What to eat, how much to exercise, plus meal-planning tips for keeping your calories in check if you’re doctor advises you to pull back on how much weight you’re gaining while pregnant.

pregnant woman exercising
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Pregnancy — the one time in your life when you feel it's acceptable to put on pounds. But if you're assuming that pregnancy gives you free reign to eat junk food, think again. And although occasional treats won't hurt, eating for two doesn't mean eating twice as much. The truth is, a healthy diet has never been more important.

"Women who gain too much weight during pregnancy are more prone to gestational diabetes, have a higher risk of delivery complications, and tend to have trouble losing weight after the birth," says Kathleen M. Rasmussen, Sc.D., R.D., professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University and chair of the committee on the report Weight Gain During Pregnancy: Reexamining the Guidelines at the Institute of Medicine. Preventing these complications is as simple as avoiding excess weight gain.

If you followed a well-balanced diet before baby, you may not need to make any major changes. But the changes you should make will help to provide all the nutrients your child will need for healthy growth and development. Eating right will also give you all the ingredients you need for a healthy weight gain. Here's how to make every calorie count and ensure your scale doesn't tip too far in the wrong direction.

How Much Weight You Should Gain

So what's a reasonable rate for the scale to go up each week? Helain Landy, MD, professor and chair, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, and fellowship director, Division Director at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., says she recommends the common sense approach.

"For normal-weight patients, ideally they should gain 25-35 pounds, and for 40 weeks in a pregnancy, that's usually a pound or a half pound per week.

How Much More You Should Eat

Now that you're eating for two, you may need to eat a bit more — but not as much as you think. So how much is too much? That depends on your age and what you weighed before you became pregnant. If you began your pregnancy at a normal weight, you should expect to gain between 25 and 35 pounds. That may sound like a lot, but it translates into eating about 300 more calories a day. A healthy snack, such as a small bowl of cereal with milk and fruit, can easily do the trick. Women who follow this guideline should gain four to six pounds in the first trimester and about one pound a week during the second and third trimesters.

However, if you began your pregnancy under- or overweight, you have different weight gain goals. Underweight women need to gain more (28 to 40 pounds), while overweight moms-to-be may need to put on 15 to 25 pounds. Women who exceed their recommended weight gain may be more likely to have a difficult labor resulting in cesarean delivery. Women who don't gain enough weight, however, may risk going into premature labor.

The bottom line? Putting on the proper number of pounds is the healthiest way to go.

The Best Foods to Eat

Eating the right amount of food from each of the five groups in the USDA Food Guide Pyramid will ensure that you and your baby get the nutrients you both need. But before you get too excited about the number of servings you're allowed, pay attention to what constitutes a serving. For example, one pancake the size of a CD — not three giant ones smothered in butter and syrup — equals one serving of grains.

Whether you have three big meals a day or six small ones, it's important to eat consistently. You may also be more comfortable eating smaller meals later in your pregnancy as your baby puts more pressure on your abdomen.

Here's how your diet should divide up in a day:

Grains: 6 to 11 servings Carbohydrates are your body's main source of energy. Try to work in as many whole grains as you can; they provide fiber and ease constipation, a common problem during pregnancy. One serving of grains is roughly one slice of bread or one cup of cooked rice, cereal, or pasta.

Fruits (2 to 4 servings) and Vegetables (3 to 5 servings): Packed with essential vitamins and nutrients, fruits and veggies have fiber as well. These foods enable you to use iron more efficiently and help your baby build tissue. A veggie serving can consist of one cup of raw leafy or cooked vegetables. One fruit serving can be one medium-size whole fruit, one cup of canned fruit, or one cup of fruit juice. Moms-to-be should strive to eat at least one daily serving of produce rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits and tomatoes.

Protein: 2 to 3 servings Protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, and beans are crucial for your baby's tissue growth. Two to three ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish (about the size of a deck of cards) is considered one serving. One egg, two tablespoons of peanut butter, or 1/3 cup of nuts can also count as one ounce of meat. If you're vegetarian, be sure to meet your protein needs by eating eggs; tofu and other soy products, such as soy burgers and soy milk; and dried beans, such as split peas. 

Dairy: 3 to 4 servings Give your body the calcium it needs to help build baby's bones and teeth with dairy. A serving is 1 cup of milk or yogurt, two one-inch cubes of natural cheese, or 2 ounces of processed cheese. Avoid unpasteurized soft cheeses such as Brie, feta, Camembert, and Roquefort, as they can be sources of listeriosis, a bacterial form of food poisoning that's particularly dangerous in pregnancy. Women who can't eat dairy should consult their doctor about taking a calcium supplement.

Fats: These should be approached the same way as when you weren't pregnant — sparingly. We're not talking about the healthy fats found in fish and olive oil. The kinds you need to be wary of occur in foods such as butter, meat, and full-fat dairy products. During pregnancy, fats should make up 30 percent of your daily calories. They give you energy and help your body use certain crucial vitamins.

How Much to Exercise

Don't immediately drop your workout routine when you see the plus sign on that pregnancy test. Regular exercise is good for your overall health, and it will help you burn calories and store fat in the right places, such as in your butt; this fat will be easier to burn off after baby than fat around your middle, where loss-resistant adipose tissue is formed.

