Every woman wants to have a healthy pregnancy, but being obese puts moms and their babies at an increased risk for a host of complications including gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and miscarriage, not to mention that it can make labor and delivery difficult and affect their babies throughout their lives.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 45 percent of women start their pregnancies overweight or obese. What’s more, a study in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that more than 47 percent of women gain too much weight during pregnancy.
Although it’s ideal to have a healthy weight before you get pregnant, experts say that even if you’re overweight when you conceive, with some simple strategies you can still have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.
1. Talk to your doctor.
Vitamin D and folate are two nutrients that are important for a healthy pregnancy. But being obese can increase the risk of having a vitamin D deficiency, and some research shows that women may also need more folate during pregnancy, said Torey Armul, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Columbus, Ohio and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Although the current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) in the United States does not call for an increase, it’s a good idea to have your physician test your levels and prescribe a supplement if she thinks it’s necessary.
2. Don’t diet.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends women who are overweight (BMI between 25 and 29.9) should gain between 15 and 25 pounds and those who are obese (BMI of 30 or more) gain between 11 and 20 pounds.
Nevertheless, now is not the time to start dieting, said Dr. Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author of “What to Eat When You’re Pregnant.” So instead of obsessing over the number on the scale, focus on what you can do now to have a healthy pregnancy.
3. See a nutritionist.
Although your doctor may provide general recommendations for diet and exercise, working with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) who specializes in prenatal nutrition can give you specific recommendations that work for you to help control your weight, support your pregnancy and maintain a healthy weight after giving birth.
4. Eat extra calories.
During the first trimester your baby doesn’t need any extra calories to grow. During the second and third trimesters, however, you should add between 250 and 450 calories extra calories a day if you’re overweight and between 200 and 370 calories if you’re obese.
One caveat: If you gained weight during your first trimester, your extra calories should be reduced.
5. Make healthy choices.
Although you’ll want to make sure you’re getting those extra calories, they should come from healthy foods— plenty of vegetables and fruit, lean protein, healthy fats and whole grains. These foods can also help control your appetite, keep cravings in check and make it less likely you’ll reach for junk food.
6. Try tracking.
Although you don’t want to scrutinize every calorie you eat, using an app or a journal to track your meals can help you stay mindful of how much you’re eating. But listen to your body. Hormonal fluctuations, cravings and fatigue can affect your appetite too, so never let yourself get too hungry or try to restrict yourself.
7. Have treats.
Just because you’re overweight doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy an occasional dessert. But make sure not to go overboard.
“I always tell my clients don’t let pregnancy become an excuse to eat junk food because it’s an excuse you can have for 10 months out of the year and that can lead to a lot of weight gain,” Armul said.
8. Drink up.
There’s no need to eat for two but you certainly should be drinking for two. Although water is preferable, diet soda, flavored water or seltzer are ok too, Armul said. Just keep tabs on the caffeine, which can add up quickly.
9. Move more
Although you might be exhausted or nauseous, exercise can help keep weight gain at bay, make labor and delivery easier and prevent complications.
“Pregnancy is certainly not the time to get in shape and make huge health gains but activity is crucial,” Armul said.
When deciding on an exercise plan, take into account what your activity level was before pregnancy especially “because we know that people who are overweight can be fit,” she added.
Yet if you haven’t exercised in months or longer, get cleared by your physician first. And always start small with a 5- or 10-minute walk or a prenatal yoga class, for example, and build up as you feel ready.
10. Have a plan after pregnancy.
After your baby is born, you’ll not only be exhausted but you’ll have less time to plan meals, find recipes and cook. So use this time to stock your freezer with healthy meals, sign up for a regular grocery or meal delivery service or ask guests to bring healthy meals. Also plan for how you’ll fit in exercise, whether it’s taking your baby for walks throughout the day, a gym membership or signing up for a postpartum fitness program. Although it will be challenging to stick with your healthy lifestyle, you deserve to be healthy for yourself and your baby.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.