Make every bite count. That is the core message behind the newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020-2025 Edition). I love that the message seems to be promoting healthy habits without hesitating to fuel your body (vs. focusing on what we can’t have). The new guidelines break down the best eating habits for each particular age group, from babies to senior citizens. This makes a lot of sense, right? Your body needs different things at different points in your life and during pregnancy, it requires special attention.
I’m in my 3rd pregnancy, and since it’s a crucial time in my life and that of my unborn child, this was timely. It’s vital to establish a healthy diet for your well being and your child in the long term. Eating right is one of the many steps you can take towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle during pregnancy.
I’m here to take you through some important facts that focus specifically on pregnant and lactating women. For reference, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) breaks down the specific needs for this group in Chapter 5. The entire document is beneficial and informative at every life stage.
Eating healthy while pregnant doesn’t need to be hard!
Most adults lack the time, patience, and resources to invest physically and emotionally into developing a healthy diet. It’s even harder when you add being pregnant to the mix. These new guidelines should not overwhelm or intimidate you. They are very approachable and laid out in a very universal and straightforward way.
The guidelines give a step-by-step path to guide you towards developing a healthy pregnancy diet. The USDA notes that the food groups and recommendations don’t differ much for a non-pregnant woman and a pregnant woman. The food items remain the same while the calorie intake and amount of each food group slightly change if you are pregnant. We’ll talk more about that later.
The USDA recognizes that not everyone can follow the same diet path, but they want you to stick to 4 key steps in achieving a healthy lifestyle. Here’s how they suggest we make every bite count.
- Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
- Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices based on your lifestyle (personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations).
- Limit foods and beverages with added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.
- Focus on meeting food group needs and staying within calorie limits.
I believe this is a very customizable approach. Understanding the core concepts will help you evaluate your food choices better.
What is a healthy dietary pattern?
The USDA describes a healthy dietary pattern as the totality of what individuals habitually eat and drink, and the parts of the pattern acting synergistically to affect health. A healthy diet pattern is creating good eating habits. Habits that you will implement into your life as regularly as possible to create a pattern you can stick to.
To create this healthy dietary pattern, you need:
- A diet consisting of nutrient-dense foods
- Foods and beverages across all food groups, in their recommended amounts
- Staying within the calorie limits
Establishing a “healthy dietary pattern” is the first and most significant step. You can do this at any point in your life but the sooner, the better. The pattern you develop now will undoubtedly affect your life’s next stage and even those around you. While pregnant, you might be wondering how does my pre-pregnancy diet change? What should my healthy dietary pattern be during my pregnancy?
If you already consider yourself as someone with a healthy dietary pattern, great! You can adapt and alter your calorie intake as recommended. If you need to make some significant adjustments, now is the time. The healthy habits you start now directly affect your baby so as he gets older, he will learn to appreciate the steps you take and mirror them.
What nutrient-dense foods are best for your pregnancy diet?
As stated before, the foods themselves don’t need to change that much when you’re pregnant. Avoid foods not recommended during pregnancy for safety reasons.
The USDA lays out clear examples of what a nutrient-dense food looks like or doesn’t look like. Here are some examples of foods you might think are nutrient-dense because of their ingredients:
- 1 cup of sweetened applesauce=170 calories, 103 of those calories are from the applesauce itself, and 67 are from the added sugars
- 1 cup of whole milk=146 calories, 83 of those calories are considered fat-free milk, and 63 calories are from the milk fat
- 3 ounces of 80% lean beef patty=209 calories, 122 of those calories are from 97% of lean beef, and 87 of those calories are from beef fat
Do you see those extra and unnecessary calories adding up? Only a portion of those foods is considered “nutrient-dense.” That filler consisting of unhealthy fats and sugars is doing nothing for you. Alternatively, you could choose items that are closer to being 100% nutrient-dense. Making prudent and informed decisions with swaps where necessary can help you shift those food items into nutrient-dense choices and move toward a healthy diet pattern.
- Instead of frosted mini-wheats, choose plain shredded wheat
- Instead of soda, choose sparkling water
- Instead of butter, use vegetable-based oil
A quick and friendly reminder of the food groups
The USDA recommends creating a healthy pregnancy diet around the major food groups. This “framework” is quite extensive but with a useful purpose. The variety of foods listed allows you to customize your meals based on personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations. All these healthy and nutritious foods are incredibly beneficial during your pregnancy.
- Vegetables: Canned, frozen, fresh, cooked, raw, or juice. The vegetables include; dark green vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, starchy vegetables, etc.
- Fruits: Fresh, frozen, canned, dried, or 100% fruit juice.
- Grains: Whole grains, refined grains
- Dairy and fortified soy alternatives: All fluid, dry, or evaporated milk, including lactose-free and lactose-reduced products and fortified soy beverages. Most choices should be fat-free or low-fat. Not included are cream, sour cream, and cream cheese because of their low calcium content.
- Protein foods: These are meats, poultry, and eggs (meats and poultry should be lean or low-fat), seafood which should be low in methylmercury (more on this below), and nuts, seeds, and soy products (nuts should be unsalted).
If it seems a bit daunting to stick to these foods, consider just a few things. It’s completely acceptable to buy within your means and not have to break the bank or go outside of your regular shopping habits to eat healthily. Not everyone has access to or can afford fresh organic produce all of the time. These guidelines specifically say that frozen is just as acceptable as fresh. Most frozen produce is frozen at its freshest point right after being picked therefore has the same amount of nutrients.
