Maternal Nutrition: Fueling Your Body for a Healthy Pregnancy and Beyond

by | Sep 15, 2023 | Wellness

According to UNICEF’s Pakistan Maternal Nutrition Strategy 2022-27, children of malnourished women are more likely to face cognitive impairments, short stature, lower resistance to infections, and a higher risk of disease and death throughout their lives, as well as physical disabilities leading to dire economic consequences. While well-nourished women have safer pregnancies and deliver healthier babies.[1]

Many people are still unsure about maternal nutrition because a lot of expectant mothers aren’t familiar with the basics. They might only know that during pregnancy, they should avoid too much caffeine, alcohol, and excessive shellfish. To help provide clear guidance on important nutrients, planning meals, and making healthy food choices for a smooth pregnancy journey, here are some ways you can ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy through good nutrition.

The Foundation of Maternal Nutrition

Proper nutrition during pregnancy lays the foundation for a healthy pregnancy, birth, and postpartum recovery. The body undergoes numerous physiological changes, and these changes require additional nutrients to support the growth and development of the baby. The importance of maternal nutrition cannot be overstated, as it directly impacts the well-being of both the mother and the child.

Key Nutrients for a Healthy Pregnancy

To maintain a healthy pregnancy, approximately 300 extra calories are needed each day. These calories should come from a balanced diet of protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Sweets and fats should be kept to a minimum.[2] 

A balanced and nutrient-rich diet is essential during pregnancy. Here are some key nutrients that should be incorporated into an expectant mother’s diet:

Folic Acid: Folic acid can help reduce the risk of neural tube defects, which are birth defects of the brain and spinal cord. Neural tube defects can lead to varying degrees of paralysis, incontinence, and sometimes intellectual disability. Folic acid is the most helpful during the first 28 days after conception when most neural tube defects occur.[3] This B-vitamin is crucial for fetal neural tube development and reduces the risk of birth defects. Leafy greens, lentils, citrus fruits, and fortified grains are excellent sources.

Iron: During pregnancy, more iron is needed primarily to supply the growing fetus and placenta and to increase the maternal red cell mass. Iron deficiency is common among pregnant women in industrialized countries, as shown by numerous studies in which hemoglobin concentrations during the last half of pregnancy were found to be higher in iron-supplemented women than in those given a placebo or no supplement. This higher hemoglobin concentration as a result of an improved iron supply not only increases the oxygen-carrying capacity but also provides a buffer against the blood loss that will occur during delivery.[4]  Iron is essential for preventing anemia in both the mother and the baby. Red meat, poultry, beans, and fortified cereals are iron-rich foods that should be included.

Calcium: A dietary intake of 1200 mg/day of calcium for pregnant women is recommended by WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Inadequate consumption of this nutrient by pregnant women can lead to adverse effects in both the mother and the fetus, including osteopenia, tremor, paraesthesia, muscle cramping, tetanus, delayed fetal growth, low birth weight, and poor fetal mineralization.[5] Supporting the development of the baby’s bones and teeth, calcium is abundant in dairy products, fortified plant-based milk, and leafy greens.

Protein: Adequate protein intake ensures proper growth of the placenta and the baby. Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, and nuts are great sources. Protein should account for 12 percent to 20 percent of your daily calories. Make sure to eat 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight, with a minimum of 40 grams of protein a day. For example, if you weigh 120 pounds, you should eat roughly 44 grams of protein a day. During pregnancy, you should get a minimum of 60 grams of protein a day, which will account for approximately 20 percent to 25 percent of your calorie intake[6]

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These healthy fats support brain and vision development in the baby. Fatty fish like salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are excellent sources. Adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is vitally important during pregnancy as they are critical building blocks of fetal brain and retina. Omega-3 fatty acids may also play a role in determining the length of gestation and in preventing perinatal depression. The most biologically active forms of omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid, which are primarily derived from marine sources such as seafood and algae.[7]

Vitamin D: Essential for bone health and immune function, vitamin D can be obtained from sunlight exposure, fortified dairy or plant-based milk, and fatty fish. Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, which is needed to keep bones, teeth, and muscles healthy. Our bodies make vitamin D when our skin is exposed to summer sunlight (from late March/early April to the end of September).[8]

Meal Planning and Making Healthy Choices

Crafting a balanced meal plan during pregnancy involves a combination of nutrient-dense foods. Opting for a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables provides essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread offer complex carbohydrates for sustained energy.

Lean sources of protein such as poultry, fish, beans, and lentils should be included in every meal. These help in repairing tissues and supporting the growth of the baby. Healthy fats from sources like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil contribute to brain development and overall well-being.

It’s important to avoid empty calories from sugary snacks and beverages. Instead, focus on wholesome snacks like yogurt with berries, carrot sticks with hummus, or a handful of mixed nuts.

Maternal nutrition is a cornerstone of a healthy pregnancy journey. By focusing on key nutrients, planning balanced meals, and making mindful food choices, expectant mothers can provide their bodies with the necessary fuel for both their own well-being and the optimal development of their babies. Additionally, incorporating practices like prenatal yoga can further enhance physical and mental well-being. Remember, each bite you take and each yoga pose you practice is a step toward a healthier and happier pregnancy and beyond.



[2] Nutrition During Pregnancy | Johns Hopkins Medicine


[4] Iron Nutrition During Pregnancy




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