Eating for Two, One Trimester at a Time

Weight Guidelines
By Sally Squires
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Eating healthfully is one of the first parental challenges that expectant women face. Not only is it important to hit all the right nutritional notes, there's also the question of how much weight to gain. Eating for two is often misinterpreted as a license to overeat, but gaining too many pounds raises the risk of serious complications for mother and baby.

To help guide expectant mothers to smart food choices, the Department of Agriculture last week unveiled an interactive online tool that takes the guesswork out of how much -- and what -- to eat when you're expecting. Based on the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, it promises a personalized nutritional plan for each trimester.

To see whether it delivers, I took the tool for a spin. Find a link to it on the right side of the home page. Access is easy: Just click on the icon of a pyramid with a stork in flight carrying a white bundle labeled "For Moms."

From there, click on the link to "My Pyramid Plan for Moms," another page pops up that guides you to type in your age, height, pre-pregnancy weight, daily activity level and estimated due date.

My youngest child is now in college. So I plugged in a fictional woman, 25, who is due to give birth in early May. She's 5-foot-3, weighs 130 pounds and exercises 30 to 60 minutes daily.

Since this expectant mom is at a healthy weight, My Pyramid for Moms said that she could gain 25 to 35 pounds during her pregnancy. During the first trimester, when the fetus is tiny, she should gain just two to four pounds. As fetal growth accelerates, My Pyramid says to add about a pound per week during the remaining six months of the pregnancy. (Had my fictional mom been heavier when she conceived, she would have been advised to gain less weight.)

Knowing what and how much to eat to add pounds can be tricky. So I like the way that My Pyramid for Moms gives a daily calorie goal for each trimester. This comes in a colorful chart that also includes recommendations for how many servings of various food groups to consume. There's even a printer-friendly version that can be posted on the refrigerator.

According to the USDA, my virtual mom needs 2,200 calories per day for the first trimester. When the second trimester begins in December, she can eat 2,400 calories per day. In March, she needs to eat 2,600 calories daily until she gives birth.

There's plenty of guidance on what to eat. So early in her pregnancy, my virtual mom needs seven ounces of grains, at least half of them from whole-grain bread, pasta or cereal such as oatmeal. Also on her daily menu: three cups of vegetables, two cups of fruit, three cups of low-fat or nonfat milk and dairy products, and six ounces a day of lean protein such as low-fat meat and poultry without the skin.

"Vary your protein routine," the USDA advises. "Choose more fish, beans, peas, nuts and seeds." Most of these foods are rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids that are key for fetal brain development. (The Food and Drug Administration advises pregnant and lactating women to eat 12 ounces of fish or less per week and to avoid eating shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel, which can be high in methyl mercury. Eat six ounces or less of albacore tuna weekly.)

The My Pyramid Plan for Moms says to reach for fruit more often than juice and to eat a rainbow of vegetables; it also offers limits on cooking oil, salad dressings, margarine, butter and foods with added sugar.

Expectant mothers who have the time and interest to keep clicking will find much more information on the site about portion sizes, healthy food choices and physical activity. Tips on the personalized charts link to the My Pyramid Web site. There's even a place to record what you eat and how much activity you get at a companion site, My Pyramid Tracker (

Despite its strengths, some facets of pregnancy are still beyond the scope of the My Pyramid Web site. Those expecting twins or other multiples are directed to talk with their health-care providers. These pregnancies are too complicated, the USDA says, to offer individualized information online. There's also limited information on salt intake and not much for those with gestational diabetes.

But those trying to drop post-pregnancy pounds will find help from an interactive tool that factors in breast-feeding, body weight and daily exercise. The result: nutritional guidance for weight loss -- a savvy way to be a healthier new mom.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company