Proper nutrition during pregnancy can make a big difference: It can build a stronger baby brain and skeleton, prevent birth defects, and set the baby up for a healthier weight later in life. The right diet can also help the mom-to-be prevent pregnancy problems like constipation or hemorrhoids, and help maintain her own store of nutrients, preventing issues like anemia or bone loss.
Build that baby brain. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat needed to build a proper, well-functioning brain. To add these to your diet, choose fatty fish such as canned light tuna or salmon twice a week, and munch on walnuts as a mid-day snack.
Boost the baby's IQ. While omega-3 fatty acids are also linked to the baby's development of intelligence, another nutrient needed for brain power is choline. Babies who don't get enough choline during pregnancy may be set up for permanent problems with brain structure, possibly leading to a lower IQ and emotional problems later on. Eggs are a great source of choline, as well as chicken and turkey. Vegetarian moms can get choline from collard greens and cauliflower.
Protect mom (and baby) from anemia. Pregnancy takes a tremendous toll on a woman's iron reserves, especially in the third trimester, when her body delivers a surge of iron to the baby. Iron-deficiency anemia can be very common in young women and children, leading to extreme fatigue, behavioral issues, and learning problems. Lean red meat is one of the richest sources of iron, but iron can also be found in green leafy vegetables like spinach, as well as many breakfast cereals.
Make strong baby bones. Building an entire skeletal system from scratch requires a lot of calcium, and if a woman does not consume enough of this important mineral, her body will simply rob her own bones to give some to the baby. Low-fat dairy foods, such as skim milk or low-fat yogurt, are the best food sources of calcium, but moms can also grab some calcium-fortified soy milk or almonds to get a healthy dose of calcium.
Prevent birth defects. When certain nutrients are not provided during pregnancy, permanent damage can occur in the form of birth defects. One of the more problematic nutrients to get enough of is folic acid; low intake is linked to birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, called neural tube defects. Try lentils, which are a folic acid powerhouse—they provide almost 50 percent of a woman's daily need in just half a cup. Other great sources include oranges and asparagus.
Ease pregnancy constipation. Food takes longer to travel through a pregnant woman's system, and the hormones released during pregnancy cause the muscles involved in the intestinal tract to relax, leading to a very common pregnancy related problem: constipation. In turn, the straining from constipation can cause hemorrhoids. Preventing constipation in the first place is key, and to do this, women need high-fiber foods and plenty of water. Some of the best options include raspberries, oatmeal, and black beans.
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.