The old wives’ tale of eating for two doesn’t apply to today’s expectant moms. “Moms need to eat good food throughout their pregnancy to nourish their bodies, as they are growing a human,” says Mary Seger, PhD, nurse practicioner at Otsego Memorial Hospital in Gaylord, Michigan. “As they nourish themselves, they feed their baby.” Making smarter nutrition choices—during and after pregnancy—will benefit both of you, and it sets the stage for healthy development well into your newborn’s formative years.
To help you eat right for the next nine months and beyond, we talked to experts about which foods are most beneficial—and which ones you should avoid—and created a special nutrition guide for each trimester and even postpartum. The time to change your prenatal diet is now.
You’ve just found out you’re pregnant, but oddly enough, you have no appetite. “During the first trimester, it can be hard for women to eat as they are often nauseous,” says Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN nurse practitioner in Portland, Maine, and author of Is it Me or My Hormones? The Good, the Bad and the Ugly About PMS, Perimenopause and All the Crazy Things That Occur with Hormone Imbalance. “But nonetheless, they should have foods that are high in iron, such as red meat and dark green, leafy vegetables.”
Folate is another key nutrient, one that registered dietician Michelle Dudash of Scottsdale, Arizona, claims is “crucial for proper development of the fetus’ spinal cord and also prevents neural tube defects and other birth defects.” While you may already be getting folic acid from your prenatal vitamins, folate can be found naturally in oranges, orange juice, spinach and lentils.
Decreasing oxidative stress—often associated with free radicals and the breakdown of healthy cells—is also important for preventing miscarriage, notes Bridget Swinney, registered dietician and author of Eating Expectantly 4th Edition. She recommends foods that are rich in antioxidants, such as blueberries, pomegranate juice, watermelon, walnuts and wheat germ.
Iron is the key nutrient during this stage of pregnancy when blood volume for both mother and baby increases. According to Dudash, iron deficiency anemia can lead to premature deliveries and low birth weight. Heme iron (containing hemoglobin) is the best-absorbed source and can be found in such foods as red meat, poultry and tuna. Vegetable-based (non-heme) iron is contained in iron-fortified cereals, soybeans, tofu and spinach. “Plant foods should be eaten with something rich in vitamin C to increase iron absorption,” adds Swinney. Bell peppers, orange juice and other citrus foods are rich in vitamin C. Fiber is essential for helping to prevent and treat constipation, as well as reducing the risk of preeclampsia later in pregnancy. Foods rich in fiber include black beans, artichokes, figs and flaxseed.
As your pregnancy starts to wind down and your expanding belly has you feeling more uncomfortable, take extra steps to maintain your nutrition levels. “In the final trimester, women often cannot eat much in one sitting, so eating often is key,” notes Pick. Opt for foods that are high in essential fatty acids and DHA, like salmon, eggs and walnuts.
Focusing on your daily calcium intake is necessary as your baby reaches full term. “As the fetus grows, it will take what it needs from the mother, leaving her bones weak later in life,” says Dudash. Aim for four calcium servings per day, which are readily available in dairy products like low-fat yogurt, low-fat milk and reduced- fat cheese—with the added benefit of potassium and protein. Nondairy choices packed with calcium include dark green vegetables, seafood, beans and peas.
Fish such as salmon and barramundi (an Asian sea bass) are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which Swinney notes are good for brain and eye development. Kale and Swiss chard are also helpful for visual growth.
And since every pregnant mom deserves a little treat now and then, think about adding some dark chocolate or cocoa to your diet. “I consider these ‘super condiments’ due to their rich antioxidant content,” says Swinney. “Eating dark chocolate in the third trimester is associated with a significant decrease in preeclampsia.” Of course, everything in moderation; she recommends a half-ounce per day.
After childbirth, some moms assume they can go back to eating as they did before they became pregnant, but maintaining a healthy diet is crucial to feeling good and helping return your body to its prepregnancy shape. “A woman concerned about postpartum weight loss might consider following a balanced diet of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, lean protein, low-fat dairy, nuts/seeds and healthy oils,” says Dudash.
Seger is in favor of a protein diet with lots of veggies and a half-cup of fruit with each meal. “Don’t go for gluten-free products, as they are often high in sugar,” she warns. But if you’re breastfeeding, be wary of cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and Bok Choy), which can cause your baby to be gassy.
Speaking of nursing, experts agree it’s even more essential that you eat a well-rounded diet if you’re breastfeeding. “Having small frequent meals and snacks throughout the day is important to staying fueled and energized, especially during the demanding time in the first few postpartum months,” notes Dudash.
Swinney agrees. “Breastfed babies depend on their moms for all nutrition. Moms should make sure they have [a variety of] nutrients, which fuel brain and visual development that continues after birth,” she adds. These nutrients include choline, which can be found in eggs, lean beef and codfish; lutein, found in kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, red pepper and eggs; and omega-3s, found in salmon and vegetarian sources like flaxseed and walnuts.
Incorporating a number of different fruits and vegetables into your diet also serves another purpose down the road. “The first ‘taste’ of real food is introduced through breastmilk, so I encourage moms to eat a wide variety of produce, which may help their babies like those foods when introduced later,” says Swinney.