Good nutrition during pregnancy, and enough of it, is very important for your baby to grow and develop. You should consume about 300 more calories per day (600 extra per day if you’re carrying twins)than you did before you became pregnant.
Although nausea and vomiting during the first few months of pregnancy can make this difficult, try to eat a well-balanced diet and take prenatal vitamins. Here are some recommendations to keep you and your baby healthy.
Goals for Healthy Eating When Pregnant
- Eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need. Recommended daily servings include 6-11 servings of breads and grains, two to four servings of fruit, four or more servings of vegetables, four servings of dairy products, and three servings of protein sources (meat, poultry, fish, eggs or nuts).Consume fats and sweets sparingly.
- Choose foods high in fiber that are enriched, such as whole-grain breads, cereals, beans, pasta and rice, as well as fruits and vegetables. Although it’s best to get your fiber from foods, taking a fiber supplement can help you get the necessary amount. Examples include psyllium and methylcellulose. Talk with your doctor before starting any supplements. If you take a fiber supplement, increase the amount you take slowly. This can help prevent gas and cramping. It’s also important to drink enough liquids when you increase your fiber intake.
- Protein drives blood production, especially when it has iron that your body easily absorbs, like from red meats, chicken, and shellfish. Your blood volume increases during pregnancy to supply your baby’s blood, too. Opt for healthy proteins that aren’t high in fat, like lean meats, fish, poultry, tofu and other soy products, beans, nuts, and egg whites.
- You and your babies need some fats to stay healthy. Just remember to pick the healthy, unsaturated kind like vegetable oils, olive oil, and nuts.
- Make sure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals in your daily diet while pregnant. You should take a prenatal vitamin supplement to make sure you are consistently getting enough vitamins and minerals every day. Your doctor can recommend an over-the-counter brand or prescribe a prenatal vitamin for you.
- Eat and drink at least four servings of dairy products and calcium-rich foods a day to help ensure that you are getting 1,000-1,300 milligrams (mg) of calcium in your daily diet during pregnancy.
- Eat at least three servings of iron-rich foods, such as lean meats, spinach, beans, and breakfast cereals each day to ensure you are getting 27 milligrams (mg) of iron daily.
- While you're pregnant, you will need 220 micrograms (mcg) of iodine a day to help ensure your baby's brain and nervous system development. Don’t get more than 1,100 mcg a day. Choose from a variety of dairy products -- milk, cheese (especially cottage cheese), yogurt -- as well as baked potatoes, cooked navy beans, and limited amounts -- 8 to 12 ounces per week -- of seafood such as cod, salmon, and shrimp.
- Choose at least one good source of vitamin C every day, such as oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, honeydew, papaya, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, green or red peppers, tomatoes, and mustard greens. It makes it easier for your body to absorb iron from plant foods, builds strong bones and teeth, boosts immunity, and keeps blood vessels strong and red blood cells healthy. Pregnant women need 80-85 mg of vitamin C a day. Don’t exceed 2,000 mg.
- Choose at least one good source of folate every day, like dark green leafy vegetables, veal, and legumes (lima beans, black beans, black-eyed peas and chickpeas). Every pregnant woman needs at least 0.64 mg (about 600 mcg) of folate per day to help prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Supplements called folic acid can be an important option when you are pregnant.
- Choose at least one source of vitamin A every other day. Sources of vitamin A include carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, spinach, water squash, turnip greens, beet greens, apricots, and cantaloupe.
Foods to Avoid When Pregnant
- Avoid alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol has been linked to premature delivery, intellectual disability, birth defects, and low birthweight babies.
- Limit caffeine to 300 mg per day. The caffeine content in various drinks depends on the beans or leaves used and how it was prepared. An 8-ounce cup of coffee has about 150 mg of caffeine on average while black tea has typically about 80 mg. A 12-ounce glass of caffeinated soda contains anywhere from 30-60 mg of caffeine. Remember, chocolate (especially dark chocolate) contains caffeine -- sometimes a significant amount.
- The use of saccharin is strongly discouraged during pregnancy, because it can cross the placenta and may remain in fetal tissues. But, the use of other non-nutritive or artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA is acceptable during pregnancy. These FDA-approved sweeteners include aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet), acesulfame-K (Sunett), and sucralose (Splenda). These sweeteners are considered safe in moderation, so talk with your health care provider about how much non-nutritive sweetener is acceptable during pregnancy.
