image Some women may think of pregnancy as their ticket to eat anything they want, indulging any and all cravings and leaving portion control by the wayside. After all, they rationalize, they are “eating for two.” That thinking, however, may not be an ideal way when making food choices during pregnancy. Doctors advise pregnant women of the risks to both mother and child of excess weight gain during pregnancy.

Conversely, inadequate weight gain can also pose potential problems. So, how much weight should pregnant women gain and what nutrition guidelines will help them achieve it?

Guidelines for Weight Gain

Exactly how much weight gain to aim for will vary among women and depends on several factors, including the mother’s prepregnancy weight, height, age, and health status, as well as whether or not the birth will involve twins, triplets, or more. See your doctor to determine the best weight gain goal for your individual situation.

In general, the following guidelines are used:

  • Women beginning pregnancy at a normal weight (defined as body mass index [BMI] of 18.5-24.9) are advised to gain 25-35 pounds during pregnancy.
  • Underweight women (BMI 18.4 or less) are advised to gain 28-40 pounds.
  • Overweight women (BMI 25-29.9) are advised to gain 15-25 pounds.
  • Obese women (BMI 30 and over) are advised to gain 11-20 pounds.

Risks of Too Little or Too Much Weight Gain

Gaining the recommended amount of weight is one of many factors that may help ensure a healthy pregnancy. Gaining too little weight can increase the risk for delivering a low-birth weight baby, who may be at greater risk for developmental and health problems later on. Gaining too much weight can increase the mother’s risk for conditions, such as:

  • Pregnancy-induced hypertension
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Preterm birth
  • Cesarean delivery
  • Long-term obesity in the mother after the pregnancy is over. Gaining too much weight during pregnancy may make it difficult to lose the weight afterward. Women who gain the suggested weight during pregnancy tend to lose most of it once the baby is born and in the months shortly after.

The baby is also at risk for having a high-birth weight.

Maximizing Nutrition Without Maximizing Calories

The approach to healthful eating during pregnancy is twofold: You want to eat for an appropriate weight gain, but you also want to make sure you and your unborn baby get all the nutrients needed. The best way to do that is to make sure your diet is high in healthful, nutrient-dense foods, and low in foods that provide lots of calories but little nutrition (such as cookies, chips, soda, and pastries). Limit foods that contain sugars and solid fats. Examples of items to limit are fried foods, cheese, whole milk, and fatty meats. Also, do not drink alcohol while pregnant.

Registered dietitians recommend using the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid as a guide for eating from each of the food groups every day. The MyPyramid website has helpful dietary guidelines for pregnant or nursing women. The interactive site allows you to get a personalized food plan based on your specific information, helping you to choose from a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, dairy foods, and healthful fats. In addition to your food plan, be sure to take any prenatal supplements your doctor may have prescribed.

Of course, physical activity also plays a role in pregnancy weight gain. Getting regular exercise during pregnancy may help you achieve your recommended weight gain goal, but be sure to check with your doctor before embarking on any exercise program during pregnancy, especially if you have not been exercising regularly before pregnancy.

Pregnancy: No Time for Extreme Diets

Many people wonder if some of today’s popular diets, such as low-carbohydrate diets, are a good way of controlling weight gain during pregnancy. Nutrition experts advise that pregnancy and breastfeeding are not the time to embark on any type of extreme diet, particularly those that restrict entire food groups from the diet. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor before starting any kind of new diet.

A Note About Food Safety

A discussion of healthful eating during pregnancy would be incomplete without a mention of food safety. While it is important to eat a variety of foods and get adequate nutrients, it is also important to avoid certain foods that could pose a risk to you or to your unborn baby.

Here are some of the foodborne illnesses that pose a particular risk to pregnant women:

  • ListeriaListeria poisoning during pregnancy may increase the risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects. Foods that may be contaminated include unpasteurized milk, deli meats, hot dogs, and soft cheeses (such as feta, Brie, and blue cheeses).
  • Mercury and PCB contamination—Some types of fish, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, may have higher levels of chemical pollutants that can be harmful to unborn babies and small children. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to avoid these types of fish.
  • E. Coli 0157:H7—This bacterium may be found in raw and undercooked meat and unpasteurized milk. Be sure to cook all meats to appropriate temperatures and avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards for raw and cooked foods.