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How to Prevent Unhealthy Weight Gain During Pregnancy

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How to Prevent Unhealthy Weight Gain During Pregnancy

If you want to know how to gain a healthy amount of weight during your pregnancy (and no more), and have a happy, healthy, baby, then you want to read this article.

 

Your hormones are all over the place, you’re fatigued, and you’ve got a second body to grow.

And you’re gaining weight. Fast.

Is that good? Bad? Should you be gaining more or less?

Well, if you’re struggling with weight gain during your pregnancy, or if you want to avoid the struggle, you need to read this article.

We’ll be covering how to use diet and exercise to keep weight gain during your pregnancy to a healthy minimum, which makes for an all-around better experience for both you and your baby.

Let’s get started.

How Much Weight Should You Gain During Pregnancy?

weight loss during pregnancy

Research shows that nearly half of all pregnant women gain too much weight during pregnancy.

This increases the risk of a host of health problems for them and their babies, including…

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Postpartum infection
  • Overdue delivery
  • Miscarriage
  • Gestational diabetes
  • C-section complications

What is “too much weight,” though?

Well, here’s how to the Institute of Medicine breaks down healthy weight gain during pregnancy:

weight gain during pregnancy chart

(Underweight women are recommended to gain a bit more and overweight a bit less. Ideally, you’d start your pregnancy lean and fit [around 20% body fat].)

Now, if you’re only supposed to gain 25 to 35 pounds over the course of 9 months, that means it needs to be a very gradual increase.

In fact, according to the IoM research, weight gain during the first trimester (0 to 13 weeks) should be very minimal–about 1 to 1.5 pounds.

Then, from week 14 on, it should look like this:

BMI Weight GroupBMIRecommended Total Weight GainRecommended Weight Gain Per Week
UnderweightUnder 18.528 – 40 lbs1 – 1.3 lbs
Normal18.5 – 2525 – 35 lbs1 lbs
Overweight25 – 3015 – 25 lbs0.6 lbs
ObeseOver 3011 – 20 lbs0.5 lbs

So if that’s the target, how you get there? And more importantly, how do you prevent near catastrophic levels of gestational weight gain?

Well, it starts with how many calories you eat every day.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

How to Use Diet to Reduce Weight Gain During Pregnancy

weight gain during pregnancy month by month

Your body has to build another body, so it’s logical to assume that it will need more food.

That said, what most people like to call “eating for two” is more like “eating for twenty.”

This, plus little to no physical activity, is why so many women gain so much fat during pregnancy.

Now, when pregnant, you’re going to want to base your food intake on your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

This is the total amount of energy you’re burning every day through your metabolism, the food you eat, and physical activity.

If you don’t know how to calculate your TDEE, check out this article.

Once you know your TDEE, you’re able to understand the standard medical recommendations on how many calories you should be eating every day throughout your pregnancy:

  • 1st Trimester (0 – 13 weeks): TDEE with no additional calories.
  • 2nd Trimester (14 – 28 weeks): Increase TDEE by 340 calories.
  • 3rd Trimester (28 to 40/42 weeks): Increase TDEE by 450 calories.

(These numbers are for women starting in a normal body weight range and are modified up or down if starting under- or overweight.)

Many women are surprised by those recommendations.

No additional calories for the first 13 weeks!? And then just an additional 340 to 450 calories per day until the baby is born??

To put that in perspective, an apple with a cup of yogurt and a few almonds is about 400 calories.

So yes, that means no going back for seconds and thirds every night, no snacking on chocolate bars, and no sending the husband out at 2 AM to get milkshakes.

Pregnancy shouldn’t be viewed as a license to eat anything.

In fact, it’s a terrible excuse to be gluttonous because gaining too much fat during pregnancy isn’t just impairing your health, it’s risking your baby’s as well.

That said, there’s no question that controlling caloric intake while pregnant can be challenging.

It’s not impossible, though.

First, you need to understand why it’s worth the trouble.

Controlling your food intake and thus weight gain is healthier for you and your baby.

It also makes it much easier to get your weight back to where you want it after delivering the baby.

People love to find or make excuses to overeat, and pregnancy is certainly a compelling one, but trust me–if you chronically overeat during your pregnancy, you will regret it.

