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March 2006

To eat or not to eat - that is the question

The answer, obviously, is to eat. But for women, especially those who are pregnant or thinking about having a baby, the real questions revolve around what should or should not be on the menu.

One of the biggest myths surrounding pregnancy is that it is a time for a woman to eat what she pleases. After all, she is eating for two, right? True, but studies have shown that only 300 additional daily calories are needed to support a baby's healthy development. Beyond that, extra calories only add to the mother's weight.

Being overweight puts women at greater risk for certain pregnancy related complications such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.

"In North Carolina, more than 40 percent of pregnant women gain more than what's ideal," says Lisa Richardson, nutrition program consultant with the N.C. Division of Public Health. "Overweight and obese women tend to retain the excess weight beyond one year postpartum, thus resulting in 'permanent' weight gain.'

Dieting, however, is ill-advised during pregnancy as it can be hazardous to the mother and her unborn child. Women are instead encouraged to make smarter, healthier choices about what they eat. Conversely, as for the more than 13% of women who are underweight at conception, it is essential they too make sensible decisions to add weight.

While cravings may be inevitable or even unusual (such as ice cream smothered in peanut butter), it is important that pregnant women balance their diet with foods beneficial to fetal growth. This includes meals and snacks packed with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and proteins.

Many essential vitamins and minerals can also be obtained through a well-planned diet, though optimal doses are hard to attain in our fast-paced, fast food environment. Pregnant women can remedy this with prenatal vitamins. Women who could become pregnant are encouraged to take a daily multivitamin with at least 400 micrograms of folic acid, essential in the prevention of many neural tube birth defects.

Equally important as what a pregnant woman should eat, are the foods she should avoid, foods that could harm an unborn child. This includes raw fish and seafood that may contain high levels of mercury such as albacore tuna, swordfish and many game fish including trout and striped bass.

Undercooked meat, soft cheeses, deli meats and unpasteurized milk and milk products are off limits as well. These foods have been known to cause listeriosis, a form of food poisoning. If infected, a pregnant woman could have a miscarriage or deliver prematurely. A newborn could also become seriously and possibly fatally ill as a result of listeriosis.

Though there are many factors which can affect the health of a baby, getting proper nutrition before and during pregnancy is one of the most important. It is one way women can improve their chance of having a healthy baby.

Click here for more information on nutrition and pregnancy.

March is National Nutrition Month. Opens in new window Click here for more information.

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Last updated: March 2006


At a glance
In North Carolina:

  • 39.3% of women are overweight or obese at conception
  • 13.6% of women are underweight at conception
  • 57.8% of women did not take a multivitamin with folic acid prior to conception

2003 NC PRAMS survey

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