Foods to Eat During Pregnancy
Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
Diet and pregnancy
Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is vital during pregnancy. Although there is no need to begin or follow a special diet during pregnancy, it is important to consume a variety of different food groups to ensure the growing baby receives the right amount of nutrients and minerals it needs to develop and grow properly. 1
Should I be eating differently?
There is no need to eat for two during pregnancy. Despite the popular myth, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that expectant women only need to consume an extra 200 calories during the last three months of pregnancy and no extra calories before this. 2 According to the New Zealand Ministry of Health, for women who are of a healthy weight before pregnancy, a weight-gain of 11.5-16 kg (25-35 lbs) is considered normal. 3 4
A healthy and balanced diet, including foods from the following food groups should be maintained throughout the period of pregnancy.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre. Vitamin C – contained in citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits, as well as vegetables such as broccoli – and folic acid, contained in dark green leafy vegetables, are particularly important to a healthy diet. 5
Pregnant women, just like anyone non-pregnant, should aim for five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, consisting of 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit, which can be fresh, frozen, juiced, canned or dried. All portions of fruit and vegetables should preferably be made up of non-refined whole foods, without any added sugars.
Starchy foods (carbohydrates)
Starchy foods should make up roughly one-third of a woman’s diet during pregnancy. Starchy foods – such as bread, sweet or regular potatoes, pasta, rice, cereals, noodles, oats and legumes like lentils or beans – help to fill a person up without containing too many calories. These foods provide energy, as well as certain minerals, vitamins and fibre.
Good to know: Whole foods are rich in phytochemicals (important nutrients) and other minerals. For this reason, it is recommended that a person chooses whole foods over processed/refined options during pregnancy. Examples of healthy starchy food choices to make during pregnancy include:
- Potatoes instead of potato chips
- Whole wheat bread instead of white bread
- Whole wheat, naturally sweetened cereals, e.g. by the addition of dried fruits, instead of sugary breakfast cereals
Protein, contained in foods such as meat, eggs, fish, poultry, soy, seitan, nuts, beans and pulses (legumes), should be consumed every day during pregnancy.
When eating meat, it is important to ensure it is cooked all the way through to avoid food poisoning. Meat should be lean, and the skin should be removed from poultry. Eggs should be of good quality and cooked thoroughly. Raw or semi-raw eggs, such as contained in some desserts, or not properly boiled can potentially cause salmonella.
Although it is important to ensure that all meats are cooked all the way though, it is important for a pregnant person to choose options which have not been highly processed. Examples of healthy protein choices to make during pregnancy include:
- A baked chicken breast instead of chicken nuggets
- Poached fish instead of breaded fish fingers
- Lean beef mince bolognese instead of a fast-food burger
Dairy, contained in foods such as cheese, milk and yoghurt, is a good source of calcium and other nutrients.
Low-sugar and, if consumed in higher quantities, low-fat versions of milk and yoghurt, should be chosen when possible, and cheese should always be pasteurized.
Consuming an adequate quantity of fats during pregnancy is vital to the development of a healthy baby, but it is important to choose the sources of fat in one’s diet wisely, opting for fats from unprocessed food sources as much as possible, because these are generally more nourishing than fat found in processed foods. For example, they are more likely to provide a better omega-3 to omega -6 fatty acid-ratio.
Recommended sources of healthy fats to consume during pregnancy include:
- Whole nuts
- Butter, preferably from grass-fed cows
- Olive oil
- Unrefined nut butters, without added sugar or other highly refined oils
Sources of unhealthy fat, which people are recommended to avoid consuming regularly or in large quantities during pregnancy, include:
- Ready-made cakes, pies and cookies, because they are likely to be sources of hydrogenated or trans fats, which are bad for a person’s heart health
- Fast food, such as store bought pizza, deep fried french fries or deep fried chicken nuggets, which are also likely to contain hydrogenated or trans fats
- Candy bars and sweets
Good to know: Above all, remember that choosing food should not produce feelings of guilt or lead to totally restricting oneself. If eaten in sensibly small amounts, all of these foods can be part of a healthy diet.
It is also possible to create healthier versions of all of these foods, e.g. oven-baked homemade pizza with fresh tomatoes, rocket leaves and olive oil as toppings, oven roasted fries instead of deep fried fries, oven baked chicken fingers, homemade cookies with whole grain flour, less sugar and nut butters, and homemade candy bars made by combining seeds, a nut butter and dried fruits.
Preparing food during pregnancy
Changes to the immune system during pregnancy make pregnant women more susceptible to food poisoning than usual. It is, therefore, important to prepare food safely and hygienically during pregnancy. 6
Pregnant women, and those preparing food for pregnant women, should take the following precautions:
- Wash fruit, vegetables and salads thoroughly
- Wash all surfaces and utensils used to prepare raw meat thoroughly before and after use
- Store raw and ready-to-eat foods separately
- Cook meat and poultry thoroughly, until juices run clear
- Heat ready-meals, especially those containing poultry, thoroughly before eating
Foods to eat during pregnancy FAQs
Q: Is it possible for people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet to have a healthy pregnancy?
A: Yes. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics pronounces plant-based diets healthy for all stages of a person’s lifestyle, including pregnancy and lactation. Just like non-vegetarians and vegans, people who follow a plant-based diet will need to ensure that their food choices during pregnancy include the right amounts of dairy, protein, starchy foods, fresh fruit and vegetables.
It is important that pregnant women ensure that their daily food intake contains adequate levels of vitamins and minerals. People who follow a vegan diet are considered to be more at risk for certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies than the general population, and supplements may be needed to ensure that the correct levels are reached.
Good to know: Consult with a physician in order to choose the best supplements to take during pregnancy, as this varies between people according to factors such as a person’s overall health and the rest of their food intake.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine provides the following example of a day’s recommended food intake for vegetarian and vegan people during pregnancy:
- Grains, breads and cereals. Nine or more servings. Examples of single servings include a slice of bread, half a cup of cooked rice or pasta or one cup of ready-to-eat cereal.
- Vegetables. Four or more servings, including one dark green vegetable per day.
- Fruits: Four or more servings; this may include cooked, raw, juiced and dried fruit.
- Legumes, soy products and non-dairy milks. Five or six servings, which may include fortified soy milk, cooked beans, tofu or tempeh or a meat analogue.
- Nuts, seeds, wheat germ. One or two servings, including two tablespoons of nut butter, seeds or wheat germ.
Q: Can I diet during pregnancy?
A: According to the National Institute for Healthcare and Excellence (NICE), pregnant women are not advised to diet during pregnancy, and it is recommended that they should talk to their doctor or midwife if they are concerned about their weight. 1
Q: How much weight does a person typically gain during pregnancy?
A: Guidelines outlined by the US Institute of Medicine state that women of a normal weight (BMI 18.5-24.9) usually gain between 11 and 16kg while pregnant. Women who are overweight (BMI 25-29.9) usually gain between 7 and 11.5kg, while obese women (BMI 30+) may gain between 5 and 9 kg. Research suggests that women who gain weight within these ranges are less likely to experience complications during and after pregnancy than those who exceed them.