Living Well: Nutrition Key To Preventing Birth Defects - Owensboro Health

Skip to Content

Living Well: Nutrition Key To Preventing Birth Defects

The old saying is, ‘You are what you eat.’ For mothers-to-be, that goes for your baby, too.

Nutrition during pregnancy is a topic where there’s no shortage of information. Sifting through it all can be challenging, even daunting. It’s a topic I’m glad to discuss as an OB/GYN physician because proper nutrition during pregnancy – and even before – will help both you and your baby.

January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Since awareness of this topic is the first step to preventing birth defects, there’s no better time to spread the word.

Get The Essentials

There are a number of vitamins and minerals that are essential during pregnancy. Most are provided by a balanced diet, but I recommend prenatal vitamins to women who are planning to get pregnant or who are currently pregnant. Vitamins and minerals to look for in prenatal vitamins include:

  • Folic Acid: Also called folate. This vitamin is critically important because it helps prevent neural tube defects (such as spina bifida). Women should take at least 400 micrograms (abbreviated as mcg or μg) a day, starting at least one month before getting pregnant.
  • Iron: During pregnancy, there’s an increased need for oxygen for both mother and unborn baby. Iron is necessary because it helps red blood cells carry oxygen. It can be found in red meat and poultry (especially beef and chicken livers), fish and shrimp, dark leafy greens, dried fruit, peas and beans, and oatmeal. The recommended daily intake of iron is 27 mg.
  • Calcium: Calcium is key to bone health for women, especially women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and their unborn babies. All women over the age of 19 should get 1,000 mg of calcium per day. It can be found in dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt. For those who prefer non-dairy products, broccoli and dark, leafy greens are also good sources of calcium.
  • Vitamin D: Your body uses Vitamin D to absorb calcium and to build and repair bones. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should get at least 600 international units of Vitamin D per day. You can find Vitamin D in fortified milk, breakfast cereal, salmon and egg yolks.

A Growing Concern

There are guidelines about calorie intake and how much weight gain is normal and healthy during pregnancy. Gaining weight during pregnancy should be done gradually and by slowly upping your daily calorie intake. Here’s how the ACOG breaks it down for women who are at a healthy weight at the beginning of their pregnancy:

  • First trimester: No extra calories usually needed. Weight gain is usually 1-5 pounds.
  • Second trimester: Add about 300 calories per day compared to pre-pregnancy intake. Weight gain is about one-half to one pound per week.
  • Third trimester: Add about 450 calories per day compared to pre-pregnancy intake. Weight gain is about one-half to one pound per week.

Your OB/GYN provider can talk to you more about your weight gain and will also monitor your weight throughout. Women who are underweight may need to gain more during pregnancy, while women who are overweight should gain less. Gaining too much weight can be a problem because it increases the risk of gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, both of which require monitoring and treatment.

What To Avoid

During pregnancy, there are also some things that women should know about and avoid. Here are some guidelines and tips to follow:

  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco altogether throughout pregnancy. They are both connected to increased risks for birth defects and health problems for children later in life.
  • Caffeine intake should be limited to 200 mg per day (or one cup of coffee). Your provider can help you reduce intake to avoid unpleasant symptoms, such as headaches, caused by caffeine withdrawal.
  • Avoid over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. Use Tylenol instead. Your provider can advise you about other medications and over-the-counter remedies to take or avoid.
  • If you eat fish, avoid those that often have higher levels of mercury. A good rule of thumb is to stick with fish that don’t eat other fish. Examples include salmon, shrimp and catfish.

It’s also important to keep food safety in mind. Foodborne bacteria can cause serious complications to both mother and unborn baby. The following tips can help you avoid foodborne germs:

  • Avoid lunch meats and hot dogs, unless they are cooked until steaming hot.
  • Unpasteurized dairy products, including milk and cheeses, carry a risk of bacterial contamination. Read labels and only consume them if made with pasteurized milk.
  • Never consume undercooked seafood, eggs or meat. This includes sushi, which should only be eaten if cooked.

Information about how to prepare food safely, including safe cooking temperatures for meats and how to freeze and refrigerate foods properly, can be found at

For patients who want to do their own research or share it with others, visit the website of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, On their site, search for “pregnancy nutrition” and you’ll find a wealth of information. You can also talk to your OB/GYN provider. We’re always happy to help feed you information on how to stay healthy before, during and after pregnancy.

Dr. Suzanne Rashidian is a board-certified OB/GYN physician with Owensboro Health’s One Health medical group. For more information or to schedule an appointment with a One Health provider, call 844-44-MY-ONE (844-446-9663).

About Owensboro Health

Owensboro Health is a nonprofit health system with a mission to heal the sick and to improve the health of the communities it serves in Kentucky and Indiana. The system includes Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, nationally recognized for design, architecture and engineering and the only hospital in the world to be designated a Signature Sanctuary by Audubon International, Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital, the Owensboro Health Medical Group comprising over 180 providers in 25 locations, a certified medical fitness facility, and the Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center. Owensboro Health has been recognized for outstanding care, safety and clinical excellence by The Joint Commission, U.S. News & World Report and Becker’s Hospital Review. As the largest employer west of Louisville, Owensboro Health has 4,088 employees, and in FY 2015 saw 18,380 inpatient admissions and 823,072 outpatient encounters. A committed community partner, Owensboro Health provided grants of $702,924 in the last year to health, social service, education and arts agencies across the region. For more information, visit

Maternity Services At Owensboro Health

Give your baby a good start in life by taking advantage of prenatal education, childbirth support, and postpartum services at Owensboro Health. Trust our compassionate Maternity Service providers to support your whole family as you welcome your new arrival.

Learn More