Even if you avoid complications during the pregnancy and delivery, you’ll be faced with the harsh reality of 6+ months of dieting to get back to a normal body weight on top of little sleep and having to care for the new addition to your family.

This is why research shows that excessive weight gain during pregnancy is a significant predictor of post-partum weight retention.

The bottom line is if you gain too much fat while you’re pregnant, getting back to normal is an uphill battle.

Second, don’t assume you’re going to turn into a ravenous garbage disposal.

Many women struggle with hunger while pregnant but many others don’t.

 

 

 

 

 

Assume you won’t and you may be pleasantly surprised.

(The same goes for breastfeeding–it increases hunger in some women and doesn’t in others.)

Third, the women I know that have been most successful with controlling food intake while pregnant created and followed meal plans.

This helps prevent both the bingeing and passive overeating that plague (and fatten) so many pregnant women.

So, that’s caloric intake while pregnant. Let’s now talk specific foods.

The Best Foods to Eat While Pregnant

pregnancy weight gain chart

Generally speaking, the “best” foods to eat while pregnant are those that are nutritious, filling, and relatively low in calories.

By filling your diet with these types of foods, you can stave off hunger while controlling your caloric intake and ensure your body gets the micronutrients it needs for a safe, healthy pregnancy.

Here’s a simple list of these foods:

  • Lean meats like chicken, turkey, lean cuts of red meat, etc.
  • Oily fish that are low in mercury (for omega-3 fatty acids) like Wild Alaskan salmon, char, Atlantic mackerel, sardines, etc.
  • Low-fat dairy products like 2% milk and Greek yogurt, low-fat cheeses like Parmesan and mozzarella, etc.
  • Eggs
  • Whole grains like wheat, brown rice, oats, and barley.
  • Vegetables of all kinds, with a special emphasis on leafy greens.
  • Legumes like green peas and beans.
  • Tubers like white potato and sweet potato.

As you can see, you have quite a few tasty foods to choose from.

As a general rule, try to get about 80% of your daily calories from foods listed above and you can fill the remaining 20% with “treats.”

This covers all bases:

  • It keeps your calories where they need to be.
  • It gives your body the nutrients it needs.
  • It accommodates your sweet tooth.

I also recommend that you eat a high-protein diet with a moderate amount of carbohydrate and fat.

Specifically, I recommend that you set your macronutrient intake like this:

  • 40% of your daily calories from protein
  • 30% of your daily calories from carbs
  • 30% of your daily calories from fat

(If you’re not sure how “macronturient-based dieting” works, check out this article.)

This balanced approach will give your body everything it needs to build a strong, healthy baby while maintaining it own health.

As we’re talking weight and health during pregnancy, let’s talk water intake.

How Much Water You Should Drink While Pregnant

weight gain pregnancy breakdown

Drinking enough water is important for everyone, but is particularly important for pregnant women.

Research shows that a good target to shoot for is 1 to 1.5 ml of water for each calorie consumed.

Thus, a woman eating 2,000 calories per day should drink 2,000 to 3,000 ml of water per day (about 1/2 to 3/4 of a gallon).

Drinking enough water does more than support basic health, though–it also helps prevent weight gain by helping you control your caloric intake.

How to Use Exercise to Reduce Weight Gain During Pregnancy

exercise during pregnancy

Research shows that just 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise is enough to significantly improve your and your baby’s health while you’re pregnant.

This is why I recommend some form of physical activity every day while pregnant, including 3 to 5 workouts per week, that last 30 to 60 minutes each.

You’ll see the best results from a combination of cardiovascular and resistance training, so let’s take a look at how to structure your workouts when you’re expecting…

Warming Up

Begin with 5 to 7 minutes of warm-up, aiming for no more than a 3 on the RPE Scale, which is a 1 – 10 scale for the difficulty of your training (Rate of Perceived Exertion).

Here are some good exercises for this:

  • Treadmill
  • Recumbent cycle
  • Grapevine
  • Toe touch on a step box
  • Walk forward & back

As you can see, the emphasis should always be low impact activities with no excessive ranges of motion or hip swinging.

Cardio

After you’ve warmed up, I recommend you do 10 to 20 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise (4 to 6 RPE).

