The nutrition cheat sheet for morning sickness

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Finding out you’re pregnant can be exciting news. But for many women, that celebration is interrupted by a party pooper: morning sickness.

As these women find out, it’s a misnomer, too – pregnancy nausea doesn’t seem to care what time it is.

If you’re one of those women, you might not feel like eating much, and what you do manage to eat, you struggle to keep down. On top of that, first-trimester fatigue can leave little energy to buy and prepare healthy meals.

The bad news: For some, there’s just no perfect remedy to make that nausea disappear.

The good news: In the first trimester, you don’t need extra calories, unlike in the second or third. The list of nutrients crucial for baby’s development also isn’t as long yet. And that nausea is a good sign – endokinin, the same hormone thought to be responsible for morning sickness, helps improve blood flow to the baby during pregnancy.

Here’s what you can focus on until that persistent nausea eventually passes (usually around the second trimester):

The nutrient not to miss

The most important nutrient in the first trimester is folic acid. It’s easiest to find in a supplement, such as a prenatal multivitamin.

Because folic acid is so important for early development, we now recommend that all women of childbearing age take a prenatal vitamin in case they would become pregnant.

Foods that can help with nausea

Research shows that ginger effectively and naturally decreases nausea.

The easiest use for ginger is tea: 

  1. Thinly slice some ginger root, available at most grocery stores.
  2. Place slices in a mug.
  3. Pour boiling water over the ginger to steep for a few minutes (the longer it steeps, the stronger the tea).
  4. Drink the resulting tea anytime as needed, hot or cold. If desired, use a strainer to separate the tea and ginger slices before drinking.

Dry, easily digestible carbohydrates also have a low risk of upsetting your stomach. Bagels, dry cereal and dry toast without butter seem to help many women. Snacks with some salt, such as pretzels or saltine crackers, may also help reduce nausea.

A supplement of Vitamin B6 often can lessen nausea, too. It’s available over the counter, but talk with your doctor about whether it’s best for you.

It’s important to eat what you can in small, frequent meals throughout the day, aiming especially to eat something small in the morning – cereal, for example, or yogurt.

Skipping meals contributes to lower blood sugar, which can compound the problem. Eating small meals is less taxing on the digestive system than eating fewer, larger meals. 

Easy foods for the first trimester

Tip: Cold foods may be easier to face than warm foods, which typically have stronger smells.

Eggs are good sources of protein, and the choline in egg yolk helps baby’s brain development. Try a batch of hard-boiled eggs to eat on their own or in egg salad.

(Make sure that however you prepare eggs, the entire egg is cooked all the way through, with a firm yolk, to kill bacteria like Salmonella.)

Chicken is another good source of protein. Cold, cooked chicken can be sliced and used for a sandwich or cut up for chicken salad.

Fresh fruit is easy for some women. Adding peanut butter, perhaps to a banana, is an effective way to mix in protein.

Fruit smoothies can make up a complete meal, and since smoothies are already blended, they leave the stomach faster, helping decrease nausea.

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, try your best to get a wide variety mixed into your diet.  We do know, though, that berries and dark, leafy greens are especially packed full of nutrients that developing babies need.

Popsicles made from 100 percent fresh fruit juice are a favorite for some expecting moms with morning sickness. Making your own popsicles in the freezer is another option.

Steer clear of some sugar-free, boxed popsicles that may contain artificial sweeteners. One thing we don’t recommend during pregnancy is ingesting those sugar substitutes, such as aspartame (used in Equal and NutraSweet), saccharin (SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low) or sucralose (Splenda). Even though most sugar substitutes are FDA-approved for use during pregnancy, there’s little evidence yet behind that approval. 

Because we don’t yet have enough research on how artificial sweeteners affect women and their babies in pregnancy, it’s best to use real sugar or natural sweeteners, such as honey and fruit juice.

As a general rule, eat as healthfully as possible, drink plenty of water and eat whatever you’re able to keep down (with the exception of foods not recommended in pregnancy).

Hang in there, Mom. We covered the good and bad news already, but remember the best news: Pregnancy can be difficult, but at the end of nine months, it is all worth it.


Liz Weinandy is a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, specializing in weight management, kidney stones and nutrition during pregnancy.

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