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What to Eat and What to Avoid during Pregnancy

The main dietary rule during pregnancy is to eat healthy, nutritious food every day. From the day of conception, the baby’s growth and development rely solely on what the mother provides. If you eat fresh, homemade meals, your baby will, too. If you fail to consume foods rich in essential vitamins and minerals, the baby will miss them at a very important time for its development. If you inhale tobacco smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs or medications, so will your baby. Some of the baby’s organ growth takes place during the first weeks of gravidity, before most women realize they are pregnant. Therefore, you should think carefully about the implications of pregnancy before you conceive. There will never be a better time for you to stop smoking or cut down on alcohol consumption than before you start the baby.

Dietary Adjustments for Pregnant Women

Numerous studies show that poor nutrition during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, abnormal brain development, increase the baby’s risk of high blood pressure and diabetes and cause a condition in which the placenta separates from the uterus too early, often leading to an emergency delivery. For good fetal development, a constant supply of nourishing food is crucial. If severely deprived of essential nutrients, the baby’s organs might not develop properly, which could lead to potentially serious problems, continuing long after birth, sometimes persisting for life. Therefore, if you are pregnant, your diet should include:

Protein

Although pregnancy increases your protein needs, especially during the second and third trimesters, you do not have to eat more than 70 grams of protein per day. Most pregnant women eating regular western diet will not have any trouble meeting this requirement. However, keep in mind that many sources of protein are high in saturated fat and thus bad for your own health. And because fat is not transported well across the placenta, most of that fat will not benefit your baby either. The best sources of protein during pregnancy include beans, lean meat, poultry, eggs, fish and shellfish, milk, yogurt, cheese, whole grains and tofu.

Since the dietary supplements may pose a risk of harm to the unborn child, do not attempt to increase your intake with a high protein supplement. To reduce the risk of foodborne illness, avoid undercooked food of animal origin (meat, fish, seafood, eggs), large fish, luncheon meats, hot dogs and unpasteurised dairy products.

Carbohydrates

Whole-grain breads, cereals, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, sweet potatoes, fruit and vegetables provide the primary source of energy for the developing baby. Whole grains do not get processed, therefore, they are richer in vital vitamins and minerals than refined grains. Carbohydrates also ensure that the body uses protein efficiently. Avoid simple carbohydrates such as refined sugar, foods containing lot of added sugar such as candies and sugary drinks. They give you and your baby empty calories with very few essential nutrients.

Vitamins and Minerals

Pregnancy increases the body’s requirements for vitamins and minerals. You may add more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and other natural sources of vitamins and minerals to your diet, because the primary source of nutrients should be the food you eat. Just remember that with supplements, more is not necessarily better. Megadoses of most vitamins and minerals can be worse than taking none at all. Always ask your doctor first before taking any supplement.

Vitamin B9 (also called folic acid, folate or folacin) is essential for the development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Inadequate intake of this vitamin during the first four weeks of pregnancy can produce neural tube defects in the fetus. These are serious defects as the baby’s head may not develop, so it can be fatal. The second common problem associated with folic acid deficiency during pregnancy is spina bifida, which is an incompletely closed spinal cord. The recommended dietary allowance of folic acid for all women trying to conceive is 0.4mg (400mcg) per day. The protection it provides is particularly important before conception and during early pregnancy. Vitamin B9 is not stored in the body for too long whereas pregnant women excrete four times the normal amount, therefore, it needs to be replaced every day. Good dietary sources of folic acid include green leafy vegetables, cauliflower, orange juice, soybeans and other beans, brewer’s yeast and whole-grain breads and cereals. Many breads and cereals as well as rice and pasta are now enriched with vitamin B9.

Iron transports oxygen to every cell in the body and keeps immune system strong. Pregnant mothers need extra iron to make blood for their babies. Moreover, the unborn baby draws on the mother’s iron reserves stored in liver. It will need it later while living on breast milk, which contains very little iron. Most prenatal vitamin supplements contain enough iron to meet your needs but you should better aim for increasing your intake of iron naturally from food. Since vitamin C helps your body to absorb iron, make sure you get enough of this vital vitamin. Megadoses of iron can be toxic, so do not take more iron that contained in prenatal vitamin tablets without your doctor’s permission.

Calcium is not only needed for healthy bones and teeth but also for well-functioning muscles and nerves, immune system and more. During the second and third trimesters, pregnant women have to increase their body’s calcium stores to draw on when breastfeeding. The baby will need increasing amounts of calcium to grow teeth and bones at four to six weeks after conception. By week 25, when the baby’s bone growth is in full swing, the mother’s calcium needs will have more than doubled. Also remember that your body requires vitamin D in order to absorb calcium. You get vitamin D from the sun and from oily fish, egg yolks, fortified milk and liver. Rich sources of calcium, on the other hand, include cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli or cabbage, spinach, legumes, oily fish with bones, tofu, sesame seeds, milk and dairy products.

Fiber is needed during pregnancy more than ever in order to keep things running smoothly. Eating whole grains, cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables will help you prevent constipation, heartburn, indigestion and hemorrhoids. However, avoid eating raw sprouts to prevent possible infection.

Water is needed to carry nutrients to your baby. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water to prevent dehydration. You will flush out your system and aid digestion and prevent possible bladder infections and hemorrhoids.

Salt seems to be one of the few “evils” that pregnant women can indulge in, but in moderation. The increased amount of fluid inside a pregnant woman dilutes the salt in her body. Therefore, experts recommend that women salt food to taste during pregnancy.

Things to Avoid During Pregnancy

Smoking is bad for your own health and even more so for your baby. Babies tend to be smaller than normal if their mothers smoked while pregnant. Passive smoking is almost as bad. Smoking doubles the risk of miscarriage, mainly in the first trimester. It also increases the risk of third-trimester bleeding and preterm delivery. Nicotine restricts the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the fetus. There can hardly be a better time to quit smoking than when you become pregnant.

Alcohol is associated with causing mental retardation and stunted growth. Its effects are permanent. Babies of mothers who drink six or more alcoholic drinks a day are prone to fetal alcohol syndrome. Since the effects of alcohol are most serious in the first two months of pregnancy, women who may become pregnant should take no more than an occasional drink. The safest route, though, is to avoid alcohol altogether. Moreover, heavy drinking during pregnancy may also trigger a miscarriage.

Additives and Contaminants. Although there is only suspicion but no firm evidence that the food additives cause any harm to a developing baby, attempt to minimize consumption of processed foods. To remove surface contaminants, such as pesticides, peel or wash and wipe dry all fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing them. Organically grown fruits and vegetables should be free of pesticides. Be careful with certain seafood and large fish, which may contain high concentrations of mercury. Also, do not eat fish that comes from contaminated rivers or lakes.

Caffeine from coffee and caffeinated drinks may be linked to miscarriage, stillbirth and fetal growth retardation, though some experts regard the evidence as inconclusive and think that only large amounts of caffeine can do such serious harm. Many doctors feel that it is safe to drink up to two cups of regular coffee or the equivalent amount of caffeine in another form a day. That is around 200mg of caffeine daily.

Herbal teas may contain plant substances that were not tested for safety the same way as medications and might be potentially harmful to the baby. Examples include sassafras, Echinacea and mistletoe. Pregnant women should, therefore, avoid drinking large quantities of herbal tea.