Just as there are certain foods we should eat less of, cook longer, or stay away from completely when pregnant, there are others we should be consuming more of. Nutrient rich foods are important for both expectant and breastfeeding mothers and this is where our extra calories should be coming from.
Most pregnant women need about 300 extra calories per day to aid in baby's growth and development. Gaining around 25-35 pounds, overall, during pregnancy is normal. About 25% of this weight gain is made up of extra stored fat, protein and other nutrients.
Protein is essential for cell growth and blood production. Fully cooked fish that contain lower levels of mercury such as salmon, pollock and tilapia, serve as excellent sources of protein (and valuable Omega-3 fatty acids) and are safe to consume during pregnancy (up to 12 ounces per week). Egg whites, peanut butter (if you're not allergic), tofu, beans, lean meat and poultry are also great sources of protein. Choosing lean cuts of meat, as opposed to fattier cuts, will help to keep excess fat at bay while delivering a great source of protein to your body.
Don't shy away from carbs during pregnancy. You and your baby need them! If you don't consume enough carbs, you will be tired so it's essential to consume enough carbohydrates to keep your energy levels up. Carbohydrate choices include cereals, bread, potatoes, rice, pasta, fruits and vegetables. There is always time to grab an extra piece of fruit before going out the door. No one wants to feel overly tired during pregnancy and it's nice to get things done without feeling entirely exhausted afterward.
During pregnancy, so many of us are scared of the word 'fat' because we do not want to feel fat. Our bodies change a lot during pregnancy and we do gain weight, which can feel quite significant to many of us. However, we have to remember that fat comprises a relatively small portion of our overall weight gain. Here's a breakdown of the elements contributing to weight gain and what it may look like for a woman who gained a total of 30 pounds during her pregnancy:
With reference to the breakdown above, only 7 of the 30-pound total is due to stores of fat, protein and other nutrients. That's not a lot. It's just enough to keep our pregnant bodies healthy.
Making sure that we limit our fat intake to 30% or less of our total number of calories, daily, will help us to stay on track and avoid gaining excess weight. Nutrition labels on packaged goods make it easier for us to do this. Healthy sources of fat include meat, whole-milk dairy products, nuts, peanut butter, margarine, and vegetable oils.
Vitamin B9 - Folate/Folic Acid
Most of us know that folate plays an important role during pregnancy. Folate is essential in the development of your baby's spine, brain and skull and increased levels within a woman's body at the time of conception and in the early stages of pregnancy reduces the risk of neural tube defects.
Sources of folate can be found naturally in the food we eat. Spinach, edamame, liver, and two of my favourites - artichokes and mushrooms are just some of the foods that contain significant sources of folate. If you like vegetables, especially dark green ones and legumes, you should have no problem finding foods that are rich in folate.
Calcium is essential for strong teeth and bones. Expectant mothers will need to take in extra calcium to support their own bodies as well as their developing babies.
Ever since we were kids, we learned that milk is the best thing to help our bones grow healthy and strong. Schools started bringing milk programs in to promote and encourage milk drinking amongst students. Nothing has changed. Milk, no matter the fat content, is an amazing source of calcium. Other good sources of calcium are other dairy products such as pasteurized cheeses and yogurt. Non dairy options include sardines, salmon with bones (be careful!), tofu, broccoli and spinach. Grab a glass of milk the next time you need a drink - you can't go wrong (unless you're lactose intolerant)! Almonds and dried apricots also provide a good kick of calcium.
Iron is essential for red blood cell production. During pregnancy, iron is responsible for supporting the increase in overall maternal blood levels. This extra blood supply supports your growing baby and the placenta, aiding in normal brain development. During the last trimester, third, your baby develops iron stores to support her during the first six months of her life. So it's easy to understand why eating foods rich in iron is important.
Which foods can help increase iron levels? Red meat, liver (up to one serving every 2 weeks) beets, spinach, hearts of palm, and sardines! Just, maybe, not all on the same plate. There are many other options available. Be sure to eat plenty of fibrous foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and drink plenty of fluids to avoid constipation.
Vitamin A keeps our skin, eyes, and growing bones healthy. It helps in the development of your baby's heart, lungs, and kidneys.
When I was a child, the general rule to finding foods rich in Vitamin A was to 'look for anything orange'. Carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin, apricots and cantaloupe are great foods to eat for their Vitamin A content, but there are other 'non-orange' foods that contain Vitamin A. Red peppers, bok choy, and eggs are other options.
Last, but not least (for this post) is good old Vitamin C! Most of us will probably envision an assortment of citrus fruits right away when we think of Vitamin C. You may also want to try snow peas, papaya, pineapple, and brussel sprouts (which I happen to like).
And we must not forget why Vitamin C is important during pregnancy. Vitamin C helps your body to fight off infections, and it's antioxidant properties help prevent cell damage. Who doesn't want a little extra help fighting off an infection, such as the common cold, especially if you happen to be pregnant?
As if that's not enough, Vitamin C also helps with the production of collagen and helps our bodies to absorb iron, and we know how important that is.
So why the heck do we even need to concern ourselves with eating foods rich in all the vitamins mentioned above, and others, if we're taking our daily prenatal vitamins?
First of all, under general circumstances, the main reason that healthcare professionals recommend a daily prenatal supplement is to ensure that women are getting enough of all these essential vitamins daily and that we're always getting the minimum amount recommended every day.
Our bodies were designed to absorb most, if not all, of the vitamins and minerals essential for our well being through natural means (e.g., through the foods we eat) and not through a tablet. As we all know, we need to eat food to survive and we simply can't do this, at least healthfully, by merely eating concentrated supplements and junk food.
We need good healthy foods to fill our bellies, ones that provide essential nutrients that give us energy and support natural defense and repair mechanisms. Getting enough of these essential vitamins and minerals during pregnancy is of special importance; not only do we need to have enough to support our own bodies, but we need an extra supply to support our developing babies.
Let's face it, many of us are very busy with work and other things that often seem to take over, sometimes making it more difficult to consume all the foods we should in order to receive the 'right' levels of all essential vitamins. Prenatal vitamins can help with this dilemma. The key word here is 'help', not 'take over'. We still need to eat healthy, nutritious foods.
Well...we've known what's off the menu for some time now and now we know that it's just as important to know what's ON! Wishing every expectant mother a healthy pregnancy. Eat well!
Please visit Health Canada's Canadian Food Guide page for more general information on serving sizes and recommended amounts from each food category for pregnant women.
For more information about the essential vitamins needed for a healthy pregnancy (including Vitamin D) and their roles, please review the ACOG Nutrition During Pregnancy PDF. Also, check out Eating During Pregnancy.
Always consult your doctor with regard to any specific questions you have about weight gain, prenatal vitamins/supplements and which foods/substances (including prescription & over-the-counter drugs) to include and avoid during your pregnancy. Every expectant mother is different.