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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 your weight compared with your height and what you eat can play an important role in your health during pregnancy and the health of your developing baby.

Pre-pregnancy weight

Your pre-pregnancy weight directly influences your baby's birth weight. 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 problems in pregnancy such as gestational diabetes or high blood pressure. Talk with your healthcare provider about whether you need to lose or gain weight before becoming pregnant.

Pre-pregnancy nutrition

Many women don't 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 after the first trimester to meet the needs of her body and her developing baby. But those calories, as well as her entire diet, need to be healthy, balanced, and nutritious.

The MyPlate icon is a guideline to help you eat a healthy diet by encouraging a variety of foods while getting the right number of calories and fat. The USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have prepared this food plate to help you select a variety of healthy foods. MyPlate is available for pregnant and breastfeeding women.

The MyPlate icon is divided into 5 food group categories:

  • Grains. Foods that are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain are grain products. Make at least half of your grains whole grains. Examples of whole grains include whole-wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal.

  • Vegetables. Vary your vegetables. Choose a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (dry beans and peas), and starchy vegetables. Healthier options include buying fresh, canned (low-sodium or no-salt-added versions), or plain frozen (without added sauces or seasonings) vegetables.

  • Fruits. Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned (packed in 100% juice or water), 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. Use fat-free or low-fat dairy products that are high in calcium.

  • Protein. Go lean with 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, fish, olives, and avocados, contain key nutrients and should be included in the diet in moderation. Others, such as saturated fats, are solid at room temperature and should be avoided.

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

To find more information about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025  and to find the recommendations for your age, sex, and physical activity level, visit MyPlate.gov and Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Please note that the MyPlate Plan is designed for people over age 1 who don't have chronic health conditions.

MyPlate graphic showing healthy balance of foods.

In addition to the MyPlate food groups, include the following nutrients in your pre-conception diet and continue into pregnancy:

Folic acid

All women of childbearing age need 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid each day. Pregnant women need 600 mcg of folic acid daily. Folic acid is a nutrient found in some green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, citrus fruits, fortified breakfast cereals, and some vitamin supplements. It 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 don't fuse together properly, causing the spinal cord to be exposed. This can lead to varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence, and, sometimes, intellectual disability.

Folic acid is most beneficial during the first 28 days after conception, when most neural tube defects occur. Unfortunately, many women don't realize they are pregnant before 28 days. This is why it's important to start folic acid before conception and continue through pregnancy. Your healthcare provider will recommend the right amount of folic acid to meet your needs.

Most healthcare providers will prescribe a prenatal supplement before conception, or shortly afterward, to ensure all of your nutritional needs are met. However, a prenatal supplement doesn't replace a healthy diet.

Iron

Many women have low iron stores as a result of monthly menstruation and diets low in iron. Women over age 18 need 18 milligrams (mg) of iron daily. Iron needs increase during pregnancy. Building iron stores helps prepare a mother's body for the needs of the developing baby 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 healthcare 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

  • Whole-grain breads and 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 developing baby may draw calcium from the mother's bones. This can put women at risk for osteoporosis later in life. The recommended calcium intake for women over the age of 18 is 1,000 mg daily. For women 18 years of age and younger, the recommended daily calcium intake is 1,300 mg. Three servings of milk or other dairy products each day equal about 1,000 mg of calcium.

Always talk with your healthcare provider about your individualized diet and exercise needs.

Online Medical Reviewer: Brittany Poulson MDA RDN CD CDE
Online Medical Reviewer: Diane Horowitz MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Heather M Trevino BSN RNC
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2021
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.