High on the list of questions from expectant moms is: “What should I eat to keep my baby healthy?”
Health experts don’t single out one food expectant moms should have. Instead, most recommend a well-balanced diet that draws from the five essential food groups: grains, protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables. Think dark leafy greens loaded with folate, a B vitamin that helps prevent spinal defects; dairy products packed with calcium to promote skeletal growth; and eggs filled with omega-3 fatty acids that aid development of the fetal nervous system.
Dr. Shari Maxwell, an associate program director for obstetrics and gynecology at Oakwood Healthcare in Dearborn, Mich., encourages patients to eat well before pregnancy, during pregnancy and after pregnancy.
“We know approximately 8 to 10 percent of babies are estimated to be born with a lower than optimal birth weight,” Maxwell says. “That’s mainly due to lack of proper nutrition in the moms.”
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But forget about the old adage that pregnant women are eating for two. Yes, calorie intake will increase, but that’s not carte blanche to double the daily caloric intake. Pregnant women should take in about an extra 300 calories per day, Maxwell says.
She encourages pregnant women to drink six to eight glasses of water daily and to eat often – four to six small meals a day from each of the food groups, paying attention to portion control.
“I try to give them options, so they don’t feel so restricted,” says Maxwell.
Variety is key, agrees Lisa Quast, a registered dietitian for DMC Hutzel Women’s Hospital in Detroit.
“There’s no one food group that is going to provide all the nutrients we need,” she says.
Pregnant women also need to know there are multiple sources for essential vitamins and minerals. For example, women who can’t digest dairy should look to other foods like beans, spinach or broccoli to get sufficient calcium, Quast says. A cup of broccoli has about 180 milligrams of calcium vs. 300 milligrams in a cup of milk.
“It’s not equal, but not too shabby either,” Quast says.
Dr. Lolonya Rochelle Moore, an OB-GYN for Beaumont Health System in Royal Oak, Mich., says many of her patients are worried their babies aren’t getting enough of the nutrients they need. She aims to put their concerns to rest, telling them to focus instead on replenishing their body’s nutrient stores.
Fetuses “will steal from us what they need,” Moore says. “Part of our job is to replace what the babies are getting from us; it’s our basis for supplementing.”
Moore says many patients also ask her whether they need to eat organic. “If you can and want to, then go for it; you don’t have to,” she says. It’s more important, she says, to eat your fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not.
One of the most important things to remember when you eat those fruits and vegetables, Moore says, is they must be washed. Doing so is protecting against foodborne illness.
Foodborne illnesses such as listeriosis bacteria and salmonella or high levels of bacteria can cause birth defects, miscarriages, stillbirths and early delivery. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says pregnant women are 13 times more likely to get listeriosis than most other people. In addition to fruits and vegetables that aren’t washed properly, dangerous bacteria is often found in undercooked meats and poultry, foods not heated thoroughly and unpasteurized foods. Fish with high mercury levels also are off-limits.
Although they may not have the same access to certain foods and resources, Quast says all expecting women can eat a more-than-adequate diet if they work at it. And, she says, they are not going to get it at fast food restaurants or through convenience foods.
“You wouldn’t dare leave the house without food for your baby in the form of formula or pumped breast milk,” Quast says. “Even though you’re not holding that baby yet, it’s here, it’s not in your arms but it’s certainly with you.”