Ask the Author: Nutrition for Expectant Parents

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Bridget Swinney, author of "Eating Expectantly" (Meadowbrook Press), talks about the importance of diet, nutrition, and exercise for the expectant parents.

Q: What advice can you give to someone who's concerned about gaining weight during pregnancy?

Swinney: The first thing is don't let the fact that you need to eat more go to your head!! The extra calories needed in the first trimester are only about 100 a day. That's equivalent to an 8 oz. glass of 1% milk! Many women gain a lot of weight in the first trimester, simply because they think they need to eat much more. It is best to instead focus on eating a nutrient dense diet - lots of fruits and vegetables, at least 3 cups of milk a day, whole grains and lean protein foods.

In the last 2 trimesters, you should strive to gain about a pound a week, if your weight was "normal" before you got pregnant. (If you were underweight, you should gain more; less if you were overweight). This translates into an extra 300 calories per day, equal to the calories in a ham and cheese sandwich. The need for many nutrients increases by 50% or more, making it important to choose your foods wisely. Eating a variety of foods is important. Go easy on the extra foods like sweets and fried foods. Also, watch out for the calories from drinks. Juice drinks, flavored teas, sodas and even 100% juice can really pack on the pounds if you drink them often. Eating regular meals and snacks will prevent you from getting really hungry - and thus eating too much.

Q: What kind of exercise is safe when you're pregnant?

Swinney: If you were following a regular exercise program before you were pregnant, it is probably safe to continue doing it. However, as you get farther along in your pregnancy, many exercises are not recommended for obvious reasons: skiing, rollerblading, etc. The exercises most often recommended by doctors are swimming, water aerobics and walking. Aerobics just for pregnant women are also recommended. The things you want to watch out for are getting overheated, increasing your heart rate too much, overstretching muscles and falling. Talk to your doctor about specific recommendations he may have for you and always check with your health care provider before starting an exercise program.

Q: If you follow a vegetarian diet and want to continue this during pregnancy, what nutrition advice should you follow?

Swinney: A vegetarian diet can be extremely healthy, if it is planned right. If you are vegan (eat no animal products) you will need a supplemental source of vitamin B12 and possibly vitamin D, if you are not exposed to adequate sunlight. You may also need a calcium supplement, since it may be difficult to get enough calcium if you don't eat dairy products. Other nutrients that all vegetarians may have a problem with is iron, vitamin B6 and zinc.

To meet your protein needs, you should have a variety of protein foods throughout the day, such as beans and legumes, nuts and grains. There are many convenient soy foods on the market now like veggie burgers and soy dogs, that make it easier to eat a vegetarian diet.

Q: What nutrition tips should you remember when eating out?

Swinney: There are several challenges to eating out. The food tends to have a lot of fat, normally there are not many vegetables or fruits served, and the portion sizes are large, which encourage overeating. But you can still have a healthy meal! Eat a fruit before you go so you are not starving when you do eat. (Extreme hunger often leads to nausea or overeating!) Choose appetizer or lunch-sized portions. Try to have a green or fruit salad in place of French fries. Don't think you have to finish everything on your plate - overeating aggravates heartburn. Instead, ask for a to-go container and have the rest for lunch the next day. Eat slowly and enjoy your food!

If you eat out more than twice a week, you need to make sure you are eating healthy foods in between to make up for it!

Q: How does a man's diet affect fertility?

Swinney: Researchers are just beginning to learn that a man's diet, as well as environmental exposure to chemicals can affect fertility and the risk of birth defects. Extra vitamin C has been shown to improve male fertility, as well as reduce the risk of DNA damage to the sperm. It is thought that DNA damage translates to a higher risk of birth defects. One cycle of sperm production takes 10 weeks, so it is best for men to improve their diet and perhaps even take a multivitamin supplement 3 months before you try to conceive.

Chemicals that men (and women) are exposed to can cause miscarriage and birth defects. Radiation, lead, solvents, paints, anesthetic gases, glues, heavy metals and other chemicals should be avoided. Ask your employer for Material Data Safety Sheets for any hazardous material used in the workplace. You can check the sheets for reproductive hazards. For more information, visit the Web site of the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health at www.cdc.gov/niosh.
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