The average pregnant woman is advised to gain no more than 25 to 35 pounds, yet the average newborn weighs only about 7 1/2. So what's with those extra pounds? They're distributed to areas vital to your developing fetus: your uterus, amniotic fluid and placenta, to name a few. But experts say enough is enough. "If you gain significant weight above and beyond what you need for the pregnancy, you're just gaining fat," says Heather Blazier, RD, a clinical dietitian who specializes in pregnancy nutrition at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. "And being overweight during pregnancy increases your risk for gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, hypertension, and labor and delivery complications," she adds.
In addition, gaining too much during pregnancy is linked to overweight in early childhood (see "What, Me Worry?"). To help keep your pregnancy weight within the recommended range without dieting, put to use these five smart strategies advocated by pregnancy-nutrition experts.
1. Let Them Eat Chocolate!
"Pregnant women report food cravings they never experienced when they weren't pregnant," says Jennifer Ramos Galluzzi, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nutrition and science at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Conn. The way to deal with them? "Allow yourself a small piece of whatever you crave so you don't binge later on," she suggests.
Besides eating no more than a single serving, opt for healthful accompaniments. "If you feel that you must have that double cheeseburger, start by ordering the single, and choose skim milk instead of soda," Blazier says. Pairing indulgences with healthful options will help keep calories in check.
If it's chocolate you must have, go for a CocoaVia Original Chocolate Bar (cocoavia.com), a surprisingly good source of calcium and folic acid—essential pregnancy nutrients—in just 100 calories per serving (one bar).
2. Know Your Portion Sizes
Although the 300 additional calories you need during the second and third trimesters may sound like a lot, it amounts to a single serving of low-fat yogurt and a piece of fruit. Since calories add up quickly, get your extra 300 from foods that provide the nutrients you need such as calcium, fiber, iron and protein. Some good examples include fruits, vegetables, fortified cereals and low-fat dairy products.
3. Chew The [Healthful] Fat
Obviously, we're not referring to the saturated and trans fats found in most snack foods (such as cookies, chips and pre-made snack cakes); those fats pack on pounds without providing any healthful nutrients. We mean the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts and avocados, and especially the omega-3 fats in fish and flaxseed. By consuming these fats (which offer multiple health benefits) in moderation and eating fewer high-calorie foods that contain saturated and trans fats, you can keep your weight within a healthy range.
"Pregnant women need quality fats," says Karen Brewton, RD, LD, a dietitian who specializes in women's health and nutrition at the Methodist Hospital in Houston. "Spread some peanut butter on crackers, throw a handful of nuts into a bag of dried cranberries, and eat low-mercury fish two or three times a week."
In fact, you should aim for at least 300 milligrams a day of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (a polyunsaturated fat found in fatty fish such as salmon and in fish oil supplements); research has shown that omega-3s are critical to the health and development of the fetal nervous system, heart, eyes and brain. A recent study in the Lancet found that children whose mothers had eaten more than 340 grams (12 ounces) of seafood weekly during pregnancy did significantly better at meeting communication, social-development and fine-motor-skill milestones than those whose mothers ate less. (For more information on safe seafood sources of omega-3s during pregnancy, see "Tell Me What to Eat" )
4. Eat Smart Snacks
Pregnant women tend to feel famished—often. Snacking is the bridge that will carry you over from one meal to the next and keep your energy up. "It's extremely important to spread your calories throughout the day so you never get overwhelmingly hungry," Brewton says. "Later in pregnancy, when there's not much room in there, you'll need to eat smaller meals more frequently."
But it's easy to overdo it, so choosing healthful snacks and watching portion sizes are key to avoiding excess weight gain. Experts advise eating every three to four hours and following a schedule that looks something like this:
7-8 A.M. Breakfast 3/4 cup high-fiber cereal topped with fresh mixed berries and low-fat milk
10 A.M. Snack Example: yogurt, fruit or a Kashi GoLean bar, which packs 6 grams of fiber and 13 grams of protein [Editor's Note: We also like the Bellybar, which packs 2 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein for a mere 170 calories]
12:30-1 P.M. Lunch A turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread, raw vegetables, fresh fruit and low-fat milk
3:30-4 P.M. Snack Example: string cheese with whole-grain pretzels or a handful of dried fruit and nuts
6-7 P.M. Dinner Cheese, black bean, and vegetable pita and low-fat milk
9 P.M. Pre-Bedtime Mini-Snack Example: fruit with peanut butter or 1/2 cup low-fat vanilla ice cream with 1 tablespoon dried cherries or cranberries
For more quick, healthful pregnancy recipes, snack suggestions and five-day meal plans, check out our recipe finder at fitpregnancy.com/recipes.
*5. Embrace The Siesta!
* Tired women tend to make poor food and beverage choices. When fatigued, we seek quick energy, and a calorie is energy. This is particularly true in the first trimester, when fatigue tends to be greatest. You may find yourself wolfing down candy, cookies or soda to help you stay alert.
"If a pregnant woman doesn't get enough sleep, she may compromise her diet because she will have less energy," Galluzzi says. "She may find it easier to go to a drive-through for fast food than to the supermarket to buy fresh ingredients and cook at home." So take a nap, get to bed early, and skip your a.m. workout to snooze in if necessary—your sleep is that important!
— Nancy Gottesman for Fit Pregnancy. Read more great articles at FitPregnancy.com.