Nutrition for Pregnant & Nursing Moms

So much to eat, so little time! With all the excitement, exhaustion and long lists of to-dos, many expectant and nursing moms wonder how they will ever manage to work in all the extra meals, calories and nutrients recommended by the experts. Giving preference to nutrition-packed power foods is one way to help reach your daily quota.

Top 10 Power Foods

The following foods belong at the top of any mom’s priority list because they contain nutrients especially important for pregnant and lactating women—and they also can deliver a powerful nutritional punch to everyone at your dinner table, so now is the time to start incorporating them into your family’s meals for life.

  • Yogurt for calcium and probiotics. Calcium needs increase during pregnancy. Consume any less than the recommended amount and your body will meet your baby’s calcium needs by pulling from your own supply. In addition to being high in calcium, yogurt is fermented, so it also provides beneficial probiotic bacteria, which promotes intestinal and immune health. In essence, probiotics help to maintain the natural balance of our “intestinal ecosystems.” Other, non-dairy sources of calcium include dark, leafy greens, sardines with bones, calcium-fortified orange juice, sesame seeds, almonds, dried fruit, corn tortillas, tofu and legumes.

  • Dark, leafy greens for calcium, fiber, vitamins and folic acid. Kale, collards and other dark, leafy greens are rich with calcium, fiber, vitamins A and C, and also rate high on the antioxidant scale. (Note: Due to their oxalic acid content, which decreases the absorption of minerals, spinach and Swiss chard are not thought to be a good source of calcium or iron.) And these dark, leafy greens optimize calcium absorption because of their phosphorous content. They are also an important source of folic acid, which is recommended in higher amounts for all women in their childbearing years to help prevent neural tube defects in their children. Other sources of folic acid include oranges, beans, asparagus, avocados and berries.

  • Eggs for vitamin A, iron and protein. Eggs contain important nutrients, including vitamin A, iron and protein. Protein needs increase during pregnancy, and adequate protein intake often helps to temper sugar cravings. Note that most of the nutrition in eggs is found in the yolk. For extra nutrition, look for eggs enriched with DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid important for brain development.

  • Fatty fish for omega-3s. Salmon, sardines, black cod, anchovies, herring and trout provide omega-3 fatty acids, which are the primary components of brain tissue and are vital for brain and visual development. Studies have shown that women who eat fish during pregnancy have children with better visual acuity, higher IQ, better language and communication skills, and decreased rates of allergies and asthma. However, pregnant and lactating women should limit their intake to no more than 12 ounces (2 servings) of low-mercury fish per week, and should also avoid larger, long-lived fish with more dark meat (including tuna, shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish). Fish with dangerous amounts of mercury may harm a baby’s developing nervous system.

  • Lamb for B12, iron and zinc. Lamb is an excellent source of vitamin B12 and a good source of highly accessible iron and zinc. Zinc is important for growth and development because it is required for cell division, DNA/RNA synthesis and protein synthesis. Adequate zinc levels also ensure optimal bone growth in developing babies and are necessary for immunity. Vegetarian sources of zinc include legumes (especially adzuki, navy beans and split peas), nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and cashews), whole grains (fortified cereal and wheat germ) and fortified soy foods. It is best to eat calcium-rich foods and zinc-rich foods at different times for optimal absorption of each.

  • Berries for antioxidants and fiber. These colorful fruits top the charts with their antioxidant content and have been shown to help with brain, eye and vascular health. Antioxidants are compounds that protect cells from free radical damage. Berries also provide fiber, which is beneficial for pregnant women.

  • Sweet Potatoes for vitamins A and E. This is one comfort food that has an appealing nutritional profile. Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin A (as colorful beta carotene) and a good source of vitamin E. By eating sweet potatoes with a little fat, you can increase the absorption of these nutrients. Eat the skin for added nutritional benefit.

  • Avocados for potassium, folic acid, vitamin C, lutein and “good” fat. Nutrient-dense avocados contain healthy monounsaturated fats, as well as significant quantities of the antioxidant lutein, which has been shown to be beneficial for eye health.

  • Legumes for vegetarian protein, fiber, iron, folate, magnesium and zinc. Legumes (a plant food category that includes certain pods, beans and peas) are a good source of vegetarian protein and are rich in fiber. Many varieties are also an excellent source of iron, folate and magnesium. Legumes (especially adzuki, navy beans and split peas) are also a good alternative source of zinc for vegetarians.

