Calorie Confusion: How Much Is Needed During Pregnancy?

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Calories are the core to basic nutrition and health, and pregnancy is no exception. Calories give us the energy we need to be fully functioning human beings (though most days, I also need coffee). But what about during pregnancy? How do calories play a role in the growth and development of your baby? If you have heard some conflicting calorie information centered on pregnancy then this article is for you. Not pregnant? No worries, this article contains some general and (helpful!) information about our body’s main source of energy: the calorie.

Why are calories so important and where do they come from?

Everything we do, from walking to sleeping to supporting the development of a new baby requires energy. We derive energy from the foods and beverages we eat, which contain nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Energy from these nutrients is measured in calories. Foods and beverages contain different amounts of calories because they contain different amounts and profiles of these nutrients.

How many calories are in certain foods and how much do I need?

Carbohydrates and proteins provide four calories in each gram, while fat provides nine calories per gram. Alcohol, though not considered a necessary nutrient and not recommended during pregnancy, also provides about seven calories per gram. Each person has unique calorie needs that depend on a number of factors, including height, weight, age, gender and activity level. When we consume too many calories, the excess calories are stored as body fat. This can contribute to weight gain and ultimately, a variety of health issues.

Do I need to eat more calories during pregnancy?

It is probably not a surprise that your calorie needs increase during pregnancy. But “eating for two” only requires an additional 340 calories during the second trimester and 500 calories in the third trimester. The first trimester does not require any extra calories. An important caveat is that if you are carrying more than one baby, your calorie needs are higher. Discuss what and how much to eat with your health care provider. Eating more calories will lead to weight gain, which will allow for your baby to grow and develop.

How much weight gain can I expect during my pregnancy?

Weight gain goals are based on pre-pregnancy weight, height, age, and usual eating patterns. Every woman and every pregnancy is unique. Your healthcare provider can help you gain weight at a healthy rate throughout pregnancy.

A weight gain of 25 to 35 pounds is normal for women with a body mass index, or BMI, of 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2 (“normal weight”). Women who are below healthy weight when they conceive (BMI < 18.5 kg/m2) should aim to gain about 28 to 40 pounds.  Women with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 kg/m2 (“overweight”) should gain no more than 15 to 25 pounds. Women with a BMI over 30 kg/m2 (“obese”) should gain no more than 11 to 20 pounds. If you are in this category, a health care provider or registered dietitian can help you meet these recommendations in a healthy way. Aim to meet your calorie and nutrient needs, while maintaining regular physical activity. Weight loss during pregnancy is not advised. Also, if you are carrying more than one baby, weight gain recommendations increase, so work closely with your healthcare provider to ensure proper weight gain.

Are there patterns to weight gain during pregnancy?

Patterns of weight gain during pregnancy are as important as total weight gain. Weight maintenance or slight weight losses are normal during the first trimester (or first 13 weeks) of pregnancy. But most women should expect to gain about four to five pounds during the first trimester. Listen to your body’s signals and stop eating when you feel full to help you avoid the misconception that you are “eating for two.”

Women with healthy pre-pregnancy weights should gain about one pound a week during the second and third trimesters. Women who are underweight before conception should gain a little more than one pound per week. Those who were initially overweight should gain at a slower rate (a little more than a half a pound per week).

What foods should I chose to increase my calorie intake and weight during pregnancy?

Choose foods and beverages that are “nutrient-dense.” This means that they are good sources of the building blocks your body needs. Nutrient-dense foods are full of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Eat variety of foods from all five food groups. These include grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and meat and beans. This will ensure that you and your growing baby are getting the nutrients you both need. It is also important to note that these principles also apply if you are not pregnant but are looking to increase your calorie intake.

Good nutrition is at the center for overall health, with calories playing a core role in overall health outcomes. While your calorie needs increase during pregnancy, the general principles of good nutrition, such as variety, balance, and moderation still apply during these 9 months and will help support overall health of both you and your baby.

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