This helps bolster daily energy expenditure and insulin sensitivity, which in turn helps reduce weight gain. Research also shows that it also benefits the fetus’s heart as it develops.

Again, think low-impact activities with moderate ranges of motion and no jerking or swinging.

Resistance Training

Once you’ve done your cardio, you should do about 30 minutes of resistance training.

This does more than burn energy as well–it helps maintain muscle mass, which is vital for preserving both your physique and general health.

If you’re new to resistance training, I recommend that you start with a full-body routine that you do several times per week.

Here’s an example of one that will work well:

Rest 1 to 2 minutes in between each set.

Dumbbell Squat

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Dumbbell Deadlift

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Dumbbell Bench Press

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Seated Row

2 sets of 10 to 12 reps

Pelvic Tilt

2 sets of 20 reps (bodyweight)

In terms of progression, you should add weight to the exercise once you can do 12 reps with good form.

This way you will get stronger over time, which is the primary goal of all resistance training.

And if you’re an experienced weightlifter used to giving everything you’ve got to your weightlifting, I recommend you dial the intensity back a bit while pregnant.

There’s nothing wrong with challenging yourself in your workouts but all-out, max-effort training while pregnant increases the risk of injury to you and your baby and just isn’t worth it.

Also, it’s worth noting that as you move through your second trimester and enter your third, you’ll want to do as many seated movements as possible, minimizing up and down movements.

Relaxation Exercises

weight gain early pregnancy

Research shows that reducing stress during pregnancy can help to reduce the likelihood of a miscarriage, particularly early on.

This is why I recommend you do 10 to 15 minutes of relaxation exercises several times per week. You can do them after your cardio and resistance training workouts or do them separately.

Here are the two types of exercises I recommend:

Active Progressive Relaxation

This method of relaxation is simple: you tense and relax each major muscle group in your body, paying close attention to the difference between tensed and relaxed muscles.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Lie on a comfortable surface (or sit, as preferred) and gradually tense all the muscles in your legs until they are fully contracted, and hold this tension for 5 to 10 seconds.
  2. Then, let all the tension go, feeling your muscles go limp, loose, and relaxed. Hold this state of relaxation for 20 to 30 seconds.
  3. Next, do the same with your arms, shoulders, and hands, contracting and then relaxing them as a group.
  4. Move to your back next, tightening the muscles so they pull your shoulders back.
  5. Contract and relax the muscles in your chest and core next, and finish with the muscles in your face.

Do three full rounds of these contractions and relaxations before moving on to the Benson Method.

The Benson Method

The Benson Method is perfect for beginners to relaxation practices. It teaches you to calm the body through controlled and relaxed breathing.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Get comfortable and close your eyes.
  2. Choose a relaxing word of phrase for the exercise.
  3. Breathe in and out in a slow, steady rhythm, repeating the word or phrase softly with each breath.

After several minutes, you should feel noticeably more relaxed.

The Bottom Line on Weight Gain During Pregnancy

weight loss during pregnancy

You now have all the tools you need to manage your weight gain while pregnant and avoid the pitfalls that many women fall into.

Monitor your caloric intake, keep your macronutrients balanced, and exercise regularly, and you’ll not only gain the minimal (healthy) amount of weight while pregnant, but, more importantly, you’ll give birth to a happy, healthy child.

 

What’s your take on weight gain during pregnancy? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

Harry-Barnes

Harry Barnes is an Ante & Postnatal Instructor and Personal Trainer from Glossop, England.

His goal is to marry your fitness goals and ambitions with your current lifestyle. With a mix of flexible dieting and heavy lifting, he’ll help you reach your goals with as much as ease and enjoyment as possible.

You can find Harry at his website Harry Barnes Health.

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  • drexx317

    Great article, Mike. My wife and I would love to see an article about analyzing the TLS program for breastfeeding Moms.

    • Tomas Valkama

      I asked Mike that a few days ago regarding cutting while breastfeeding. Here´s what he had to say. “AFAK breastfeeding burns about 500 to 700 calories per day, so you just tack that onto TDEE and voila. Easy.”

      • This. 🙂

        • Lea

          do you recommend a 40 30 30 macro split for breastfeeding moms as well while doing the TLS program?

  • Tekoah Wind Chavira

    Great information thx!, any chance you can do an article on modifications to TLS program to do during Pregnancy?

