Pregnancy is the perfect time to focus on eating healthy. However, experts agree that it’s not the time to try out any eating plans that are restrictive in any way. “Pregnancy is a roller coaster enough without adding restrictive dieting or other ‘rules’ to the mix,” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., Houston-based dietitian and founder of eatrightfitness. “Your body needs carbs, fats, and proteins normally. So, when you’re growing another human inside of you, it’s no time to cut nutrients and food groups out of the diet.” We spoke to experts to help you understand why special diets should not be a part of the pregnancy package. Here’s a closer look at how following restrictive diets during pregnancy can impact you and your growing baby.
How do special diets impact pregnancy?
Certain diets are trending in the health-food space, such as paleo and the ketogenic diet. However, they are not intended—or recommended—for pregnant women. This is especially true for low-carb diets. They’ve been associated with a 30 percent increased risk for neural tube defects in infants according to a recent study done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Fortified grains contain folic acid. And fruits and vegetables, including starchy beans, provide folate. Both forms of the B vitamin are necessary for proper development of the neural tube. [This] becomes the spinal column and brain as the child develops,” explains Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., author of Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy. “If you avoid fortified grains and fruits and vegetables, you risk consuming inadequate folate and folic acid. [This is] something you can’t afford during pregnancy.”
Are there any special diets that a mom-to-be can go on (safely) during pregnancy?
With careful planning and thought, and with a good prenatal vitamin, you can get all of the nutrients you need with a vegetarian or vegan diet during pregnancy, according to Suzanne Munson, M.S., fertility product specialist at Fairhaven Health. Ward agrees, noting that different ways of eating have different effects on you and your developing baby. According to Ward, vegan and vegetarian diets during pregnancy are fine, as long as you meet all of your nutrient needs. This, however, may require you to take some dietary supplements. “Gluten-free diets may be higher in calories than you need and lower in certain nutrients,” she says. “If you have celiac disease, work closely with a registered dietitian during pregnancy.”
Which special diets during pregnancy should I absolutely avoid?
As a rule of thumb, you should avoid any diet that involves calorie restriction. Or any diet with an emphasis on cutting back on a vital food group for the purpose of weight loss. “Restricting calories will make it extremely difficult to get enough of the energy and nutrients [that] you need to keep you and your growing baby healthy during pregnancy,” says Munson. “Women with severe obesity may be advised that it is okay to lose weight during pregnancy, but any calorie-restrictive diets should be monitored by your health care professional.”
As previously mentioned, pregnant women should avoid the keto diet and all other low-carb eating plans. According to Munson, restricting carbohydrates this much can make it difficult to get enough fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Bottom line: Pregnancy is not the time to be dieting or experimenting with cutting out food groups or calories, period. “Moms-to-be need an additional 350-500 calories per day during pregnancy. It’s not a time to be actively restricting calories,” says Abbey Sharp, R.D., Toronto-based dietitian and founder of Abbey’s Kitchen. “Yes, it is common for some women to overdo it on the pregnancy eating. (Eating for two shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally). [However], undernutrition is just as much of an issue.”
Work closely with your doctor to develop the ideal dietary plan for your individual pregnancy.