- Decrease the total amount of fat you eat to 30% or less of your total daily calories. For a person eating 2000 calories a day, this would be 65 grams of fat or less per day.
- Limit cholesterol intake to 300 mg or less per day.
- Do not eat shark, swordfish, farmed salmon (wild is OK), king mackerel, or tilefish (also called white snapper), because they contain high levels of mercury. Too much mercury can hurt your baby's central nervous system.
- Avoid soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese. These cheeses are often unpasteurized and may cause Listeria infection. There’s no need to avoid hard cheese, processed cheese, cream cheese, cottage cheese, or yogurt.
- Avoid raw fish, especially shellfish like oysters and clams.
What to Eat When Pregnant and Don't Feel Well
During pregnancy you may have morning sickness, diarrhea, or constipation. You may find it hard to keep foods down, or you may feel too sick to even eat at all. Here are some suggestions:
- Morning sickness: Eat crackers, cereal, or pretzels before getting out of bed; eat small, frequent meals throughout the day; avoid fatty, fried, spicy, and greasy foods.
- Constipation: Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. Also, drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day. Taking fiber supplements may also help. Check with your doctor first.
- Diarrhea: Eat more foods that contain pectin and gums (two types of dietary fiber) to help absorb excess water. Examples of these foods are applesauce, bananas, white rice, oatmeal, and refined wheat bread.
- Heartburn: Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day; try drinking milk before eating; and limit caffeinated foods and beverages, citric beverages, and spicy foods.
Can I Diet While Pregnant?
No. Do not diet or try to lose weight during pregnancy -- both you and your baby need the proper nutrients in order to be healthy. Keep in mind that you will lose some weight the first week your baby is born.
Why Do I Need Complex Carbohydrates While Pregnant?
Complex carbs give your body the energy it needs to keep you going and growing throughout your pregnancy. They’re also packed with fiber, which helps with digestion and preventing constipation, often a concern for pregnant women.
Complex carbs include:
- Fruits and veggies
- Whole grains like oats, brown rice, whole-wheat breads, and pastas
Can I Eat a 'Low-Carb' Diet When Pregnant?
Low-carbohydrate diets, such as Atkins and the South Beach Diet, are very popular. There have been no studies of the effects of a low-carb diet on pregnancy, so its effect on the fetus, if any, are unknown. While you are pregnant, you should eat a balanced diet, from all of the food groups.
Can I Maintain My Vegetarian Diet When Pregnant?
Just because you are pregnant doesn't mean you have to diverge from your vegetarian diet. Your baby can receive all the nutrition they need to grow and develop while you follow a vegetarian diet, if you make sure you eat a wide variety of healthy foods that provide enough protein and calories for you and your baby.
Depending on the type of vegetarian meal plan you follow, you may need to adjust your eating habits to ensure that you and your baby are receiving adequate nutrition. Discuss your diet with your doctor.
Why Do I Need More Calcium When Pregnant?
Calcium is a nutrient needed in the body to build strong teeth and bones. Calcium also allows blood to clot normally, muscles and nerves to function properly, and the heart to beat normally. Most of the calcium in your body is found inside your bones.
Your growing baby needs a considerable amount of calcium to develop. If you do not consume enough calcium to sustain the needs of your developing baby, your body will take calcium from your bones, decreasing your bone mass and putting you at risk for osteoporosis. Osteoporosis causes dramatic thinning of the bone, resulting in weak, brittle bones that can easily be broken.
Pregnancy is a critical time for a woman to consume more calcium. It may help prevent high blood pressure while you're pregnant. Even if no problems develop during pregnancy, an inadequate supply of calcium at this time can diminish bone strength and increase your risk for osteoporosis later in life.
The following guidelines will help ensure that you are consuming enough calcium throughout your pregnancy:
- The U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1,000 mg per day for pregnant and breastfeeding women over age 18. The U.S. RDA for teenage girls up to age 18 is 1,300 mg of calcium per day. Don't exceed 2,500 mg a day.
- Eating and drinking at least four servings of dairy products and calcium-rich foods a day will help ensure that you are getting the appropriate amount of calcium in your daily diet.
- The best sources of calcium are dairy products, including milk, cheese, yogurt, cream soups, and pudding. Calcium is also found in foods including green vegetables (broccoli, spinach, and greens), seafood, dried peas, and beans. Some juices and tofu are made with calcium.