Celeste Durnwald, MD, assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, recommends 30 minutes of light exercise like walking or swimming three days a week for the physical health benefits. Unless you're experiencing a complication like placenta previa or bleeding, you should be able to continue your pre-pregnancy exercise routine. If you weren't active before you conceived, you can still start now. Stay motivated by making a walking date with another pregnant friend or your partner. Or, take the kids on a walk to go play at the park.

"Even if you can sustain exercise for at least 10 minutes, you're getting a benefit," says Dr. Durnwald. "You can still see some benefits from the natural release of insulin with exercise after 15 minutes."

Meal-Plan Tips for Keeping Calories In Check

If you've gained the highest recommended weight already and you're only at 28 weeks, you can still adjust your trajectory, says Dr. Durnwald.

"You can at least control the amount of weight gain at this point. I'll tell patients, 'Let's only gain a pound a week, or a half a pound a week (for an obese woman)—that should be our focus now. We can't do anything about the first five months, but we can still do something.' It's important to build the mom up because she might feel frustrated or defeated. If you feel negatively about yourself it can impact your eating, exercise habits, and our motivation with everything else."

If your obstetrician suggests you tap the brakes on weight gain, don't try a crash diet — your growing baby needs far too many nutrients for you to make drastic food cuts. Instead, tweak your meals so that pound-creep slows to a healthy pace. No need to deny yourself; these simple ways to cut at least 100 calories are 100 percent tasty.


  • Give your mug a makeover. Consider trading the milk or cream in your coffee for nonfat milk. Don't want to forego the fatty stuff? Rethink your add-ins instead. Two pumps of vanilla syrup (the amount in a Starbucks tall) add 40 calories. Try flavoring your drink with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
  • Cut Extra Calories Without Realizing It Sip your morning OJ from a tall, slender glass rather than a short, wide one, and you'll down less, research shows.
  • Slim your cereal bowl. Switch from 2 percent milk to skim and trade half of your cereal for a whole-grain kind that has about 70 calories per cup, such as Kashi 7 Whole Grain Puffs. Even better: Have three-quarters of a cup with high-fiber strawberries.
  • Pour yourself a long, tall one. People down about 20 percent more juice when drinking from a short, wide glass rather than a tall, slender one, according to Cornell University research. Try that, and save more calories by mixing one part water or flavored seltzer with one part juice. Refreshing!
  • Downsize your baked goods. Bakery muffins can weigh in at 400 calories (or more) each. Eat half, or try a VitaMuffin (at a sweet-tooth-satisfying 100 calories).
  • Jazz up plain yogurt. Most presweetened varieties pack lots of sugar. Instead, buy nonfat plain yogurt and add your own fruit and a pinch of cinnamon.


  • Change your spread. A dollop of full-fat mayonnaise on your turkey sandwich adds nearly 100 calories and 10 grams of fat. Go for mustard, which has loads of flavor and only a trace of calories.
  • Liquefy. Soups, salads, yogurt, and cottage cheese have all earned a well-deserved rep from experts as smart bites. Foods that have a higher water content are more satisfying than those that don't.
  • Soup Smarter. If you choose a broth-based soup (such as chicken noodle or minestrone) over a creamy one like broccoli-cheddar or clam chowder, you'll cut at least 100 calories and skip the heart-unhealthy saturated fat. What a souper selection!
  • Have Fries with Friends. Can't resist fast-food fries? Go right ahead! Ask for a small order and split it with a buddy. She'll just think you're nice–not looking to save 200 calories.


  • Dump the Drizzle. Instead of stir-frying in oil (240 calories for two tablespoons), mist the pan (20 calories per two-second spritz). A Misto olive-oil sprayer (you add the oil) costs about $10.
  • Do a Veggie Swap. Trade higher-calorie ingredients, including pasta, rice, and meat, for vegetables twice a day and you'll trim calories. For instance, replace half the beef in your lasagna or fajitas with mushrooms. You'll never miss the meat–promise.
  • Phase out Fat. "Stir Greek-style yogurt into soup instead of adding sour cream for that rich taste," says Stephanie Clarke, R.D., co-owner of C&J Nutrition. You can also use this type of yogurt in place of mayonnaise when your make chicken or egg salad or as a baked potato topper.
  • Season Your Sides. If you top steamed broccoli with a tablespoon of butter, you add 100 calories. Flavor veggies with herbs, a sprinkle of sea salt, or some lemon juice.


  • BYO Popcorn. Smuggle in a bag of the air-popped kind at the movies and you'll save mucho calories and saturated fat. A typical small popcorn at a cinema, sans buttery topping, packs 370 calories; six cups of air-popped, around 180.
  • Beware TV Brain. People who snack while they're glued to the tube take in more calories than people who don't. "Eating in front of the TV can give you food amnesia," says Jarosh. "But when you're mindful of what you're eating, you're more accountable for how much you're putting into your mouth."
  • Say Hello to Sorbet. A small raspberry sorbet at Cold Stone Creamery has 160 calories; a small raspberry ice cream, 330.
  • Party On! Just Do It Smart. "Rather than grazing at a buffet, put finger food on a small plate," suggests Clarke. And be picky about hors d'oeuvres: Instead of, say, three pigs in a blanket, have three pieces of jumbo shrimp with a quarter-cup of cocktail sauce and save yourself 120 calories.

American Baby