Pregnancy Diet: Ask the Expert

Melinda Johnson, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and a registered dietitian who specializes in maternal nutrition, answers the common questions about pregnancy and diet.

Are there certain foods pregnant women shouldn't eat?

“They should avoid soft cheeses, such as Brie, feta and blue cheese, and deli meats unless they are heated until steaming. These foods can increase the risk for listeriosis—a foodborne illness that can be particularly worrisome for pregnant women.”

What about fish? Is it best to avoid it?

“Absolutely not! Fish is a very healthy food, and one of the few places you can get a nutrient called DHA. DHA is a type of fat (an omega-3 fatty acid) that is crucial for your baby’s brain and nervous system development. However, you do need to know a few rules about eating fish: you can safely eat up to 12 ounces (or four 3-ounce servings) a week of shrimp, salmon, pollock, catfish and canned light tuna. You can also safely eat up to 6 ounces a week of canned albacore tuna. Avoid shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. As for fish caught in your local lakes and streams, contact your local or state health department for guidance on contaminants and safe intake levels.”

I've heard that some women can develop high blood pressure during pregnancy. Are there dietary changes that can help?

“Pre-eclampsia, or high blood pressure that occurs during pregnancy, develops in approximately 6 to 8 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. Maintaining a healthy weight before you become pregnant helps decrease risk for developing pre-eclampsia. Research suggests that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy may also help protect against developing high blood pressure. But there is a strong genetic link to high blood pressure (particularly the kind that develops during pregnancy), so some women develop it despite their best efforts at eating healthfully. Staying current with your prenatal visits can help your physician catch high blood pressure before it becomes a big problem. Your doctor may need to prescribe medication.”

Is it OK to drink coffee?

“Yes, it is considered safe to consume 300 mg or less of caffeine a day, or about three cups of coffee. Keep in mind that a cup is one 8-ounce serving. Most mugs hold at least twice that much. Also remember that colas, chocolate and even some medications may also contain caffeine, so you have to look at your overall diet.”

Nutrition recommendations suggest that pregnant women need more of certain nutrients. Do I need supplements? What kind?

“The best thing to do is follow your doctor’s recommendations. You can usually take one prenatal vitamin (to meet your recommended intakes for folic acid and iron) and be done with it. If you aren’t able to get enough calcium from your food, you will need to take a separate calcium supplement. Also, if a pregnant woman is anemic or borderline anemic due to iron deficiency, she will need to take an additional, separate iron supplement.”

How quickly can you lose the baby weight?

“Your body is designed to lose that weight, as long as you eat an adequate, healthy diet and are patient. It took nine months to put it on, give yourself nine months to take it off, and don’t stress too much about it. It’s not time to crash diet or go on a strict regimen. A lot of women hit the gym too soon and too hard, or they put themselves on a strict diet. But studies show that this is actually a recipe for weight gain, since you tend to regain what you lost, plus more, after you go back to eating like normal. The media adds to this pressure by showing celebrities after they’ve had a baby and critiquing how fast they are losing the baby weight. Also keep in mind that some of that extra padding we put on during pregnancy is nature’s way of storing energy for breastfeeding. You need extra calories if you’re breastfeeding, but you don’t have to worry about consciously eating those calories unless you find yourself losing too much weight.”

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