- Vitamin D will help your body use calcium. Aim for 600 international units (IU) a day but no more than 4,000 IU. You can get vitamin D through exposure to the sun and in fortified milk, eggs, and fish.
How Can I Get Enough Calcium if I'm Lactose Intolerant?
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk. If you are lactose intolerant, you may have cramping, gas, or diarrhea when dairy products are consumed.
If you are lactose intolerant, you can still receive the calcium you need. Here are some suggestions:
- Use Lactaid Milk fortified with calcium. Talk to your dietitian about other lactose-reduced products.
- You may be able to tolerate certain milk products that contain less sugar including cheese, yogurt, and cottage cheese.
- Eat non-dairy calcium sources, including greens, broccoli, sardines, and tofu.
- Try consuming small amounts of milk with meals. Milk is better tolerated with food.
Should I Take a Calcium Supplement During Pregnancy?
If you have trouble consuming enough calcium-rich foods in your daily meal plan, talk to your doctor or dietitian about taking a calcium supplement. The amount of calcium you will need from a supplement depends on how much calcium you are consuming through food sources.
Calcium supplements and some antacids containing calcium, such as Tums, may complement an already healthy diet. Many multiple vitamin supplements contain little or no calcium; therefore, you may need an additional calcium supplement.
Why Do I Need More Iron During Pregnancy?
Iron is a mineral that makes up an important part of hemoglobin, the substance in blood that carries oxygen throughout the body. Iron also carries oxygen in muscles, helping them function properly. Iron helps increase your resistance to stress and disease.
The body absorbs iron more efficiently during pregnancy; therefore, it is important to consume more iron while you are pregnant to ensure that you and your baby are getting enough oxygen. Iron will also help you avoid symptoms of tiredness, weakness, irritability, and depression.
Following a balanced diet and including foods high in iron can help ensure that you are consuming enough iron throughout your pregnancy. In addition, the following guidelines will help:
- The U.S. RDA for iron is 27 mg per day for pregnant women and 9-10 mg for breastfeeding women. Don't exceed 45 mg a day.
- Eating at least three servings of iron-rich foods a day will help ensure that you are getting 27 mg of iron in your daily diet. One of the best ways to get iron from your diet is to consume a highly fortified breakfast cereal. Note that iron intake is not equal to iron absorption. Absorption of iron into the body is greatest with meat sources of iron such as liver.
What Are Good Sources of Iron?
- Meat and seafood: Lean beef, chicken, clams, crab, egg yolk, fish, lamb, liver, oysters, pork, sardines, shrimp, turkey, and veal
- Vegetables: Black-eyed peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard and turnip greens, lima beans, sweet potatoes, and spinach
- Legumes: Dry beans and peas, lentils, and soybeans
- Fruits: All berries, apricots, dried fruits, including prunes, raisins and apricots, grapes, grapefruit, oranges, plums, prune juice, and watermelon
- Breads and cereals: Enriched rice and pasta, soft pretzel, and whole grain and enriched or fortified breads and cereals
- Other foods: Molasses, peanuts, pine nuts, pumpkin, or squash seeds
Should I Take an Iron Supplement During Pregnancy?
Talk to your health care provider about an iron supplement. The National Academy of Sciences recommends that all pregnant women following a balanced diet take an iron supplement providing 27 mg of iron during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy (that's the amount in most prenatal vitamins). Your doctor may increase this dose if you become anemic. Iron deficiency anemia is a condition in which the size and number of red blood cells are reduced. This condition may result from inadequate intake of iron or from blood loss.
Other Facts About Iron
- Vitamin C helps your body use iron. It is important to include sources of vitamin C along with foods containing iron and iron supplements.
- Caffeine can inhibit the absorption of iron. Try to consume iron supplements and foods high in iron at least one to three hours before or after drinking or eating foods containing caffeine.
- Iron is lost in cooking some foods. To retain iron, cook foods in a minimal amount of water and for the shortest possible time. Also, cooking in cast iron pots can add iron to foods.
- Constipation is a common side effect of taking iron supplements. To help relieve constipation, slowly increase the fiber in your diet by including whole grain breads, cereals, fruits, and vegetables. Drinking at least eight cups of fluids daily and increasing moderate exercise (as recommended by your doctor) can also help you avoid constipation.
