Confused about your diet during pregnancy? Here’s what your dietitian thinks

How visiting a dietitian can help you separate nutritional facts from mommy blog myths

Most women can probably agree that during those nine long months of pregnancy, your diet is one of your biggest concerns – and we’re not just talking about cravings.

Pregnancy is a beautiful but undeniably challenging time. With all the stress that comes with pregnancy, it can be exhausting to navigate the ins and outs of maintaining a healthy diet. There are endless articles, studies and blogs floating around the internet, bursting with conflicting opinions and advice. This information overload can be overwhelming, especially for a first-time expectant mother.

Many women benefit from consulting a Registered Dietitian throughout their pregnancy. Not to be confused with a nutritionist, a dietitian is a regulated healthcare professional that is licensed and qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat nutritional problems, medical conditions, and eating disorders. Armed with your medical history, including allergies and sensitivities, your family history and even your food preferences, they will help you come up with a plan that suits your needs – and your baby’s!

Most importantly, your dietitian will help you separate nutritional facts from myths. Many of the most common “facts” you will come across online are typically not true and, when it comes to a healthy pregnancy diet, following the wrong advice can have serious implications.

Portion control is essential

Contrary to popular belief, pregnant women aren’t actually “eating for two.” The difference in portion size between a pregnant woman and a non-pregnant woman is relatively small.

An expectant mother should only eat an additional 300 to 340 calories per day during her second trimester and an extra 400 to 450 calories during her third. Typically, no additional calories are required during the first trimester unless the expectant mother has an extremely low pre-pregnancy body mass index (BMI). Please note that these numbers are ideal for single-child pregnancies only; they do not apply to twins or triplets.

If your BMI is too low – 18.5 or lower – during the early stages of your pregnancy, your dietitian will keep you informed and adjust your diet plan accordingly. Likewise, if you have a high pre-pregnancy BMI – 25.0 or higher – your dietitian may recommend smaller portions to meet weight gain recommendations.

Avoid gaining (or losing!) too much weight

You should ask your dietitian for their professional recommendation concerning weight gain as early in the pregnancy as possible.

Every pregnancy is as unique as the patient in question, so there is no “one size fits all” answer to how much weight a woman should gain during pregnancy. Your dietitian will follow established Health Canada guidelines to make an accurate assessment based on your BMI. Generally, the recommended weekly weight gain is between 0.5lbs and 1lbs.

It is extremely rare that a dietitian will recommend losing weight during pregnancy. Weight loss can actually increase your chances of delivering a small-for-gestational-age infant. If you are losing weight unintentionally, your dietitian may recommend that you consult your OB-GYN.

Continue to exercise regularly

Maintaining a regular exercise regimen throughout your pregnancy is important. Exercise improves your posture and eases common pregnancy symptoms like back pain and fatigue. There is evidence that physical activity may prevent gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops during pregnancy) and even help your body build the stamina required for labor and delivery. For a healthy pregnancy, you should be getting around 30 minutes of exercise a day.

If you were physically active before your pregnancy, you should be able to continue your activity in moderation. If you have never exercised regularly before, you can safely begin a gentle exercise program during pregnancy. A brisk walk is a great place to start. Take it easy and don’t overexert yourself. Instead of more rigorous activities, try some low-impact aerobics or prenatal yoga. If you’re a competitive athlete, you should ensure that you are closely monitored by your OB-GYN throughout your pregnancy.

Know where to get the extra vitamins you need

Pregnancy is a period of intense and rapid changes for your body. Not only are the fetus and placenta constantly growing and developing, but your maternal tissues are also changing in preparation for birth. These include your uterus, breasts, blood, extravascular fluids and maternal fat stores. During this time, you will need extra vitamins to ensure your baby’s normal development in utero and to keep you in top shape throughout your pregnancy.

Be diligent with your prenatal vitamins. These should include a daily regulated multivitamin that contains Folic Acid, Iron, and Vitamin A. If you aren’t pregnant yet but are thinking about conceiving, start taking one now. To ensure that your supplement is government regulated, look for an NPN or NHP number on the label. Consider also taking a daily Omega 3 fish oil supplement if you do not eat low mercury oily fish at least twice a week.

