March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
A mother's food and nutrition choices before and during pregnancy can greatly contribute to the future health of her children. Women living a healthy lifestyle deliver children with fewer birth defects and chronic health problems. So what makes a lifestyle "healthy?" For pregnant women, key habits include eating a variety of foods, ensuring adequate intake of vitamins and minerals, gaining an appropriate amount of weight, participating in regular physical activity and avoiding harmful substances.
Once the baby has arrived, it is important that newborns receive optimal nutrition from the beginning. Studies have shown that breast-feeding provides many advantages to both baby and mother — in terms of health benefits and financial savings. In addition to eating right from birth, developing physical activity habits at an early age is also important. Active young children are better prepared for life than those who spend childhood sedentary in front of a television or video game screen.
Eating Right during Pregnancy
Moms-to-be need a variety of foods from all the MyPlate food groups to get the nutrition needed for a healthy pregnancy. Pregnant women need a balanced diet including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, low-fat dairy and healthful fats. A prenatal multivitamin/mineral supplement may be recommended by your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist to ensure that you get enough iron, folic acid and other nutrients. Safe food practices are important, too, since pregnant women are at higher risk of food poisoning.
Healthy Weight Gain during Pregnancy
While pregnancy is not the time to lose weight, women should not use their expanding bellies as an excuse to eat more than is necessary. The amount of food a woman needs during pregnancy depends on a number of things including body mass index (BMI) before pregnancy, the rate at which she gains weight, age and appetite.
Many women start off pregnancy overweight or obese; many gain more weight than is healthy during their pregnancy. Research shows the risk of problems during pregnancy and delivery is lowest when weight gain is kept within a healthy range. Obesity during pregnancy is risky for both mother and child.
For optimal nutrition for your infant, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends exclusively breast-feeding for the first six months to provide optimal nutrition and health protection, and continuing breast-feeding with the addition of complementary foods from 6 months until at least 12 months of age.
In addition to providing the best nutrition, breast-feeding reduces your baby's risk of ear infections, respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal infections and possibly sudden infant death syndrome and obesity. Breast-feeding also provides mom with benefits including aiding in weight loss after delivery and reducing risk of breast and ovarian cancers.