Other Important Nutrients
Choline helps prevent problems in your baby’s spinal cord and brain, called neural tube defects, and boosts brain development. It also supports your bones and may help prevent high blood pressure.
- The RDA is 450 mg; don't go over 3,500 mg a day.
- Eggs are great sources of choline; one cooked egg has 272 mg. You can find it in meats like chicken, beef, and pork and in fish such as cod and salmon. Broccoli and cauliflower also have choline.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the omega-3 fatty acids. It helps boost your baby’s brain development and vision. It may also reduce your risk of heart disease.
- The RDA is 300 mg.
- DHA can be found in seafood like salmon, crab, tuna, and catfish. Fortified eggs are also good sources.
Potassium helps you keep your blood pressure in check and maintain a proper fluid balance. It’s also necessary for a normal heartbeat and energy.
- The RDA is 4,700 mg.
- The best foods to eat for potassium are white beans, winter squash, spinach, lentils, sweet potato, orange juice, broccoli, cantaloupe, and raisins.
Your body needs riboflavin (sometimes known as vitamin B2) to make energy and use the protein from food. It may also help reduce the risk of preeclampsia.
- The RDA is 1.4 mg.
- Look for riboflavin in foods like some breakfast cereals, eggs, almonds, spinach, broccoli, chicken, salmon, beef, milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese.
B6 helps your body make protein for new cells, boosts your immune system, and helps form red blood cells.
- The RDA is 1.9 mg. Unless your doctor prescribes vitamin B6, don't take more than 100 mg a day.
- B6 can be found in some breakfast cereals, garbanzo beans, baked potatoes with skin, beef, chicken, pork, and halibut.
B12 helps your body make red blood cells and use fat and carbohydrates for energy. It also helps prevent megaloblastic anemia, which can make you feel weak and tired.
- The RDA is 2.6 mcg.
- B12 can be found in foods like salmon, trout, tuna, beef, and some cereals.
Zinc boosts your baby’s brain development. Your body also needs it to grow and repair cells and make energy.
- The RDA is 11 mg; don't exceed 40 mg.
- The best food sources for zinc are cooked oysters, beef, crab, pork, white beans, and some breakfast cereals.
Make those extra calories count with these nutrient-packed choices:
Beans. Chickpeas, lentils, black beans, and soybeans have fiber, protein, iron, folate, calcium, and zinc. Enjoy in chili and soups, salads, and pasta dishes, or as hummus with whole-grain crackers or in roll-up sandwiches.
Beef. Lean cuts such as top sirloin steak pack protein, vitamins B6 and B12, and niacin, as well as zinc and iron, in forms that are easy to absorb. Beef is also rich in choline. Add lean ground beef to pasta sauces, or use it in tacos, as burgers, in stir-fry dishes, and in chili.
Berries. They're packed with carbohydrates, vitamin C, potassium, folate, fiber, and fluid. The phytonutrients in berries are naturally beneficial plant compounds that protect cells from damage. Enjoy them on top of whole-grain cereal, in smoothies made with yogurt or milk, in pancakes, and in salads. Layer yogurt with berries and crunchy whole-grain cereal for a dessert parfait.
Broccoli. It has folate, fiber, calcium, lutein, zeaxanthin, and carotenoids for healthy vision, and potassium for fluid balance and normal blood pressure. Broccoli also has the raw materials for your body to make vitamin A. Eat it as part of pasta and stir-fry dishes, steamed and topped with a dash of olive oil, pureed and added to soups, or roasted: chop broccoli into bite-sized pieces, coat lightly with olive oil, and roast on a baking sheet at 400 degrees until tender, about 15 minutes.
Cheese (pasteurized). Cheese has concentrated amounts of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium for your bones and your baby's, plus vitamin B12 and protein. Use reduced-fat varieties to save on calories, fat, and cholesterol. Snack on it with whole-grain crackers or fruit, sprinkle it on top of soups, or use it in salads, sandwiches, and omelets.
Eggs. These are the gold standard of protein because they have all of the amino acids you and your baby need to thrive. They also include more than a dozen vitamins and minerals, such as choline, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Certain brands supply the omega-3 fats Baby needs for brain development and peak vision, so check the label. Enjoy them in omelets and frittatas; in salads and sandwiches; in homemade waffles, crepes, and whole-grain French toast; and as snacks, hard-cooked or scrambled.