Sticking to the recommended calorie intake
Tweaking the maternal diet has its benefits. Pregnant women should eat a diverse diet that increases their calorie intake. However, eating for two is a term thrown around that shouldn’t be taken seriously. There’s no need for you to double your calorie intake or even come close to that while pregnant.
Is it safe to diet during pregnancy? Put your weight-loss diet on hold while pregnant. Unless medically indicated for your own health, you don’t need to restrict your own diet to prevent food allergies in your child. Dieting to lose weight or decreasing your calorie intake while pregnant is not safe for the baby. Your body needs those extra calories and energy. You shouldn’t feel guilty slightly increasing your calorie intake while pregnant as long you’re eating the recommended foods.
You should also continue your physical activity during pregnancy, 150 minutes per week if you can. It’s best to consult with your doctor before starting or increasing a new exercise routine while pregnant. If you stick to these guidelines and take the recommended number of calories and nutrient-dense foods, you’ll set yourself up for success after the pregnancy.
The US dietary guidelines give the exact calorie increase throughout each phase of your pregnancy. They recommend that during the 1st trimester, you shouldn’t increase your calorie intake at all. In the 2nd trimester, you should try to increase by 340 calories. In the 3rd-trimester, increase by 452 calories, and during the 1st six months of breastfeeding, you should reduce to 330 calories.
You can supplement the number of calories with regular meals and normal snacking habits. It doesn’t mean adding a candy bar will fill the need for those extra calories or that you’ll need to add another entire meal. Adding these extra calories using nutrient-dense food is the best approach. A slight increase in the daily calorie limits allows you to do just that without adding empty calories.
I find it very hard to eat more while pregnant. These tricks help me eat clean while pregnant and still get the recommended calories. They should increase your calorie intake without you necessarily having to increase your meal size;
- Smoothies. The options are endless with smoothies. You can add an extra banana, oats, avocado, greens, etc., to smoothies that you already make. You can also add a small smoothie to your breakfast or lunch to boost your calorie intake.
- Toppings. We are big fans of one-bowl dinners in my house, especially now while I am pregnant. I make many soups and chilis and then put out a topping selection for additional flavor and nutrition. Some topping examples are avocado, plain Greek yogurt, diced vegetables, and sauerkraut.
- Frittatas. Egg-based breakfasts are a great way to start the day with protein. My kids love when I make a frittata, and they often don’t even realize that I’m adding nutrient-dense foods into the mix. Spinach and kale are great to add because they wilt down. I also add potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, and other vegetables. You can add turkey sausage to increase protein. Don’t forget the toppings! Avocados and salsa are delicious options.
The DRI (Dietary Reference Intakes) calculator can estimate your suggested daily calorie intake. It provides an abundance of information for you regarding your recommended diet. It can determine your suggested calorie intake, vitamin and mineral intake, as well as your estimated body mass index (BMI). Remember that you should discuss any significant dietary adjustments with your doctor first if using this calculator. This doesn’t account for food allergies or other nutritional/health conditions.
The USDA has recommendations for daily and weekly amounts of food groups and subgroups to help you achieve the daily calorie intake. The information breaks down how many food or subgroup servings you should consume daily and weekly as a pregnant woman. As we learned earlier, each stage of pregnancy requires a different calorie intake. Of course, the daily amount also differs based on your height, weight, and activity level.
On average, the daily intake suggestions for pregnant women look like this:
- Vegetables: 2 ½ – 3 ½ cups per day
- Fruits: 1 ½ – 2 ½ cups per day
- Grains: 6-10 ounces per day
- Dairy: 3 cups per day
- Protein Foods: 5-7 ounces per day
- Oils: 24-36 grams per day
This is slightly higher than a normal, non-pregnant woman’s recommendation. Again, try to use some small tricks to increase the amount of these foods in your diet. Don’t try to sit and eat 3 ½ cups of kale in one sitting!
Fish is still OK during pregnancy but be cautious
We know the hard and fast rule during pregnancy – no raw fish, no sushi. That remains true. Pregnant (and lactating women) should limit certain seafood consumption to minimize methylmercury exposure. Eating seafood offers valuable nutrition to you and your baby, and there are plenty of fish options that are low in mercury and safe to eat during pregnancy.
These fish still provide healthy omega-3 fats, iron, and more vitamin B12 and vitamin D than any other food. You’re advised to have about 2 servings of fish per week during pregnancy. One serving should be about 4 ounces (about the size of the palm of your hand).
The types of fish and seafood safe to eat while pregnant include:
- canned tuna
The type of fish you should avoid during pregnancy include:
- king mackerel
- fish caught by family and friends (trout, catfish)
You can find the whole list here. Adding this recommended amount of fish makes me feel great and helps keep my energy up. I stick to simple preparations so that my children love it, too. We avoid frying and adding unnecessary breading and fats.
It shouldn’t be an added stressor to your life to eat healthy while pregnant. Sticking to the food groups, calorie intake amounts, and remaining positive about these diet choices is the best way to approach healthy eating during pregnancy. It certainly helps to know that every choice I make directly affects the baby. While a bowl of ice cream may make me feel better for a few minutes, a bowl of yogurt and fruit will make me feel better longer and is considered a more nutrient-dense choice.