Our nutritional needs change throughout our lives, and trying to get pregnant or being pregnant shift those requirements even more. Even during the stages of pregnancy, nutritional requirements evolve as the baby’s due date grows closer and the mom prepares for childbirth. With breastfeeding playing a large role in recommendations, postpartum has its own set of nutritional recommendations as well.
All these changes can be overwhelming and confusing, but they don’t need to be. Read on to see how nutrition changes before, during, and after pregnancy and what expectant mothers (and their partners) can do to set everyone up for success.
Typical Nutritional Requirements
There are three main nutritional building blocks: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. These are called macronutrients. Protein provides the body with essential amino acids and is found in meat, eggs, soybeans, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Carbohydrates provide energy, fuel the body, and are found in wheat, rice, potatoes, and other starches. Fats, or dietary fats, are found in oils and the fat of animals and gives cells their structure. Fats are essential for nutrient absorption as well as for the health of the brain.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals and include iron, calcium, phosphate, vitamin D, B vitamins, and magnesium. These are necessary for critical bodily functions, such as immunity, bone health, and other processes that are essential for keeping your body healthy.
Because everyone is unique and requires different amounts of calories depending on a variety of genetic and lifestyle factors, macronutrient and micronutrient requirements vary.
Fertility and Nutrition
When trying to conceive, there are several things couples can do to influence fertility. Unlike factors out of your control – like age, genetics, and some environmental factors – nutrition is something both partners can influence to improve their respective fertility levels. For those looking to conceive, improving nutrition can make for a smoother transition once the “bun is in the oven.”
The CDC recommends those planning to get pregnant consume around 400 micrograms of folic acid each day because it is the most important nutrient to have when trying to conceive. Folic acid is found in foods like dark, leafy greens, citrus fruits, and whole grains, though it’s recommended women take a prenatal vitamin to correct any deficiency they may have. Folic acid helps prevent some fetal defects, such as neural tube defects like spina bifida, because it’s most effective during the first month of pregnancy when one may not know they’re even pregnant.
Those who are expecting to be expecting can improve their chances of fertility by focusing on maintaining a well-rounded diet, including ample doses of folic acid, vitamins A and C, and calcium. Those trying to conceive should also decrease their intake of some fats, says Sheri Vettel, RDN. “Decreasing consumption of partially hydrogenated oils, or trans-fatty acids, is essential as these fats have been linked to ovulatory infertility.”
Nutrition also plays a big role in male fertility. “For instance,” says Vettel, “adequate vitamin D levels are important for optimal sperm count, while appropriate levels of the minerals iron, copper, and magnesium support healthy sperm motility.” Zinc in particular has long been linked with male fertility. Some studies show zinc deficiency correlates with low testosterone levels, poor sperm quality, and a higher risk of male infertility.
Nutritional Requirements During Pregnancy
Foods to avoid during pregnancy
There are several foods pregnant people should avoid eating, including raw fish and eggs; unwashed produce or raw sprouts; high-mercury fish, like swordfish and tuna; unpasteurized dairy; and highly processed foods. Caffeine should be limited to less than 200 milligrams per day, around one cup of drip coffee or two cups of tea.
Many of the nutritional recommendations that apply while trying to conceive also apply during the first trimester, or roughly the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Besides continuing the guidelines for folic acid intake, it’s important to consume enough calcium, protein, and iron in the first trimester. Protein is key for muscle development and uterine tissue growth; calcium ensures the health of the baby’s teeth and bones (and can prevent osteoporosis for mom later in life) and iron is increasingly important to ensure ample blood supply for mom and baby.
Many pregnant people find morning sickness affects them most severely in the first trimester, so getting enough nutrients can be difficult. This is why prenatal supplements can be so helpful during pregnancy – they help make up for any deficiencies that occur due to morning sickness or other causes, such as chronic conditions unrelated to pregnancy. Of course, always speak to your doctor before starting any new supplements.
The second trimester calls for new nutritional requirements. Most experience some relief from morning sickness and find they have more energy. Weight gain is common in the second trimester, but “eating for two” is a myth. It's advised that those who are pregnant gain around one pound per week during the second and third trimesters.
During this time, an extra 340 calories per day may be all that’s needed. According to Vettel, “This is roughly equivalent to one slice of whole-grain toast topped with half an avocado mashed, a small handful of berries, and a tablespoon of hemp seeds.” Treating yourself occasionally is fine, but focusing on a well-rounded diet with exercise is recommended.
Pregnant people may also experience acid reflux as well as leg cramps, leg swelling, and round ligament pain. Stretching can be an effective way to ease round ligament pain and can make for a great stress reliever, too. Keeping active by going on walks can improve round ligament pain, and staying hydrated can help prevent muscle cramping.
Rapid changes occur during the third trimester of pregnancy as this is the time when the fetus grows the fastest. The baby’s eyes open, their hair begins to grow, and their brain continues to develop. Nutrition is extremely important during this time, both to optimize baby’s development as well as to prepare for childbirth.
“Nutritional needs are increased [during this time] to meet the energy demands of both the fetus and mother,” says Vanessa Clermont, an IIN graduate, registered dietitian, and certified dietitian/nutritionist. “The increased need for energy intake is essential for fetus growth and development.” During the third trimester, mothers need to increase their caloric intake by around 450 calories more than they were consuming in the first trimester, says Clermont.
The toll of pregnancy on the mother’s body is much more pronounced during this time, and most of the weight gain that occurs during a pregnancy typically occurs during the third trimester. Keeping active can help manage weight gain, and it’s recommended that women in their third trimesters are active for at least 30 minutes each day.
Eating a well-rounded diet is important during the third trimester as well. Vitamin C helps make baby’s teeth and bones healthy, vitamin B6 is important for the development of red blood cells and baby’s brain, and choline helps form baby’s brain and spinal cord. In this stage of pregnancy, foods to focus on include:
- Cooked eggs
- Fortified foods, like some breakfast cereals
- Lean red meat
Postpartum Nutritional Requirements
Postpartum – sometimes called the fourth trimester – can be a difficult time for a family, especially new mothers. The pressure from society to get your “pre-baby body” back can be overwhelming and has led to an increase in postpartum depression and anxiety. Focusing on eating foods that fuel your body and encourage healing after childbirth should be a priority for postpartum mothers. Additionally, encouraging emotional and mental health support for mothers and families is key – as the saying goes, it takes a village!
Immediately after birth, mothers should continue to eat as many calories as they did during their third trimester. Focusing on lean proteins, whole grains, fresh produce, and drinking enough water is important during this time. As the weeks progress, lowering caloric intake to lose weight (if that’s what you want!) can begin, but breastfeeding mothers may need additional calories to keep up their milk supply.
Moms who breastfeed typically need more calories per day than moms who do not breastfeed. “Breastfeeding can burn around 500–600 calories per day,” says Vettel. “It’s important for those who are nursing to refuel often with nourishing snacks.” Vettel recommends keeping quick and easy food options on hand, like trail mix made with nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, to keep up energy levels when there isn’t time to prepare a meal. Nursing mothers can also try lactation cookies to help with milk supply. If breastfeeding, moms need to be cognizant of what they’re consuming as nutrients – or lack thereof – are passed on to baby through breast milk.
Nutrition Before, During, and After Pregnancy
There’s no perfect formula for a healthy diet during pregnancy. Everyone has different needs and nutritional requirements depending on their situation before, during, and after pregnancy. Whether you are pregnant, thinking about becoming pregnant, a new parent, or just someone who wants to work on wellness, working with a nutrition or Health Coach to make sure you’re prioritizing a holistic approach to health is a great next step!