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How to Navigate a Healthy Prenatal Diet

A balanced, nutritious diet is important for both your and your baby’s health. Here’s what to focus on eating while pregnant.

While pregnant people are advised to take prenatal supplements, they cannot provide all of the necessary additional nutrients you get from the food you eat.

As you progress throughout your pregnancy, you will need additional calories to help aid your baby’s growth and development. No matter the stage of pregnancy, it’s important to be mindful of how you nurture your baby and your body.

“You can get your nutrients primarily from food during every stage of pregnancy by eating a balanced diet filled with fruit, vegetables, protein, carbohydrates, fiber and healthy fats,” says dietitian Melissa Parisi, RDN.

Parisi and certified nurse-midwife Jessica Hayes, CNM, share more  guidelines for navigating a healthy prenatal diet and why they work.

Eat Complex Meals

“The best thing pregnant people can do is eat nutritionally-dense foods and meals,” says Hayes. This means eating meals that combine whole foods and multiple nutrients, like a low-sugar yogurt for protein and calcium, topped with blueberries and granola for fiber, nutrients and carbohydrates.

“If you experience intense nausea and have trouble getting your nutrients through food during your first trimester, don’t worry,” explains Hayes. “You can make up for it in your diet in later trimesters.” In the meantime, a smoothie filled with fruit, veggies, protein and healthy fat is an easy food to tolerate and a great way to get nutrients into your body.

Make Protein a Priority

Aim to have lean protein with every meal, whether it is chicken breast, beans or low-fat dairy. “It’s recommended to have at least 71 grams of protein every day, although you may need more depending on individual pregnancy requirements,” advises Parisi. “Be mindful about not skipping any meals and incorporating protein where you can.”

Focus on Nutrients Like Iron

During pregnancy, your body also needs a healthy supply of iron to make more blood to supply oxygen to the baby. Without enough iron, pregnant people run the risk of becoming anemic, putting their baby at risk of becoming anemic as well.

You can get iron through red meat, chicken and pork, as well as vegetables like spinach and Brussels sprouts. If you or your provider are finding you are not getting enough iron through your diet, you may be able to take iron supplements paired with vitamin C, which helps with absorption.

Drink Water and Eat Fiber

Constipation and digestive issues can occur as your pregnancy progresses. Eating fiber every day is important to help mitigate these symptoms. Fiber is easy to get through a balanced diet full of whole grains, vegetables and fruit. But, in order to properly digest fiber and feel your best, it’s vital to drink a lot of water—about 100 fluid ounces per day, or a little over three quarts.

Take a Prenatal Supplement

Prenatal supplements are generally recommended for all pregnant people, as they aid the growth of the baby. Most prenatal supplements include vitamin B12, vitamin C, folic acid and iron. It is also crucial to get an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D.

“Make sure you look on the back of the packaging to see what it includes,” says Parisi “Based on your blood work and diet, your provider might recommend taking a supplement with added nutrients.”

Foods to Limit

While pregnant, there are a few food types to eliminate – such as seafood and caffeine – or limit – such as processed food and products high in trans fat and sugar. “Too much sugar in your diet can raise the risk of developing gestational diabetes later in pregnancy,” says Hayes. About 10% of pregnant people in the U.S. are affected, but it’s important to look out for, as it puts the baby at risk and can lead to diabetes later in life for the parent.

Consult Your Provider about Nutritional Needs

Parisi recommends you talk with your OBGYN or midwife early on in your pregnancy about consulting with a registered dietitian for support navigating a healthy prenatal diet.

“Every pregnancy is different, and every person has a different starting point,” says Parisi. “It’s best to establish goals at the beginning of your pregnancy to ensure optimal health for both you and your baby. If additional needs pop up over the course of the pregnancy, they’re easier to address when you set yourself up for success in the beginning.”

Hayes reminds us, “Eating healthy, before and during pregnancy—and throughout your entire life—reduces short- and long-term risks and complications, and sets your baby up for a healthy life.”

[Main photo credit: iStock.com/Eva-Katalin]

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