That being said, it’s important to avoid random, isolated vitamins and minerals during pregnancy unless your doctor has recommended it. These include Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Vitamin B’s, Iron, and Vitamin C. The toxic levels of vitamins and minerals in these supplements can cause harm to you and your baby.

Instead, add these to your diet naturally by eating plenty of vitamin-rich foods like legumes (lentils, peas, beans, chickpeas, soybeans and peanuts), sweet potatoes, dark, leafy greens and lean meat. These foods are also excellent sources of other essential minerals like protein, calcium and fibre.

Drink lots of water

As a mom-to-be, it’s essential to be extra sure that you’re well-hydrated throughout your pregnancy. Water helps your body absorb essential nutrients into the cells and ship all those crucial vitamins, minerals and hormones to your blood cells and eventually right to your baby through the placenta.

You’ll need more water than usual, though the recommended amount varies from person to person. The general recommendation is somewhere between eight and ten eight-ounce glasses of water a day. Before making any decisions, talk to your dietitian about what would work best for your situation specifically.

Try to take small, frequent sips throughout the day rather than gulping a large amount of water at once. Be sure to sip before, during and after a workout, or if you’re out on a hot day. If you feel thirsty, it’s a sign that your body is already on its way to being dehydrated. Filling a water bottle or two every morning and keeping it handy helps take the hassle out of hydration.

Snack smart and find alternatives

Some of the most common nutritional questions asked by pregnant women concern specific foods that are safe to eat – or not. Expecting mothers must pay close attention to avoid harmful foods and beverages. Certain foods should be avoided completely, while others can be consumed only rarely, or in moderation.

Some foods like undercooked meat, poultry, fish, eggs and unpasteurized dairy products like soft cheeses can put you at risk of contracting bacterial infections like salmonella, Listeria or E. coli. These risks exist for everyone, but the risk is especially high for expectant mothers.

Certain infections only affect the mother – which can still cause birth complications – while others can travel rapidly to the fetus, causing severe neurological illnesses like intellectual disability, blindness and epilepsy, or even stillbirth.

Foods/beverages to avoid:

  • Raw or undercooked meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs (sushi/sashimi, hollandaise sauce, homemade icing and mayonnaise, etc.)
  • Fish that’s high in mercury (shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tuna, etc.)
  • Unpasteurized dairy products, uncooked soft cheeses (brie, camembert, chèvre, danish blue, gorgonzola, roquefort etc.)
  • Alcohol (can cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and birth complications)
  • Sweeteners containing aspartame
  • Energy drinks (contain high levels of caffeine and other unsafe ingredients)

Safe foods/beverages to consume:

  • Some herbal teas (avoid green tea, chamomile, parsley and sage)
  • Low-mercury, cooked, fatty fish (salmon, cod, haddock, sole, sardines)
  • Some coffee, in moderation (check with your physician!)
  • Soy-based foods (tofu, soybeans, soymilk, miso, etc.)

The takeaway

Whether you’ve just recently discovered the news or you’re seeking last-minute nutritional advice to prep for the big day, your dietitian will be there to help every step of the way. With a whole world of conflicting information available at your fingertips, it is beneficial to have someone who knows you and your pregnancy well enough to provide reliable, professional advice.

The most important thing to remember when booking an appointment is to keep the lines of communication wide open. During pregnancy, your body is undergoing rapid changes. It makes sense that your goals and expectations could also change along the way. If you have questions about your diet, no matter how small, ask them. It’s better to be safe than sorry. From there, your dietitian will help you design a customized diet plan that will best suit your needs. If you’re looking for a dietitian in Ottawa, look no further than Elysian Wellness. Contact us today to speak with a registered dietitian!

Sara Awija, Registered Dietitian

Sara Awija (BSc, RD), is a locally renowned and award-winning registered dietitian. She received her Bachelors of Science degree in food science and human dietetics from McGill University, and is frequently sought as a corporate speaker on nutrition and wellness, including for the Government of Canada.

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