Pre-conception nutrition is a vital part of preparing for pregnancy. Factors such as a woman's weight compared to her height and what she eats can play an important role in a mother's health during pregnancy and the health of her developing fetus.
A mother's pre-pregnancy weight has a direct influence on her baby's birthweight. Studies show that underweight women are more likely to give birth to small babies, even though they may gain the same amount in pregnancy as normal weight women. Overweight women have increased risks for complications in pregnancy such as gestational diabetes or high blood pressure. Consult your physician about whether you need to lose or gain weight before becoming pregnant.
Many women do not eat a well-balanced diet before pregnancy and may not have the proper nutritional status for the demands of pregnancy. Generally, a pregnant woman needs to add about 300 extra calories to meet the needs of her body and her developing fetus. However, those calories, as well as her entire diet, need to be healthy, balanced, and nutritious.
The food guide pyramid is a guideline to help you eat a healthy diet. The food guide pyramid can help you eat a variety of foods while encouraging the right amount of calories and fat. The USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have prepared the following food pyramid to guide you in selecting foods.
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The Food Pyramid is divided into 6 colored bands representing the 5 food groups plus oils:
- Orange represents grains: Make half the grains consumed each day whole grains. Whole-grain foods include oatmeal, whole-wheat flour, whole cornmeal, brown rice, and whole-wheat bread. Check the food label on processed foods - the words “whole” or “whole grain” should be listed before the specific grain in the product.
- Green represents vegetables: Vary your vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green- and orange-colored kinds, legumes (peas and beans), starchy vegetables, and other vegetables.
- Red represents fruits: Focus on fruits. Any fruit or 100 percent fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, or pureed.
- Yellow represents oils: Know the limits on fats, sugars, and salt (sodium). Make most of your fat sources from fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. Limit solid fats like butter, stick margarine, shortening, and lard, as well as foods that contain these.
- Blue represents milk: Get your calcium-rich foods. Milk and milk products contain calcium and vitamin D, both important ingredients in building and maintaining bone tissue. Use low-fat or fat-free milk after the age of two years.
- Purple represents meat and beans: Go lean on protein. Choose low fat or lean meats and poultry. Vary your protein routine - choose more fish, nuts, seeds, peas, and beans.
Activity is also represented on the pyramid by the steps and the person climbing them, as a reminder of the importance of daily physical activity.
To find more information about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and to determine the appropriate dietary recommendations for your age, sex, and physical activity level, visit the Online Resources page for the links to the Food Pyramid and 2010 Dietary Guidelines sites. Please note that the Food Pyramid is designed for persons over the age of two who do not have chronic health conditions.
In addition to the pyramid food groups, the following nutrients should be included in a woman's pre-conception diet and continued into pregnancy:
- folic acid
The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid each day. Folic acid, a nutrient found in some green, leafy vegetables, most berries, nuts, beans, citrus fruits, fortified breakfast cereals, and some vitamin supplements can help reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spinal cord (called neural tube defects). The most common neural tube defect is spina bifida (in which the vertebrae do not fuse together properly, causing the spinal cord to be exposed) which can lead to varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence, and, sometimes, mental retardation.
Folic acid is most beneficial during the first 28 days after conception, when most neural tube defects occur. Unfortunately, many women do not realize they are pregnant before 28 days. Therefore, folic acid intake should begin prior to conception and continue through pregnancy. Your physician will recommend the appropriate amount of folic acid to meet your individual needs.
Most physicians will prescribe a prenatal supplement before conception, or shortly afterward, to ensure all of the woman's nutritional needs are met. However, a prenatal supplement does not replace a healthy diet.
Many women have low iron stores as a result of monthly menstruation and diets low in iron. Building iron stores helps prepare a mother's body for the needs of the fetus during pregnancy. Good sources of iron include the following:
- meats - beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats
- poultry - chicken, duck, turkey, liver (especially dark meat)
- fish - shellfish, including clams, mussels, oysters, sardines, and anchovies
- leafy greens of the cabbage family, such as broccoli, kale, turnip greens, and collards
- legumes, such as lima beans and green peas; dry beans and peas, such as pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and canned baked beans
- yeast-leavened whole-wheat bread and rolls
- iron-enriched white bread, pasta, rice, and cereals
Preparing for pregnancy includes building healthy bones. If there is not enough calcium in the pregnancy diet, the fetus may draw calcium from the mother's bones, which can put women at risk for osteoporosis later in life. The recommended calcium intake for most nonpregnant women is 1,000 milligrams and an additional 400 milligrams is needed during pregnancy. Three or more servings of milk or other dairy products each day equals about 1,200 milligrams of calcium.
Always consult your physician regarding your healthy diet and exercise requirements.