  • Iara

    Thanks for all the Info! I have one question that’s not completely related, but I think this blog is the place to do it. What if a women doesn’t know she is pregnant and is taking preworkout supplements such as forge and pulse. Of course she’s supposed to stop once she finds out but what about those weeks the baby was exposed to the active ingredients in these supplements?

    • Hey Lara!

      If you suspect you’re pregnant, I would recommend cutting out caffeine and yohimbine.

      I don’t think you should be WORRIED, though.

      Yohimbine isn’t recommended during pregnancy because there’s no research that indicates it’s safe to use, not because there’s research that it’s unsafe.

      Caffeine is known to increase the risk of complications, but again, let’s just get rid of the stimulants and find out if you’re pregnant?

  • Caroline Zollinger

    So glad you wrote this!! I started doing a prenatal Barre workout video that is about 20-25 mins. Do you think that type of resistance is fine to keep the extra weight off and my muscles toned? I use to lift weights, but since I got pregnant I eased off and now do body weight exercises. Just curious of your opinion with Barre exercises.
    Thanks!

    • Glad you liked it. 🙂

      It can help, but it ultimately comes down to energy balance. So, make sure you monitor your caloric intake.

  • Ann Marie

    Hi Mike,
    Let’s say I’ve been following the TLS and I’ve been following it for several months and THEN I get pregnant. Can I still increase weights or reps or do I have to keep it as constant? Also, with abdominal separation, crunches are a no-go. Other recommendations?

    -Ann Marie

    • You’ll be able to stick with the program but will need to modify it as you move through each trimester.

      This is on my list to write/talk about actually because I’ve been getting more and more questions related to pregnancy and training.

      Stay tuned. 🙂

  • Katie11111

    I’m 10 weeks into a 12-week cut, and just found out I am pregnant! I was planning to reverse diet over 2-4 weeks back up to TDEE after my cut. Do I jump straight to my TDEE now that I’m pregnant, or do I slowly increase (reverse diet) back up to it?

    • Congrats!

      You can jump back to your TDEE. You’ll be fine.

  • Andrew Feaman

    So my wife just found out that she is pregnant. Awesome news, but we are defiantly in uncharted waters. Diet and exercise have been a recent talking point. Do’s, don’ts, intensities have all been questions we are asking. This is an awesome article. Thank you for writing. One of the reasons I keep coming back to the Muscle For Life website is because of the quality information that is posted. I have been following the One Year Challenge for 5 months now and have had great results. Starting weight of 245 with a body fat % that was…ridiculous. Today I am 193 with 19% body fat. My wife does the workouts with me 3 days per week. Chest, Shoulders, and Legs. She likes the workouts and the idea of compound lifting with higher weight and lower reps. It has really been a whole new world of thought. Here is the question, do you believe that it would be ok for her to continue down this path of 3 days per week morning resistance training while going for brisk walks at night after dinner for about 30 minutes, or should she go to the 5 days per week resistance training, or should she follow the training program listed above 3 days per week? I realize that the training is 40% of the equation and the diet is 60%. I have purchased a custom meal plan for myself, which is awesome by the way, and understand the importance of portion control. Energy in vs energy burned. I would just like to be able to know the best and safest way to be a good partner for her.

    • Great! Glad to hear you guys have been doing well on the program too. She can continue the program with a 3-day split with walks. As always, doctor gets final say.

  • Katherine H

    Hi Mike, this article is a Godsend, thank you. Just one question though… I’ve been following the TLS program since January and lifting in the 8-10 rep range. Should I be lifting in the 10-12 rep range whilst pregnant? Thanks!

    • Welcome! Yep, let’s bump it up to 10-12 reps. 🙂

  • Katherine H

    Hi again, Mike. I just calculated my TDEE and macros and found that according to the guidelines outlined in this article I’m meant to be eating a heroic 180g of protein a day! In comparison, the last time I calculated my macros earlier in the year based on information in TLS, my daily target came to 122g – which I can only just manage without using protein shakes. 180g of protein a day can’t be right, can it?

    According to Lauren Antonucci, MS, RD, director of Nutrition Energy in New York City, “Pregnant women who are very active need about 10 more grams of protein than they did before they conceived.” This would mean 132g of protein a day for me.

