Pregnancy can be an overwhelming experience for most women but more so for a pregnant teenager. Teens have special food and nutrition needs that require attention during pregnancy.
Good nutrition will support a teen’s growth and also support a healthy pregnancy. It is important to gain weight during pregnancy at a healthy rate. This should be monitored by a doctor. Most weight gained during pregnancy helps the baby develop.
No teen should try a weight loss diet during pregnancy. If you or your teen has questions about weight gain during pregnancy, your teen’s doctor or obstetrician can answer them based on your teen’s individual situation.
Pregnancy is an ideal time to focus on healthy eating habits. Use Canada’s Food Guide to help make healthy food choices. Including all four food groups in meals and snacks contributes many important nutrients to a healthy pregnancy.
Healthy eating includes making good food choices and having regular mealtimes. This means never skipping a meal and snacking on healthy foods between meals. To gain enough weight for a healthy baby, teens should eat regularly. This will provide energy and nourish the growing baby.
Grain products such as whole wheat bread, pita, and brown rice provide fibre, which helps regulate bowel habits. Pregnant teens may experience constipation, but getting more fibre along with plenty of fluids can help minimize this issue. Moderate activity every day, such as walking, can also help ease constipation.
Some specific nutrients are needed in higher amounts during pregnancy. These include folic acid (folate), iron and calcium. Pregnant women should take a daily multivitamin that is specific for pregnancy to support the developing baby.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that has been proven to prevent defects that affect a growing baby’s spinal cord (known as neural tube defects). Because these defects can be prevented, it is recommended that women of childbearing age take folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy.
Pregnant women should take a multivitamin with at least 400 micrograms (0.4 mg) of folic acid every day. Pregnant women who are at higher risk of having a baby with neural tube defects (if there is a family history of neural tube defects such as spina bifida or if the mother takes some anti-seizure medicines) should ask their doctor how much folic acid they should take. The amount is usually somewhere between 1,000 and 4,000 micrograms a day depending on the level of risk.
Iron is a mineral that helps your blood carry oxygen around the body. Iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in pregnancy. Teenage girls are at higher risk of this deficiency because of their added growth and development needs.
Eating more iron-rich food, such as red meat, poultry and fish, can help improve iron levels in the blood. Eating vitamin C-rich food along with iron-rich food can boost the amount of iron that passes from the stomach into the blood. Your body will better absorb iron if, for example, you eat chicken breast (iron) with broccoli (vitamin C) or a piece of steak (iron) with a glass of orange juice (vitamin C).
Calcium is a mineral that is important for strong bones and healthy teeth. It is important for teens to get plenty of calcium-rich foods, particularly milk and alternatives, or calcium-fortified foods. If there are not enough calcium stores for the growing baby, calcium is drawn from the mother’s bones.
Your pregnant teen should try to include milk or yogurt more often with their meals or snacks.
Eating out is common for many teenagers, so consider healthier options that have important nutrients for a growing teen and a growing baby. Avoiding all fast food is not necessarily the answer, but your teen should try to avoid high fat, high sugar options such as hamburgers, soft drinks, and ice cream. She can have these “sometimes foods” now and then. Generally she should opt for healthy alternatives such as submarine sandwiches, pita sandwiches, salads and stir-fries.
Foods to avoid during pregnancy
Fish is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which is an important nutrient for a baby’s developing eyes and brain. Canada’s Food Guide recommends that Canadians eat two servings a week of fish such as salmon or sardines. However, pregnant teens should avoid some of the larger species of fish such as tuna, shark, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy and escolar. These fish contain large amounts of mercury, which can harm a developing baby.
Health Canada has published a list of foods that pregnant women and girls should avoid. These include:
- raw fish (such as sushi) and shellfish such as oysters and clams
- undercooked meat, poultry and seafood (for example, hot dogs, non-dried deli meats, refrigerated pâté, meat spreads and refrigerated smoked seafood and fish)
- all foods made with raw or lightly cooked eggs (such as homemade Caesar vinaigrette and many desserts made with custards or lightly cooked egg)
- unpasteurized milk products and foods made from them, including soft and semi-soft cheeses such as Brie or Camembert
- unpasteurized juices, such as unpasteurized apple cider
- raw sprouts, especially alfalfa sprouts.
The above examples are known for containing bacteria. This can be especially harmful to pregnant women.
Pregnant women should avoid all alcoholic drinks. There is no amount of alcohol that is considered safe during pregnancy. Studies have shown that consuming alcohol can lead to a condition in babies called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Babies born with this condition may be smaller, have developmental problems and cognitive (thinking) problems. The best way to avoid this is to avoid all alcohol during pregnancy.
Health Canada recommends that pregnant women limit their caffeine intake to 300 mg of caffeine a day. This equals about one cup of coffee a day. Other caffeinated drinks such as soda and tea may contain less caffeine but should still be counted. Energy drinks such as Red Bull, Monster and Rock Star have extremely high levels of caffeine and should be avoided.
To help make sense of the many nutritional and safety concerns surrounding pregnancy, be sure to talk to a doctor and registered dietitian. They will give you the most up-to-date recommendations suited to your teen’s needs. Having experts to support your teen’s journey will help during this time of great change.