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Nutrition Before Pregnancy

Becoming healthy before becoming pregnant

Pre-conception nutrition is a vital part of preparing for pregnancy. Factors such as a woman's weight compared with 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.

Pre-pregnancy weight

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 health care provider about whether you need to lose or gain weight before becoming pregnant.

Choose My Plate icon

Pre-pregnancy nutrition

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 daily 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 Choose My Plate icon is a guideline to help you eat a healthy diet. My Plate 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 plate to guide you in selecting foods.

The My Plate icon is divided into five food group categories, emphasizing the nutritional intake of the following:

  • Grains. Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain are grain products. Examples include whole wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal.

  • Vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (peas and beans), and starchy vegetables.

  • 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.

  • Dairy. Milk products and many foods made from milk are considered part of this food group. Focus on fat-free or low-fat products, as well as those that are high in calcium.

  • Protein. Go lean on protein. Choose low-fat or lean meats and poultry. Vary your protein routine by choosing more fish, nuts, seeds, peas, and beans.

Oils are not a food group, yet some, such as nut oils, contain essential nutrients and can be included in the diet. Others, such as animal fats, are solid and should be avoided.

Exercise and everyday physical activity should also be included with a healthy dietary plan. 

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 ChooseMyPlate.gov and 2010 Dietary Guidelines sites. Please note that the My Plate plan is designed for people over the age of 2 who do not have chronic health conditions.

In addition to the My Plate 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. This 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 health care provider will recommend the appropriate amount of folic acid to meet your individual needs.

    Most health care providers 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.

  • Iron. 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 such as beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats.

    • Poultry such as chicken, duck, and turkey (especially dark meat).

    • Fish and shellfish including sardines, anchovies, clams, mussels, and oysters. Check with your health care provider before consuming other types of fish as some may contain high levels of mercury.

    • 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 and black-eyed peas, and canned baked beans.

    • Yeast-leavened whole-wheat bread and rolls.

    • Iron-enriched white bread, pasta, rice, and cereals.

  • Calcium. 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 health care provider regarding your healthy diet and exercise needs.

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