Dieting During Pregnancy – The Do’s and Don’ts

Dieting during pregnancy takes many forms but generally centers around low calorie and low fat intake with the goal of minimizing weight gain during pregnancy. Despite the claims of health gurus and fitness experts advocating dieting during pregnancy, dieting should NOT be undertaken in pregnancy except in certain situations. Attempting to maintain one’s figure by minimizing the weight gain during pregnancy is a dangerous practice that can have a life long impact on the child. Although often passed off as an old wive’s tale, the age old adage that a pregnant women is ‘eating for two’ is actually quite correct. This does not mean that a pregnant woman has to eat for two adults but it does mean that the food intake is significantly increased and well beyond the pre-pregnancy eating habits.

Should a pregnant woman diet during pregnancy?

Pregnant women should not diet to minimize weight gain during pregnancy unless the degree of weight gain is significantly high. After years of creating awareness about the dangers of cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy, the focus is now on educating pregnant women about the benefits of breastfeeding and risks of dieting during pregnancy. Both growing practices share a common root – the desire to maintain a pre-pregnancy shape or avoid weight gain. Many women are aware that the price for this is the health and development of their child but are willing to undertake these practices. For others, it is a combination of ignorance and being misinformed by supposed experts in the field.

What are the effects of dieting during pregnancy

The effects of dieting depends on the type of dietary change. Calorie-restricted diets are by far the most common and can lead to a host of deficiencies in the mother that may also affect development of the fetus. Depending on the extent of the dietary change, a pregnant woman may experience severe fatigue, sleepiness, fluid retention which can cause swelling of the limbs and abdomen, shortness of breath and pallor (paleness) associated with iron-deficiency anemia. These are just some of the effects of dieting during pregnancy. For the fetus, the impact is more severe and can contribute to low birth weight and neural tube defects with studies suggesting that there may be long term effects associated with cardiovascular disease and complications in early childhood development.

When is dieting acceptable in pregnancy?

It is important to differentiate between dieting for weight loss and healthy eating for the benefit of both the mother and child. Overeating during pregnancy and only consuming certain foods within limited food groups can be equally detrimental to the fetus. Weight gain during pregnancy is inevitable and essential for normal fetal development. However, it should be limited according to the body mass index (BMI) of the mother prior to pregnancy as outlined in this article on pregnancy weight gain. Both exercise and moderate control of calorie intake may be necessary to avoid the complications of excessive weight gain in pregnancy, both to the mother and child.

Pregnant women who are diabetics and women who develop gestational diabetes are advised to follow an appropriate eating plan as approved by the supervising physician and a dietitian. This is largely a low glycemic index (GI) diet although the calories may not be significantly restricted. Women with severe hypertension associated with fluid retention and in cases of pre-eclampsia, a low salt eating plan may also be advised. The alterations in eating habits and meal plans should not confused with dieting during pregnancy to prevent weight gain.

The fear of gaining excessive weight during pregnancy is not entirely unfounded. However, dietary modification should only be contemplated once the weight gain is approaching unacceptable levels and only with the approval of a medical doctor and supervision of a registered dietitian. Exercise that is appropriate for different stages of pregnancy may be a better option for minimizing excessive weight gain during pregnancy.

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