, to increase the body’s absorption of non-heme iron.
• Folic acid: Women in their childbearing years who are capable of becoming pregnant should get 400 micrograms (ug) of folic acid daily. Folic acid is a man-made B vitamin that reduces the risk of certain birth defects that occur during the first month after conception. You should also include in your diet foods with folate, folic acid’s naturally-occurring counterpart. Beans, orange juice, and dark leafy greens provide folate.
• Fish: The latest DGs recommend that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding consume 8 to 12 ounces of fish every week. Fish supplies omega-3 fats, which are touted as heart healthy. But when it comes to pregnancy and nursing, the most important omega-3 fat is docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. Your baby’s body starts hoarding DHA around the 24th week of pregnancy because it’s vital for proper brain development and peak vision. Nursing moms also need adequate DHA in their diets to pass it to the child through breast milk. (Many infant formulas contain DHA, too.) The recommendation for fish comes with a caveat: choose a variety of lower-risk fish, such as salmon, herring, and catfish; limit white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week; and avoid tile fish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.
Other foods to avoid during pregnancy include:
• raw, undercooked seafood or contaminated seafood
• undercooked meat, poultry and eggs
• un-pasteurized foods 6 unwashed fruits and vegetables
• large quantities of vitamin A supplements
• excessive caffeine, over 200 milligrams per day
• alcoholic beverages
Adopting a healthy eating plan before motherhood is the ideal, but it is never too late to start building a healthy plate with nutrient-rich foods to give your baby the best start possible. For more information about the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines visit health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2010.asp