While you're probably aware that your diet affects your baby's development in utero and your newborn's health, many pregnant women still make eating errors—mainly because they don't know any better. "Most women I see tend not to be aware of all the nutritional requirements of pregnancy," maintains Kelli Hughes, R.D., a clinical nutritionist at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. "But they'll happily do what is recommended once they know what to do."
Some of the common blunders expectant moms make could increase their risk of developing serious consequences like gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, or a bacterial infection that can be transmitted to the fetus. Avoiding these five dietary faux pas can mean better health for both of you.
Mistake 1: Eating for two
Every expert we spoke to listed this as the numero-uno diet gaffe. "There is a common belief that pregnancy is the time for indulgence," says Raul Artal, M.D., chairman of the department of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health at St. Louis University School of Medicine. "It's a myth."
Not only can overeating make it harder to lose the excess weight after delivery, but you're also at increased risk during pregnancy for gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, which is a symptom of preeclampsia. "If you develop preeclampsia, there is a higher risk for poor fetal growth and a complicated delivery," Artal says. "Gestational diabetes leads to bigger babies and a higher C-section rate."
During your first trimester, you don't need any additional calories; in the second trimester, you need 340 more each day; in the third, 450 more. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that pregnant women consume 71 grams of protein per day. (Nuts, eggs and lean meats are quick, easy options.) "You need the extra protein to support new cell growth in the fetus," says Jennifer Ramos Galluzzi, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition and science at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Conn.
Solution: The number of extra calories you require is small compared with the amount of extra nutrients. So get your additional calories from high-nutrient foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, legumes, low-fat dairy products and lean meats. All of these give you lots of nutritional bang for your calorie buck.
Mistake 2: Obsessing about weight gain
While some women take in too many calories, others consume too few. Big mistake. "Some women are terrified of gaining weight and scared it won't come off afterward, so they restrict their diets," says Heather Blazier, R.D., L.D., a clinical dietitian at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. Complications of eating too few calories can include low birth weight. "I see women who think milk products are high in fat and calories, so they avoid them," Blazier adds. "If you don't get 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, the baby's skeleton will be built with calcium leached from your bones."
Solution: Don't deprive yourself of necessary nutrients during pregnancy, as your fetus will not get what it needs for healthy growth and development. If you are obese, consult a dietitian who specializes in pregnancy nutrition to determine the proper prenatal diet for you. Also, cut out all nutritionally empty calories, such as snack foods.
Mistake 3: Feeling tired & stressed
Why, you may wonder, are psychosocial factors considered nutritional mistakes? Because studies show they have a negative impact on your diet. "Overtired, fatigued women tended to eat more empty-calorie carbohydrates like candy and cookies, the kind that provide quick energy but lead to a decrease in important nutrients like folate and vitamin C," says Laura Caulfield, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Human Nutrition in Baltimore, referring to a recent study she co-authored that examined how stress affects diet during pregnancy. "And they ate fewer vegetables, fruits, beans—the nutrient-dense foods that pregnant women should choose."
Solution: Pay as much attention to your emotional well-being as to your physical health. Stress and weariness lead to poor food choices, so get enough sleep and discuss with your doctor any anxiety you're experiencing.
Mistake 4: Skipping breakfast
Experts advise that pregnant women eat three small meals and two snacks at regular intervals—every three to four hours—to help maintain steady blood glucose (sugar) levels. But many women habitually eschew the morning meal, and continue to do so even when expecting. "By morning you've gone eight to 12 hours without food, so you need to eat," Caulfield says. "Skipping breakfast and [other] meals increases the risk of premature labor."
Without a healthy morning meal, you also may feel sick to your stomach, lightheaded and, soon, famished. But what if you already have morning sickness? "Many times, keeping something in the stomach can help ward off morning sickness," Blazier says. Soon after getting up, eat just a little of whatever you can tolerate, such as rice or rice cakes, toast or saltine crackers. If you can't keep down anything at all, don't give up. "Try to eat a very small amount every two hours," Blazier advises. "Some women may have to live on rice for a couple of weeks if that is all they're able to handle." And be sure to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
Other nausea soothers include citrus, ginger, mint and watermelon. Choose foods with those ingredients; even just sniffing a lemon or sprig of fresh mint may do the trick. Or try this simple, refreshing recipe for watermelon pops (even better if you can get someone to make them for you!): Puree 4 cups of frozen, seedless, cubed watermelon and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice in a blender. Strain the purée through a fine-mesh sieve, then pour it into popsicle molds, small paper cups or an ice cube tray. Freeze and enjoy.
Solution: If you've never been a breakfast eater, start with yogurt and a banana; then add whole grains and lean protein a few weeks later.
Mistake 5: Eating unsafe foods
You're at higher risk for food-borne illnesses now, because a woman's immune system is suppressed when she's pregnant. Listeriosis, a serious food-borne bacterial infection, is particularly dangerous during pregnancy. "This infection can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or severe brain infections in fetuses and newborns," says Jennifer Galuzzi, Ph.D. "Pregnant women may think it's OK to have a hot dog or undercooked meat 'just this once,' but that's all it takes if the food is contaminated."
Solution: Avoid eating raw or undercooked meats and fish (that includes sushi), Mexican soft cheeses and varieties such as Brie and Camembert, deli meats, hot dogs, and unpasteurized milk products or juices. In addition, adopt safe food-handling practices, which include washing your hands after touching uncooked meats and using separate cutting boards, plates and knives for meats and produce.
—Nancy Gottesman for Fit Pregnancy. Read more great articles at FitPregnancy.com.