Milk. It's an excellent source of calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D. Milk also packs protein, vitamin A, and B vitamins. Choose plain or flavored, and use it in smoothies with fruit, over whole-grain cereal and fruit, and in pudding; make oatmeal in the microwave with milk instead of water.
Orange juice (fortified). Orange juice with added calcium and vitamin D has the same levels of these nutrients as milk. Plus, you get hefty doses of vitamin C, potassium, and folate. Enjoy it plain or frozen as pops or ice cubes, and in smoothies.
Pork tenderloin. It’s as lean as boneless, skinless chicken breast, and it serves up the B vitamins thiamin and niacin, vitamin B6, zinc, iron, and choline. Try it grilled, broiled, or baked.
Salmon. Eat this for the protein, the B vitamins, and the omega-3 fats that promote brain development and vision in babies. Enjoy it grilled or broiled, or use canned salmon in salads and sandwiches.
Sweet potato. This packs vitamin C, folate, fiber, and carotenoids, which your body converts to vitamin A. It also supplies potassium in large amounts. Enjoy baked, sliced cold, cooked, or peeled potatoes for snacks and side dishes; mashed with orange juice; and roasted: Slice washed sweet potato into wedges, coat lightly with canola oil, and roast on a baking sheet at 400 degrees until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Whole grains. Enriched whole grains are fortified with folic acid and other B vitamins, iron, and zinc. Whole grains have more fiber and trace nutrients than processed grains such as white bread, white rice, and white flour. Eat oatmeal for breakfast; whole-grain breads for sandwiches; brown rice, wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, or quinoa for dinner; and popcorn or whole-grain crackers for snacks
Yogurt (plain low-fat or fat-free). Yogurt is packed with protein, calcium, B vitamins, and zinc. Plain yogurt has more calcium than milk. Stir in fruit preserves or honey, fresh or dried fruit, or crunchy whole-grain cereal. Use plain yogurt to top cooked sweet potatoes or to make smoothies.
Healthy Snacks During Pregnancy
Still looking for a way to get those extra calories? Snacks can do the trick. But this doesn’t mean a candy bar or a bag of potato chips. Instead, stock up on cereal, nuts, fruit, and low-fat yogurt.
Adding those 500 extra calories in a healthy way can be as simple as eating:
- 25 almonds, low-salt or unsalted (220 calories), with ⅔ cup dried cranberries (280 calories)
- ½ cup mixed nuts, low -salt or unsalted (410 calories), and 1 large orange (90 calories)
- 1½ cups small pasta shells (290 calories) with 1 cup cherry tomatoes (30 calories), ⅓ cup black beans (80 calories), 2 tsp olive oil (80 calories), and a splash of vinegar
For a smaller snack of about 300 to 350 calories, consider:
- 1½ cups oatmeal (220 calories) with 7 large strawberries (40 calories) and ½ cup blueberries (40 calories)
- 7 egg whites (120 calories) with 2 servings of salsa (40 calories) on 3 soft corn tortillas (180 calories)
- 2 cups low-fat yogurt (280 calories) and 1 large peach (60 calories)
It's OK to enjoy a sweet or salty treat every now and then. But do it in moderation, just like you did before you were pregnant. Too much salt can make you retain water and raise your blood pressure, which isn't good for you or your baby. And too many sweet foods will fill you up with empty calories, so you’re less hungry for the nutritious foods that you and your baby need.
Food Cravings During Pregnancy
Food cravings during pregnancy are normal. Although there is no widely accepted explanation for food cravings, almost two-thirds of all pregnant women have them. If you develop a sudden urge for a certain food, go ahead and indulge your craving if it provides energy or an essential nutrient. But, if your craving persists and prevents you from getting other essential nutrients in your diet, try to create more of a balance in your daily diet during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, your taste for certain foods may change. You may suddenly dislike foods you were fond of before you became pregnant. In addition, during pregnancy, some women feel strong urges to eat non-food items such as ice, laundry starch, dirt, clay, chalk, ashes, or paint chips. This is called pica, and it may be associated with an iron deficiency such as anemia. Do not give in to these non-food cravings -- they can be harmful to both you and your baby. Tell your health care provider if you have these non-food cravings.
If you have any problems that prevent you from eating balanced meals and gaining weight properly, ask your health care provider for advice. Registered dietitians -- the nutrition experts -- are available to help you maintain good nutrition throughout your pregnancy.