How Much Does Diet Matter During Pregnancy?
“Now you are eating for two,” goes the old cliché. This is true, but for many women that could mean getting even more obsessed about eating and having more guilt when they don’t do it “properly.” If you eat a hot fudge sundae, are you harming your growing baby?
Like many other health-related questions, this one has few clear answers. Other than a few specifics, studies have not been able to pinpoint precisely how the mother’s diet affects a baby’s growth while it is still in the womb, although many suggest that long-term health issues may stem from pre-birth nutrition.
It makes sense to arm yourself with some basics about human nutrition and to learn to provide yourself with the very best fuel. You’ve got a hard job to do over the next few months, and good nutrition can only help you in your mission.
The Basics of Nutrition
What holds true for the average adult, in terms of nutrition, applies to expecting women as well. Here are a few bottom-line basics about nutrition, along with some special tips that are just for pregnant women.
Our bodies require energy in order to function, and that energy is received, of course, from food. The foods we eat provide our bodies with three types of macronutrients:
• Protein. Protein makes up most of the body’s weight, aside from water. You body uses it to repair and maintain itself and to build muscles and skin. Protein can be found in eggs, meats, poultry, fish, soy products, nuts, and milk products.
• Carbohydrates. All of the body’s tissues can use glucose (which is what carbohydrates are converted to in the body) as fuel. Some parts of the body, the brain for example, can only use glucose, except in starvation situations, as fuel. It is found in grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and sugars.
• Fat. Aside from making food taste better, fat makes an essential contribution to our health. Essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are used to make hormones, build cell membranes, and control blood pressure. Fats can be obtained from vegetable sources like nuts, oils and avocados, just to name a few, or from animal sources such a meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products.
Many foods provide more than one macronutrient. Soy products, for example, which are high in protein, also provide carbohydrates.
The most important thing to know about macronutrients is that our bodies need all the different fuels they provide, and in the proper proportion. Although experts don’t always agree just what those proportions are, most call for providing 10 to 25 percent of calories from protein, 50 to 60 percent from carbohydrates, and 20 to 30 percent from fats.
Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. While contributing very little in the way of energy (calories) to the body, micronutrients are vital to a number of the body’s functions.
A few of the most important micronutrients for pregnant women to keep in mind are:
• Folate. Consuming enough folic acid can reduce the incidence of severe neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, by as much as two-thirds. This matters right from the very beginning of pregnancy because a baby’s spinal column and brain are already formed by the fourth week. The recommended amount of folate for pregnancy is at least 600 mcg. Folate is found in beans and peas, leafy green vegetables, asparagus, sunflower seeds, whole grains, papaya, oranges, blueberries, and strawberries.
• Vitamin B6. B6 aids in protein metabolism and red blood cell formations and helps with normal brain function. It may also help reduce morning sickness and nausea. The recommended amount of B6 is 1.9 mcg. It can be found in bananas, watermelon potatoes, salmon, chicken, beans, oatmeal and brewer’s yeast.
• Vitamin B12. B12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells and is used to make DNA. It is of particular importance to vegetarians because it is much harder to provide in non-meat foods. You need to consume 2.6 mcg. of this vitamin daily. You can find it in meats and fish, milk, eggs, cheese, and fortified cereal products.
• Calcium. This is important for all women because of the now well-known dangers of osteoporosis. It is also essential to the developing skeletal structure of the fetus. During pregnancy and lactation take 1200 mg. per day. You can find it in milk, fortified soy and rice milks, cottage cheese, collard greens, seaweed, tofu, almonds and beans.
• Iron. Most of the iron in your body is found in hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to your body’s tissues. It helps to form myoglobin, which carries oxygen to your muscles. It is challenging to get enough iron through dietary sources, but it can be done. You need 27 mg. each day. Find it in fortified cereals, meats, lentils, beans, prune juice, apricots, molasses eggs and spinach.
• Zinc. This helps the body to metabolize protein, an essential nutrient during pregnancy. It also helps to keep the immune system healthy. During pregnancy you need 11 to 15 mg. per day. You can get zinc by eating milk, bran muffins, cereals, beans, pumpkin seeds, almonds, beef, wheat germ and yogurt.
• Fiber. This will help to keep constipation at bay—a problem for many pregnant women. Insoluble fiber is the most important type in serving this function. Find it in apples (with skin), bananas, grapes, pears, corn, peas, beans, sesame seeds, almonds, oat bran and whole-wheat pasta.
• Phytochemicals. There are over 12,000 phytochemicals identified so far. They are protective compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and grains. They contain antioxidants, protect against a range of ailments, stop DNA mutation and stimulate the immune system. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The best way to ensure you are getting all the phytochemicals you need is to eat a rainbow variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
If you are interested in nutrition, there are vast stores of knowledge to be found in books, magazines, and the Internet. Many people have specific reactions to certain foods, and for them, it may be helpful to learn more. But it is also important to listen to your gut when it comes to food choices during pregnancy. It doesn’t pay to get too stressed out over food right now as long as you use plenty of common sense and keep a self-nurturing approach.