A new study on dietary recommendations for pregnant women concluded that healthy eating and calorie control during pregnancy can help prevent obstetric complications. Also, pregnant women who are overweight or obese can lose weight safely by improving their eating habits -- but not by dieting.
The study, which was funded by the National Institute for Health in the United Kingdom and published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), was based on the results of research involving more than 7,000 women. Both in Europe and North America, up to 40 percent of women gain more than the normal amount of additional weight due to pregnancy, which can cause a number of health problems associated with excess weight.
The researchers said that following a healthy diet instead of "eating for two" can help prevent the risk of a host of complications during pregnancy. However, current guidelines do not advocate dieting for weight loss during that time. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) warns that calorie restriction for the purpose of weight loss during pregnancy may harm the health of the unborn child.
Observing healthy eating habits, of course, is important at any time in life, but it matters even more for women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant. A low-calorie, nutrient-dense diet that includes lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean protein sources is beneficial for both mother and child. While there is no specific "pregnancy diet," nutritional balance in both quality and quantity of the food an expecting mother eats is key.
Most women feel hungry more often during pregnancy than they did before their pregnancy, tempting them to overeat on occasion. To prevent this from happening, it is perfectly permissible to break with one's usual eating pattern of three daily meals and nibble instead on several smaller servings throughout the day. Healthy snack foods can help with sudden hunger pangs. This approach can also work if nausea, food aversions or indigestion make it uncomfortable to eat and digest regular-size meals.
The most important issue is to eat as nutritionally healthy as possible. This includes having good sources of protein, calcium, folic acid and iron as well as vitamins and minerals. Going through pregnancy on a strictly vegetarian diet is possible as long as a sufficient supply of complete protein is maintained. To avoid nutritional gaps, it can be useful to take a multivitamin supplement. Before taking supplements, however, pregnant women should consult with their physician. The same goes for prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications.
There are also certain foods that should be restricted or completely avoided during pregnancy. For instance, raw seafood like oysters or sushi, undercooked meat, raw eggs (in dressings and sauces), unpasteurized milk and cheese made from unpasteurized milk are all potential carriers of bacteria that can harm a fetus. Some fish species (both wild-caught and farmed) may have high amounts of methyl-mercury from environmental pollution. It has been shown that traces of metals such as mercury in the food supply can be harmful to the developing brain and nervous system of fetuses and infants. For this reason, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises pregnant women to limit their fish consumption to "12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury."
Alcoholic beverages in any form should be completely avoided during pregnancy. Cutting back on caffeine, including coffee, tea, cacao, colas and even chocolate (ouch!) is also highly recommended. The best choices for drinks are plenty of water (non-chlorinated), fruit juices (made from real fruit) and low-fat or non-fat milk. Empty calories and excessively high amounts of sugar from sodas benefit neither the mother nor the baby and should be kept to a minimum.
Last but not least, it is a good idea to create a health-promoting environment. That includes a thorough inspection of the refrigerator and pantry. If necessary, nutritionally inferior items should be tossed out and replaced with better ones -- before temptation strikes.