The advances made in obstetrics are quite extraordinary over these many decades. Sophisticated tests and procedures allow health care providers to offer state-of-the-art care to women to ensure they experience the healthiest pregnancies possible resulting in healthy babies. With all of this medical progress, it should not be ignored that one of the simplest steps a pregnant woman can take is to maintain a proper diet and strive for the best nutrition for both her and her baby. Simply put, the food you eat is the fuel from which your baby will grow and thrive.
We all know the benefits of healthy eating, but these benefits are especially important when you are trying to achieve a healthy pregnancy and sustain a healthy fetus. Long before becoming pregnant, women of childbearing years should consider healthful eating to ensure optimal health. Studies have shown that women who want to become pregnant need certain levels of some nutrients, like folic acid, to minimize the risk of having a baby develop certain birth defects. Proper nutrition can also help achieve a healthy weight, which can help with fertility. The best place to start discussing nutrition is with your health care provider, who can guide you in what is the best diet for achieving and maintaining a healthy pregnancy.
Women who are planning a pregnancy or who become pregnant will need to increase the amount of certain nutrients to ensure a healthy fetus. Two important nutrients are folic acid, also called folate, and iron. Women should be taking in 0.4 milligrams of folic acid every day to minimize the risk of neural tube defects. Neural tube defects occur very early in pregnancy when the fetus is just starting to form; conditions like anencephaly and spina bifida are examples of neural tube defects.
Women who have had a pregnancy involving a prior neural tube defect will need to take much larger amounts of folic acid. Folic acid occurs naturally in foods like green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, orange juice, and liver. Since many women do not eat large enough quantities of these foods, vitamin supplements are usually necessary to achieve the desired milligrams.
Another important nutrient for pregnant women is iron. Iron-rich red blood cells carry oxygen to our organs and to the growing fetus in a pregnant woman. Pregnant women need extra iron during pregnancy to meet the needs of the baby. Generally, pregnant women will need 27 milligrams daily. The minimum requirements of both the folic acid and iron can be satisfied by taking a pre-natal multi-vitamin, which is specifically formulated to meet all the supplemental requirements of pregnancy.
However, pregnant women should not feel that taking a daily vitamin will be a nutritional magic bullet. Supplemental vitamins are only part of the equation. A proper diet of healthy foods is also essential to providing a healthy body for both mom and baby. A proper balance of vegetables, fruits, whole grain, lean meats, fats and oils, as well as calcium-rich milk and other dairy products like yogurt and cheese can all add up to nutrition meal plans that will help you stay healthy and provide enough nutrients for your baby.
The caloric intake during pregnancy varies from woman to woman, and your health care provider can help guide you as to the amount of weight you should gain during pregnancy. Much depends on your pre-pregnancy weight and body mass index (BMI). Women with a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 should gain around 25 to 35 pounds, while women with higher BMI should try to limit weight gain to less than 24 pounds during pregnancy. Again your health care provider will be your best partner in achieving your nutritional goals.
Women with special risk factors like gestational diabetes or other conditions may have particular diets that will help address their individual health concerns. All women, regardless of risk factors, will need to limit or avoid exposure to some foods during pregnancy. For instance, pregnant women should avoid eating certain types of fish that may contain harmful levels of mercury to their fetus, such as large body fish like swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Your healthcare provider can advise you about limits on other fish and seafood during pregnancy.
Another food concern during pregnancy is exposure to certain bacteria found in unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses, uncooked meats, and fish that can cause listeriosis. This condition can cause miscarriage or result in stillbirth. It is often difficult to diagnosis as the symptoms are similar to symptoms of the flu. For that reason, wash all fruits and vegetables, and avoid raw milk and cheese, raw or undercooked meats, fish and shellfish. Also avoid hotdogs or luncheon meats unless they are thoroughly heated.
Everyone can benefit from healthier eating. Cutting out fat-laden fast food and super sugary sodas and eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is advice a physician would give to anybody. Pregnant women have one more reason—or maybe two in the case of twins—to eat better and get on a healthy nutritional path.
Dr. Hardy is a solo physician in practice with Atlantic Ob/Gyn with locations in Chesapeake and Va. Beach. Call 757-463-1234 or visit www.atlanticobgyn.com.