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Years ago, many women thought of pregnancy as their ticket to eat anything they wanted, indulging any and all cravings and leaving portion control by the wayside. After all, they rationalized, they were eating for two. That thinking, however, has changed over time, with doctors now advising pregnant women of the risks to both mother and child of excess weight gain during pregnancy.
Conversely, inadequate weight gain can also pose potential problems. So, how much weight should pregnant women gain and what nutrition guidelines will help them achieve it? This article answers those questions and more with regard to healthful eating during pregnancy.
Guidelines for Weight Gain
Exactly how much weight gain to aim for will vary among women and depends on several factors, including the mother’s pre-pregnancy weight, height, age, and health status, as well as whether or not the birth will involve twins, triplets, or more. See your doctor to determine the best weight gain goal for your individual situation.
In general, the following guidelines are used:
Women beginning pregnancy at a normal weight (defined as body mass index [BMI] of 19.8 to 26) are advised to gain 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy.
Underweight women (BMI < 19.8) are advised to gain 28 to 40 pounds.
Overweight women (BMI 26 to 29) are advised to gain 15 to 25 pounds.
Obese women (BMI > 29) are advised to gain at least 15 pounds.
Risks of Too Little or Too Much Weight Gain
Gaining the recommended amount of weight is one of many factors that may help ensure a healthy pregnancy. Gaining too little weight can increase the risk for delivering a lowâ€“birth weight baby who may be at greater risk for developmental and health problems later on. Gaining too much weight can increase the mother’s risk for conditions such as pregnancy-induced hypertension and gestational diabetes. It may also be a risk factor for long-term obesity in the mother after the pregnancy is over.
Maximizing Nutrition Without Maximizing Calories
The approach to healthful eating during pregnancy is twofold: you want to eat for an appropriate weight gain, but you also want to make sure you and your unborn baby get all the nutrients you need. The best way to do that is to make sure your diet is high in healthful, nutrient-dense foods, and low in foods that provide lots of calories but little nutrition (such as cookies, chips, soda, and pastries).
Registered dietitians recommend using the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid as a guide for eating from each of the food groups every day. Choose a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, dairy foods, and healthful fats (such as those in olive oil, fish, nuts, seeds, and peanut butter). And be sure to take any prenatal supplements your doctor may have prescribed.
Of course, physical activity also plays a role in pregnancy weight gain. Getting regular exercise during pregnancy may help you achieve your recommended weight gain goal, but be sure to check with your doctor before embarking on any exercise program during pregnancy, especially if you haven’t been exercising regularly before pregnancy.
Pregnancy: No Time for Extreme Diets
Many people wonder if some of today’s popular diets, such as low-carbohydrate diets, are a good way of controlling weight gain during pregnancy. While there is little published data regarding the use of these diets during pregnancy, many nutrition experts advise that pregnancy and breastfeeding are not the time to embark on any type of extreme diet, particularly those that restrict entire food groups from the diet. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor before starting any kind of new diet.
A Note About Food Safety:
A discussion of healthful eating during pregnancy would be incomplete without a mention of food safety. While it’s important to eat a variety of foods and get adequate nutrients, it’s also important to avoid certain foods that could pose a risk to you or to your unborn baby.
Here are some of the foodborne illnesses that pose a particular risk to pregnant women:
Listeria. Listeria poisoning during pregnancy may increase the risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects. Foods that may be contaminated with listeria include unpasteurized milk, deli meats, hot dogs, and soft cheeses (such as feta, Brie, and blue cheeses).
Mercury and PCB contamination. Some types of fish, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tile fish, may have higher levels of chemical pollutants that can be harmful to unborn babies and small children. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to avoid these types of fish.
E. Coli 0157:H7. This bacterium may be found in raw and undercooked meat and unpasteurized milk. Be sure to cook all meats to appropriate temperatures and avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards for raw and cooked foods.