The expression “eating for two” isn’t meant to imply that pregnant women should eat twice as much. It does, however, support the idea that mamas-to-be should maximize their nutrition during pregnancy.
Eating a healthy diet while pregnant can reduce the risk of pregnancy complications including blood pressure, obesity, preeclampsia, fetal growth restriction, and preterm birth.
But despite the well-known benefits of eating a healthy diet while pregnant, new research shows that many women aren’t making healthy dietary choices leading up to their first pregnancy. This finding was especially true among black, Hispanic, and less-educated women.
Pre-pregnancy diets lacking
A new study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, finds that most women do not meet nutrition guidelines shortly before pregnancy.
"Unlike many other pregnancy and birth risk factors, diet is something we can improve," said study author Lisa Bodnar of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health.
"While attention should be given to improving nutritional counseling at doctor appointments, overarching societal and policy changes that help women to make healthy dietary choices may be more effective and efficient,” Bodnar suggested.
For the study, 7,500 pregnant women reported on their eating habits during the three months around conception. The researchers assessed participants’ diets using the Healthy Eating Index-2010, which measures 12 key aspects of diet quality.
Nearly a quarter of the white women surveyed scored in the highest scoring fifth, compared with 14% of Hispanic women and just under 5% of black women. Almost half (44%) of black mothers had a score in the lowest scoring fifth.
Findings from the study showed that the more education pregnant women had, the higher their healthy eating scores. The increase was strongest among white women. At all levels of education, black women had the lowest average scores, the researchers found.
Most women fall short
The team also found that none of the women in any racial or socioeconomic group evaluated achieved the recommendations set forth in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The women surveyed got most of their energy from empty calories and processed, high-fat, high-sugar sources, the study found.
"Our findings mirror national nutrition and dietary trends. The diet-quality gap among non-pregnant people is thought to be a consequence of many factors, including access to and price of healthy foods, knowledge of a healthy diet, and pressing needs that may take priority over a healthy diet," said Bodnar.
"Future research needs to determine if improving pre-pregnancy diet leads to better pregnancy and birth outcomes. If so, then we need to explore and test ways to improve the diets for everyone, particularly women likely to become pregnant," Bodnar concluded.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that consumers should choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods while limiting foods with added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. To prepare the body for pregnancy, it is suggested that women make an effort to consume more high-quality proteins, fruits and veggies, and folate.