A well-balanced diet of whole food — real food in its most natural, unprocessed state — is essential during pregnancy. Your need for a number of nutrients increases at this time, while overall energy requirements don’t increase quite as much. Most research suggests taking in around 300 extra calories a day, which means that expectant moms should focus on eating more nutrient-dense foods. The key ways in which you can impact your diet — for both you and your child — follow.
Discover Select Nutrients
This nutrient is related to B-vitamins, but was discovered after the rest of the B vitamins got their name (hence it’s not called vitamin B-25 or something similar). In fact, the first recommended choline intake was set in 1998, which is pretty recent in the span of nutritional science.
Choline has similar functions to folate, including helping to reduce the risk of neural tube defects and facilitating brain development. Research has shown that women who consume high amounts of choline during pregnancy have infants with quicker reaction time. Research has also shown choline to enhance placental function and decrease the odds of developing preeclampsia.
Food sources: The best food sources of choline, by far, are egg yolks and liver. Since most prenatal vitamins do not include choline, it’s wise to incorporate more of these foods into your diet. On average, women who eat eggs consume double the quantity of choline when compared with those who avoid eggs. That’s very important considering 94 percent of women don’t meet daily choline recommendations.
Folate — which you may know as folic acid in supplements — is an essential nutrient, particularly during pregnancy. Folate is important for brain development, for cell differentiation (which is key for processes such as organ development) and in the prevention of neural tube defects.
Most prenatal vitamins contain sufficient folic acid. However, it’s still smart to consume folate directly from food. That’s because up to 60 percent of us have a genetic difference in the ability to process folic acid (known as MTHFR). Nevertheless, we still process folate from food adequately.
Food sources: The top food sources of folate are leafy greens, legumes (such as beans and lentils), liver and avocados. A salad made with dark, leafy greens (such as baby kale, arugula and romaine lettuce), and topped with cooked beans and some fresh avocado would be an excellent choice.
Your protein requirements increase during pregnancy, as do the need for certain amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. One such amino acid is glycine. This amino acid is what’s called conditionally essential during pregnancy, meaning that you must consume enough of it directly from your diet to meet your body’s needs.
The role of glycine in prenatal and fetal health includes: development of your baby’s skeleton, teeth, internal organs, hair, skin and nails; support of your stretching skin, growing uterus and placenta and helping your circulatory system adapt to the demands of pregnancy.
Food sources: Since glycine is a structural amino acid found mostly in connective tissue, skin and bones, animal foods are the richest sources, by far. These include slow-cooked meat (on the bone or with a lot of connective tissue), chicken skin and bone broth. Plant sources — though much less concentrated in glycine — include: sesame seed flour, spirulina algae (which grows in freshwater environments), sunflower seed flour and beans.
Other Nutrients to Consider
The following nutrients should be on your radar while you’re pregnant: iron, vitamin B12, the omega-3 fat known as DHA, vitamin A, iodine, vitamin B6, zinc, vitamin D, calcium and vitamin K2. It’s a good idea to consult your provider and/or a nutritionist. A registered dietitian/nutritionist who specializes in real food and prenatal nutrition can be a very helpful resource.
Many foods are listed as off limits during pregnancy, due to the increased risk of contracting a foodborne illness (or food poisoning) during this phase of life.
Common foods that get the “scarlet letter” include eggs with runny yolks, deli meat, raw fish and soft cheese. Interestingly, many researchers have questioned these recommendations in recent years due to the very low rates of infection, improvements in food-handling safety overall in the past few decades, and due to recent evidence that women who strictly avoid these foods are at a higher risk of nutrient deficiencies.
When weighing the benefits and risks of consuming or avoiding any particular food, it’s helpful to look at the data on the relative risk of getting sick and whether avoiding that food will remove key nutrients from your diet.
For example, the chances that an egg contains Salmonella is roughly 1 in 30,000. In addition, organic farms have a seven-fold lower rate of Salmonella cases. If you only like to eat eggs cooked over-easy, then the nutritional trade-off of not consuming any eggs (choline, DHA, B12, iodine, protein, etc.) is probably not worth the very small risk reduction of contracting an infection from Salmonella.
If, on the other hand, you like eggs cooked many different ways, then you might opt for scrambled or hard-boiled eggs more often. Ultimately, these choices are yours. There just needs to be a more open and thoughtful discussion of food safety beyond forbidden foods. It’s best to consult your healthcare provider.
Also, if you really dig into the food safety data on various foods, you may be surprised to learn that the majority of foodborne outbreaks (nearly half) in the United States are from fresh produce, such as raw fruits and vegetables. This means that general food-safety considerations are important for foods across the board, not just for the foods-to-avoid list. Good hygiene in the kitchen, reliance on your sense of smell as an indicator of food freshness, and clean preparation and storage are all very important while pregnant.
Having a diet consisting of real food is one of the best things you can do to optimize your health in pregnancy and provide your baby with all the building blocks needed for development.
Lily Nichols, RDN, CDE, is a registered dietitian, specialist in prenatal nutrition and gestational diabetes, and author of the bestselling book Real Food for Gestational Diabetes and, most recently, Real Food for Pregnancy. http://realfoodforpregnancy.com; www.pilatesnutritionist.com.