Nutrition, exercise help moms deliver healthy babies

By Ms. Susan M. Collins-Smith

MSU Extension Service


Proper nutrition, physical activity and food safety precautions can help pregnant women deliver healthy babies.

Niti Puri, a dietetic intern in the Mississippi State University Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion, said expectant mothers should consume higher levels of some key vitamins and minerals and take extra precautions against food-borne illnesses.

“The need for almost all nutrients is greater during pregnancy, but iron and folate are two nutrients that are very important,” she said. “Iron is a mineral that carries oxygen to the baby, and folate is a B vitamin that helps the body make red blood cells and helps prevent neural tube birth defects, such as spina bifida.”

Pregnant women should eat foods rich in these nutrients daily. Good sources of iron include poultry, fish, organ meats, dried beans, lean red meats, dark green vegetables, and whole grain and enriched breads and cereals. Foods that contain folate, which is also called folic acid, include fruits, liver, dried beans, whole grain breads, whole grain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables and other folic-acid-fortified products, Puri said.

“It is hard to get the recommended amount of iron from food alone during pregnancy,” she said. “So it is important to consult with your doctor about nutrient requirements and what types of vitamins you might need.”

Pregnant women can decrease their risk of food-borne illnesses by taking proper precautions when handling and storing food.

“Everyone can contract food-borne illnesses, but some food-borne pathogens, such as listeria, can be particularly devastating to pregnant women and unborn babies,” Puri said.

Pregnant women and those who prepare food for them should wash their hands properly before, during and after cooking. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and running water.

People also should use pasteurized milk and dairy products, use a food thermometer to ensure items are cooked to the proper temperature, and separate raw meats and ready-to-eat foods before and during preparation, Puri said.

Jennifer Russell, a mother and an agent with the MSU Extension Service in Leflore County, said exercise is a great way to improve the well-being of both mom and baby.

“We always recommend a combination of proper nutrition and exercise for anyone who wants to have a healthy lifestyle, and I know from personal experience that both help during pregnancy as well,” Russell said.

Unless there are special circumstances, doctors generally recommend women continue their established exercise routines, Russell said.

“Before I got pregnant, I was running, and my doctor told me I could continue that,” she said. “They might not recommend you continue to perform at your highest intensity, but you usually can continue to do what you were doing before you became pregnant.”

Even if a woman is not active, beginning moderate activity, such as walking, is good for mom and baby, Russell said.  

“Especially if an individual is at risk for gestational diabetes or high blood pressure or had these conditions before becoming pregnant, exercise is a great way to help control them,” she said.

The MSU Extension Service offers several options, including the Walk-A-Weigh program, for moms-to-be looking for nutrition information and an exercise program. The 15-week program helps people set goals, learn about proper nutrition and participate in physical activity.

“A lot of our programs can be modified to serve pregnant women,” Russell said. “The Walk-A-Weigh program is a good fit because we include nutrition education along with exercise. There are other exercise programs we do, such as chair exercises, which can be adjusted for pregnancy.”

All participants in Extension programs that include physical activity are required to provide written permission from their physicians.

For more information about Extension nutrition and exercise programs, contact the local Extension office.