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Kelly Alfieri

Pregnancy Diet: What To Eat When You're Pregnant

Eating for two doesn't mean eating twice as much (sadly). Here's your guide to a healthy pregnancy diet.

Sure, you know skipping breakfast and feasting on Pop-Tarts is a bad idea now that you're pregnant—but new studies show that the benefits of healthy eating are even more significant than previously known. An Oregon Health & Science University Doernbecher Children's Hospital study found that women who eat a high fat diet are more likely to have babies with higher fat mass and smaller livers. Another study concluded that taking prenatal vitamins may reduce the risk of having children with autism. The benefits of eating right are undeniable—but what exactly should you be eating?

An expectant mom should consume an extra 300 calories each day. It’s tempting to grab a pint of Cherry Garcia and dig in, but unfortunately our friends Ben and Jerry don’t have the right stuff for supporting healthy fetal growth and development. The extra calories you eat should come from nutrient-rich food that supports you and your growing baby.

There isn’t one perfect pregnancy diet, but for the most part, eating a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins will give baby what he or she needs. That said, there are a few specific nutrients that are essential to a healthy pregnancy diet. Here's what—and how much—you should be consuming each day:

Folic Acid. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, a naturally occurring B vitamin found in many foods. Pregnant women should get 600 micrograms of folic acid a day to reduce the risk of serious birth defects, according to the March of Dimes. “The best way to get this micronutrient is through whole grains, citrus fruits, fortified hot and cold cereal,” says Lisa Brown, registered dietician and co-owner of Brown and Medina Nutrition. But don’t rely solely on diet—a prenatal vitamin can also help provide folic acid.

Protein. Baby is dependent on protein to grow. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends 71 grams a protein a day. Getting enough protein is especially important in the second and third trimesters. Good sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, fish and lentils.

Calcium. A calcium-rich diet will give you and baby strong bones and teeth. Calcium also keeps your circulatory, muscular and nervous systems in tip-top shape. USDA nutritionists recommend 1,000 milligrams a day. Dairy is the preferred source of calcium, but salmon, calcium-fortified orange juice and spinach are good too.

Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps build baby’s bones and teeth. The recommended daily amount for pregnant women is 600 IU a day. Salmon is an excellent source of vitamin D, as is fortified milk and juice, asparagus and eggs.

Iron. Get enough iron during your pregnancy (27 milligrams a day) to minimize the risk of  preterm labor and low birth weight. Iron isn't only vital for baby–an iron deficiency during pregnancy can leave you susceptible to infections and feeling fatigued. Find iron in iron-fortified cereals, meat, beans and spinach. Iron from plant sources is not as easily absorbed by the body, but you can boost absorption by pairing iron-rich foods with ones high in vitamin C.

Healthiest Foods For Pregnancy

Brown recommends loading up on these nutrient-rich superfoods to support baby’s growth and development:

Fish. Low in fat, high in protein and nutrient-dense, fish should be a staple of every pregnancy diet. Just steer clear of high-mercury fish like tuna, tile fish and king mackerel. For the gastronomically adventurous, try sardines-they're high in omega 3 fatty acids, calcium and protein. If sardines aren’t your speed, wild salmon is another great option.

Greek Yogurt. Packed with more protein than regular yogurt and loaded with calcium, Greek yogurt is as delicious as it is nutritious.

Dark Green Leafy Vegetables. Most fruits and veggies pack a powerful nutrient punch, but dark green leafy vegetables offer an unbeatable source of folate, phytonutrients, fiber and calcium.

Quinoa. Chockfull of B vitamins, fiber, phytonutrients and protein, quinoa is a grain super star.

Trying to eat well during pregnancy but not exactly the next Master Chef? You don’t have to cook your own meals to keep up a healthy pregnancy diet. “It can be as easy as fresh avocado, baby carrots, hummus and whole wheat pita bread-or quickly sautéing some chicken and picking up some steamed veggies and brown rice from the local Chinese restaurant,” Brown says. She also suggests stocking your freezer with easy-to-make, healthy eats like wild salmon filets, turkey burgers and veggies.

Whenever possible, stay away from packaged and processed foods. And when it comes to bottled drinks and canned goods, limit your exposure to those that contain BPA (bisphenol-A). BPA is a toxic chemical that may be harmful to a developing fetus.

Benefits of Eating Organic While Pregnant

Most newly pregnant moms starting thinking twice about what they’re putting into their bodies, and many wonder about the safety of conventional produce. What does the research say? Three recent studies concluded that children that have exposure to high levels of common pesticides in the womb have lower I.Q. scores than their peers by the time they reach school-age. Alexandra Zissu, co-author of The Complete Organic Pregnancy, explains that by eating organic, “a mom is minimizing her exposure to harmful and potentially harmful chemical residues in her food.”

But eating organic can be expensive and it isn’t an option for everyone. If going totally organic isn’t possible, try limiting your intake of conventional produce that are on the "dirty dozen" list–these fruits and vegetables have high levels of pesticides. “If you find an all-organic diet too expensive, I'd say to make sure you at least are eating organic or local for meat, fish and dairy,” Zissu says. She also recommends green markets as an inexpensive alternative to store-bought organic. “Ask questions and you might discover your local farmer isn't certified organic but isn't spraying harsh pesticides or fertilizers either, and just hasn't gone through with the expense of organic certification,” Zissu says.

Foods to Eat if You Have Gestational Diabetes

If you have gestational diabetes, healthy eating habits are a must. While the majority of women who have gestational diabetes (GD) go on to deliver healthy babies, the risks associated with GD are many: miscarriages, preeclampsia, birth defects and macrosomia (also known as big baby syndrome). The American Diabetes Association recommends nutritional counseling from a registered dietitian to plan a pregnancy diet that takes into account your glucose intolerance, food preferences, weight and other factors.  The key to maintaining your and your baby’s health is controlling your blood sugar.

The National Institutes of Health advises women with GD to work with a health care provider to plan an appropriate diet but offers these quick tips for keeping your blood sugar in a healthy range:

Eat meals and snacks on a regular schedule. Researchers recommend three small to medium-sized meals and two to four snacks a day.

Eat smaller amounts of carbohydrates at each meal. Spreading out your carb intake will limit post-meal blood sugar spikes and keep you on an even keel.

Have a nightly snack. Nosh on a snack of one to two servings of carbs before bedtime to keep blood sugar at a healthy level overnight.

More from The Bump:

Healthy Foods for Busy Moms-to-Be 

Your Pregnancy Diet: A Starter's Shopping List 

Pregnancy Nutrition and Exercise

PHOTO: Rob & Julia Campbell