Nutrition and health experts say a pregnant woman should eat a variety of foods and consume enough daily calories to maintain healthy weight-gain. But, they say, the idea that a woman needs to eat twice as much when she's pregnant is one of several myths that leads to misunderstandings on maternal nutrition, varying from culture to culture. In New York, VOA's Mona Ghuneim reports.

Expectant mothers need to eat a little more to allow for healthy weight-gain, but according to nutritionist Marion Nestle, a pregnant woman doesn't have to "eat for two." The author of several books on nutrition and a professor of food studies at New York University, Nestle says the biggest myth about pregnancy is that it requires a specific diet.

Nestle says a healthy diet for anyone is essentially a healthy diet for a pregnant woman. This includes staying active, eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and avoiding junk food. It sounds easy, she says, especially in a country like the United States where food is plentiful, and medical technology is advanced, but healthy eating remains an issue for pregnant women.

"Where you see deficiencies in pregnancy and real problems in pregnancy is when the variety of foods is inadequate and women are dependent on one food - their one cereal, for example - for all of their core needs. And on top of that, they have parasites or illnesses that deplete the body of essential nutrients, particularly of iron," she said.

Nestle says such deficiencies are usually found in women from poor communities or countries, and more often in less developed nations. In order to solve problems of maternal malnutrition, she says the issue of poverty must be addressed.

Nestle says there is enough food available in the world but that it is not distributed equitably and that poorer women are less likely to take nutritional supplements if their diets are not adequate. She says a daily multivitamin during pregnancy is fine, but it is often the women who need them the least who take them.

"Women who are poor and in places where the dietary adequacy isn't present or possible are least likely to be able to afford multivitamins and be able to have access to them," she said.

Nestle made her comments at a meeting in New York sponsored by the March of Dimes, a group dedicated to preventing birth defects and infant mortality. The group partners with international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) to gather global data on maternal and child health.

Dr. Michael Katz, a pediatrician and researcher with the March of Dimes, says the group works with the WHO to issue recommendations for pregnant women and newborns worldwide. He says they often have to dispel cultural myths. "In several cultures, some foods are considered to be inappropriate for pregnant women. Sometimes it is counterproductive. For example, in certain societies, eggs are not allowed to pregnant women, even though they are [a] very good, inexpensive, easily accessible source of protein," he said.

Dr. Katz says eggs are fine as long as they are well-cooked. He says that varying nations may have different foods available, but that most women around the world have access to enough variety for a balanced diet to ensure healthy mothers and babies.