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Eating for Two: Separating Myths from Facts on What to Eat While Pregnant

During pregnancy, eating a healthy diet is essential. Not only does it provide fuel for you, the expectant mom, but it also provides the necessary nutrition your baby needs to grow and develop. But sometimes it’s hard to separate the myths of eating while pregnant from the facts. Do you need to eat meat for a healthy diet? Should you avoid fish and seafood because of mercury? Since you’re eating for two, should you really double the calories you take in?

Eating While Pregnant

During pregnancy, your diet should primarily include nutrient-dense sources, such as lean meats, low-fat dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and whole grain breads and cereals. Drinking approximately 12 (8-ounce) cups of water or other caffeine-free beverages daily will help with hydration and symptoms of overheating and constipation, and even help maintain amniotic fluid. If you have a hard time avoiding caffeine altogether, try to consume no more than 200 mg of caffeine per day, which is about 2 (8-ounce) cups of coffee or 4 cups of tea per day.

Generally, daily recommendations are:

  • 3 cups of low-fat dairy foods for adequate calcium and vitamin D intake
  • 3 cups of vegetables
  • 2 cups of fruit
  • 5 to 7 ounces of grains, particularly whole grains
  • 5 to 6 ounces of proteins for iron, including lean meat, fish, eggs, nuts, cooked dried beans or lentils, peanut butter and tofu

The Myths

There are many myths and misinformation that expectant moms can encounter when seeking guidance on healthy eating, such as:

Myth: You Must Eat Meat to Have a Healthy Pregnancy

Fact: According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, plant-based diets can be safe and healthy during pregnancy. Other protein sources such as yogurt, soy products, eggs and quinoa can substitute for meat. Adding more dark, leafy greens or iron-fortified cereals combined with vitamin C foods (for better absorption) also can help to provide the iron needed. Another way to enhance iron absorption is to cook meat and vegetables in a cast iron skillet. The iron from the skillet will mix into the food. Since vitamin B12 is supplied by animal sources, if you are vegetarian, you can get this nutrient from eggs, dairy and fish (if you are a pescatarian). If you are vegan, talk with your doctor to make sure you will not need to supplement this nutrient, especially during breastfeeding.

Myth: You Should Avoid All Fish/Seafood during Pregnancy

Fact: Even though undercooked or raw fish like sushi or sashimi is not recommended during pregnancy, you don’t need to avoid all seafood. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage pregnant and breastfeeding women to eat two to three meals of seafood (8-12 ounces) each week. The DHA (an omega-3 fat) they contain is associated with improved infant health outcomes. Just make sure you’re eating low-mercury fish options such as catfish, clams, flounder, mullet, salmon, scallops and freshwater trout. Pregnant woman eating fruit

Myth: You Can Double What You Eat, Eating For Two

Fact: Although the “eating for two” myth is common, most women are not actually doubling every meal and snack they consume each day. It’s just that the additional food they are consuming isn’t as nutritious. Instead, they are likely consuming more portions of empty calorie foods such as juices and sodas, and more processed and high-fat foods such as fast foods.

If you are pregnant with one baby, you only need to add approximately 340 calories during the second trimester and 450 calories during the third trimester. These can be added by incorporating two or three small snacks each day. Good choices include:

  • A small banana with two tablespoons of peanut butter
  • 5 whole wheat crackers and 1 ½ ounces of cheddar cheese cubes
  • 6 ounces of plain Greek yogurt with ¼ cup of granola

Depending on your pre-pregnancy weight and body mass index (BMI), you may need to adjust your additional calorie intake up or down. If you were overweight prior to pregnancy, you may not need to add as many additional calories. Likewise, if you were underweight prior to pregnancy, you may need to add a bit more. The best way to find out is by calculating your BMI based on your pre-pregnancy weight and speaking with your doctor and/or registered dietitian about individual calorie goals and total recommended pregnancy weight gain.

A Good Nutrition Plan

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all meal plan during pregnancy. The idea is to focus on getting a variety of foods into every meal and snack to maximize the amount of nutrients you are taking in. Begin by improving your diet one food group at a time and focusing on eating foods closest to their natural state, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and then expand from there.

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