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Should I change my diet during pregnancy?

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Pregnancy is one of the times when women need to pay special attention to their nutrition.

Pregnancy is an ideal moment to reflect on your lifestyle and take stock of how eating habits affect your health and that of your children. It’s time to begin to take care of yourself, rest, and eat better.

You don’t have to follow a special diet during pregnancy; just become familiar with the diverse properties of different kinds of food so you can improve the quality and variety of your meals. In this way, you will cover your nutritional requirements during that special time in your life.

Pregnancy is one of the periods of greatest nutritional vulnerability for women. This is due to the fact that, during pregnancy, you have an increased need for most nutrients, because the fetus is nourishing itself at your expense; in addition, women undergo various physiological changes during this period.

For this reason, your nutritional status before and during pregnancy is very important. Maternal malnutrition is associated with a greater risk of sickness and infant mortality. If the mother is obese, there is a greater risk of her developing pregnancy-related illnesses such as gestational diabetes, hypertension, and eclampsia.

The right time to lose weight is before getting pregnant, not during pregnancy, since it’s normal to gain weight during childbearing, and weight loss at that stage should be avoided. The amount of weight gained during pregnancy varies in each woman based on her nutritional status and/or any medical conditions she may have.

Changes to nutritional requirements

During pregnancy, you should prioritize eating elements rich in folate (folic acid), calcium, vitamin D, iron, and essential fatty acids. At the same time, it may be necessary (with professional medical supervision) to take iron and folic acid supplements, because you may not be able, with food alone, to cover the high amounts of the required micro-nutrients.

Your energy needs will also increase, but not so much as to justify “eating for two”; you only need about 300 calories more per day, starting in the second trimester. This is the equivalent, for example, of a serving of a dairy product plus a roll or a piece of fruit. In the third trimester, you need about 475 additional calories.

8 essential food groups:

  1. Dairy: You need 3 portions of dairy products per day, whether they be milk, yogurt, or cheese — preferably low-fat.
  2. Meat: Eat at least 100 grams per day. This could be beef, pork, lamb, or chicken, while always avoiding chicken skin, and choosing the leanest cuts.
  3. Fish: Consume at least 200 grams, at least twice a week. The Food and Drug Administration has a chart with suggestions for pregnant women, which you can read on the official website.
  4. Fruits and vegetables: You should eat at least 5 portions per day, preferably in accordance with what’s in season (and therefore fresh), and of different colors.
  5. Vegetable oil: Include 2 tablespoons of raw vegetable oil per day, whether it be olive oil or any other, as part of your main meals.
  6. Carbohydrates: You should eat carbohydrates daily, such as cereals (including foods like pasta, rice, corn meal, semolina, or oatmeal), tubers (potatoes, yams, etc.), or others.
  7. Legumes: These are very important because of their fiber, iron, and protein contents. Some examples are lentils, kidney beans, green beens, and chickpeas. You should eat at least one portion, once or twice per week.
  8. Water: Hydration is fundamental.

Some practical advice:

Eat foods that are rich in vitamin C in order to favor the absorption of iron in other foods such as eggs, meats, and vegetables (principally leafy greens and legumes).

Increase your consumption of fiber so as to boost your immune system and avoid getting a cold, which is so common during pregnancy. The ideal is to include the rind of citric fruits (oranges, Mandarin oranges, grapefruit, or pomelo) in your recipes, and to drink natural citrus juice with the pulp.

Moderate your consumption of processed meats such as canned meat, ham, bacon, and sausages, since eating to much of them can be bad for your health.

Don’t add more salt to what has already been added during food preparation, and moderate your consumption of very salty foods.

Limit your consumption of sugar and sugary foods.

While substitute sweeteners may be consumed in moderation, recent studies indicate that they may be linked to long-term health risks such as weight gain and type 2 diabetes. The healthiest option is to reduce overall consumption of sweet foods and beverages. While other sweeteners may be used in moderation, saccharin and cyclamate should be avoided.

Avoid fasting for long periods of time. The ideal is to eat three meals a day and a snack or light meal or two if necessary.

Eat breakfast every day, including dairy products, grains, and fruit. Not eating breakfast, together with a high-calorie diet, can lead to the formation of ketone bodies—molecules that cross the placental barrier, and which, in excess, can cause neurological damage to the fetus.

Remember that a balanced diet provides sufficient nutrients to favor the growth and development of the baby and the quality of the placenta; maintains your energy levels throughout pregnancy, during birth, and immediately afterwards; prevents anemia; and activates the production of breast milk.

Always consult with your doctor before making significant changes to your diet.

This article was originally published in the Spanish edition of Aleteia and has been translated and/or adapted for English readers.

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