    Can you clarify what the macro split in this article is based on?

    Thanks!

    • Hey Katherine!

      The 40-30-30 split looks a lot like the 1.2g/lb body weight protein target when calculating one’s maintenance macros, and with fats at the healthily abundant 30% target. Higher protein also not only makes you feel more satiated, it also costs more energy to convert into calories for your body (Thermic Effect of Food) so that mean’s you’re burning calories just trying to digest the new ingested calories.

  • Kyle

    My wife and I are seeking to conceive. Since you recommend to calculate TDEE with a lower multiplier than what’s used for standard Katch-McArdle multipliers, as you indicate at http://www.muscleforlife.com/tdee-calculator/ — is it safe to assume that TDEE (at Maintain + increased calories based on trimester) using the lower multipliers is OK for pregnant women?

    • Yes, and you adjust up or down depending on your wife’s starting point.

      • Kyle

        Thanks Mike!

        The article link where you mention the additional 340 cal (2nd trimester) and 450 cal (3rd trimester) only gives TDEE suggestions for women starting at a normal body weight range. There seems to be no clear guideline over there (including at their links and tools) on how to modify these TDEE values accordingly for underweight or overweight women. Due to this, my wife is willing to try and reach normal body range first within the next year before we conceive, so we can easily use the TDEE values recommended for women starting at a normal body weight range.

        Much appreciated. All your articles are brilliant. 🙂

        • Although you can adjust TDEE for any and all body comps, I would HIGHLY recommend your that your wife start her pregnancy around 20% body fat and exercise throughout. It will really help her.

          • Kyle

            Good recommendations! We’ll use your advice.

            Btw, the TDEE adjustments I’m talking about is not the TDEE itself, but the TDEE additions.

            In your article, it appears you refer to the TDEE additions: “These numbers are for women starting in a normal body weight range and are ***modified up or down*** if starting under- or overweight.”

            Sounds like you’re referring to the TDEE additions?

            I believe you got this information from here:

            According to http://www.babycenter.com/eating-for-two :
            “While guidelines vary, the Institute of Medicine says if you’re a healthy weight, you need no additional calories in the first trimester, 340 extra calories a day in the second trimester, and about 450 extra calories a day in the third trimester. If you’re overweight or underweight, you’ll need more or less than this depending on your weight gain goal.”

            They’re also unclear since it can be read two different ways — does “more or less” refer to base TDEE or the TDEE additions?

            That’s what I was trying to get at when I said there seems to be no guideline on how to modify the TDEE additions (i.e., +340 cal in 2nd tri, +450 cal in 3rd tri) for underweight or overweight women.

            Unless it’s meant that only the base TDEE needs to be adjusted and the TDEE additions (i.e., +340 cal in 2nd tri, +450 cal in 3rd tri) should remain constant?

  • Erin

    Great article! I wish I read it before my last pregnancy in which I gained near 70lbs! It’s taken me a year to lose and I’ve spent the last 4 weeks doing the TLS method and feeling great while I see more fat go and muscle form. I’d like to be nearer 20% body fat and I’d also like to get pregnant soon with baby number 2! Is it safe to cut calories and progressively overload muscles with heavy weights while trying to conceive? Do either of these methods implicate fertility? I’m currently 5’7, 145lbs 28% fat

    • Thanks Erin!

      I’m glad to hear you’re doing well!

      You know that’s a good question and while I’m not 100% sure (I haven’t read about that specifically), I’d think a deficit would impact fertility simply because it impacts hormone production.

      IMO, diet down to 20% and, reverse diet, and THEN get preggers. You’ll do great that way.

      • Erin

        Thanks for the reply Mike!
        I will have to do my research on reverse dieting because I don’t have a clue about it. I’m looking forward to getting my custom meal plan I bought last week to get me on the path to 20% BF. I use a Withings smart scale to give me my BF percentage. Do you know if these are accurate? The weight is dropping off me and I’m looking way more toned since I’ve been doing the TLS exercises but the BF on the scale stays the same, between 28-30%. This should mean I’m obese but I’m finally looking thin again. Could this reading be correct? I’m working my butt off!

  • Regina

    Hi there, My question is: Can you still build muscle when pregnant if you eat in surplus? thank you!

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