  • Nuts for fiber, vitamin E and magnesium. Specific types of nuts have their own nutritional advantages. For example, walnuts have omega-3 fatty acids, and almonds provide calcium. Although nuts are high in fat, they contain primarily monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, and have not been shown to promote weight gain when eaten in moderation (about a small handful five times a week).

Fast Fact

Lactation consultants often advise that breastfed babies may develop a taste for whatever Mom eats because it is known that amniotic fluid and breast milk provide flavor exposure to baby.

One thing you’ll notice about these power foods is that many of them are vibrantly colorful. When faced with unfamiliar choices on a restaurant menu or buffet, an easy way to get a good dose of the recommended nutrients is to decorate your plate with a rainbow. As a general rule, have at least three natural colors on your plate at each meal.

Consumption Cautions

From conception through breastfeeding, remember your baby is getting a share of everything you eat or drink. Your best bet to ensure you are making wise choices is to follow your health practitioner’s advice along with these general guidelines that apply to most pregnant and nursing moms:

  • Take a prenatal multivitamin with no artificial additives, colors or flavors, beginning before you conceive if possible and continuing through breastfeeding.

  • Drink plenty of water, preferably filtered.

  • Avoid or limit caffeine according to the latest guidelines.

  • Avoid alcoholic beverages.

  • Choose organic foods and beverages to reduce exposure to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizers.

  • Boost your protein intake with meats, poultry, eggs, dairy products, tofu, beans and nuts.

  • Be aware that undercooked meat, poultry and fish, as well as unpasteurized dairy products and juice may contain potentially harmful bacteria.

  • Steer clear of  high-mercury seafood. The FDA provides specific guidelines for which species should be avoided or limited.

  • Get your DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the essential fatty acid found in fatty fish and fish oil, that is vital for a baby’s brain and nervous system.

  • Eliminate hydrogenated fats, which can inhibit the utilization of omega-3 fatty acids vital for brain development.

When exhaustion or morning sickness strike, there are many natural ways to relieve discomfort. Start by eating something—such as crackers—before you get out of bed. Ginger or ginger tea can also help promote a calm stomach. Eating small meals and small sips of fluid all day, including plenty of fiber and water for healthy digestion, can also help sustain your energy and keep many pregnancy symptoms at bay. Be sure to exercise, per your health practitioner’s recommendations, and get plenty of rest and relaxation.

Some herbal teas or supplements, depending on stage of pregnancy or nursing, may also be comforting and helpful for morning sickness and other concerns during pregnancy and lactation, but be sure to consult with your practitioner before consuming any herbal supplements. Some must be used with care and others avoided all together at certain times from conception through breastfeeding.

Tips for Nursing Moms

While breastfeeding, keep the following special suggestions in mind:

  • Don’t limit nutrient-rich foods to lose weight. Despite your longing for that pre-pregnancy body, now is not the time to cut calories. Your diet is vitally important to your baby and to rebuilding your nutrient stores.

  • Certain foods eaten by moms can disagree with some breastfed babies. If you experience problems, experiment with eliminating: broccoli family veggies (including cabbage and cauliflower), eggs, milk, soy, peanuts, citrus fruits, gluten-containing foods, spicy foods or chocolate.

  • Many herbs promote the secretion and flow of breast milk. Look for herb teas specific for nursing mothers.

Natural Choices Inside and Out

During pregnancy and nursing, it’s also wise to scrutinize products you use on your body and in your home. Natural choices are generally the best bet for avoiding potentially harmful substances.

Remember that body care products (skin, hair and oral products) are absorbed into the body at varying concentrations, and your baby may be exposed to them. Choose products that are as natural as possible, avoid synthetic scents, and dilute products containing 100% pure essential oils in equal parts with unscented varieties.

Aromatherapy may also be helpful to relax and relieve pregnancy discomforts, but only 100% pure essential oils provide benefits and synthetic scents may be harmful. Before using essential oils, always consult your practitioner, and research varieties and usage specific to your stage of motherhood. For example, during pregnancy, avoid essential oils of cedarwood, citronella, marjoram, myrrh, rosemary, rose, clary sage, lemon balm and peppermint. Essential oils are highly concentrated and should never be used directly on skin.

Keep in mind that other products you use around the house can also contain toxic ingredients that you may not want to come in contact with during pregnancy. This includes household cleaning products and air fresheners, lawn and garden products, paints, glues, new carpet and cigarette smoke. To play it safe, many parents choose to reduce exposure to potentially harmful chemicals present in many of these products when the baby’s endocrine system is vulnerable and major organ systems are developing. This can be especially important during the first trimester. But don’t stop there! Why expose your child—or yourself—to these things at any age when there are plenty of safer alternatives?