Although the importance of dietary and lifestyle habits during pregnancy is well known, did you know that the risk of inadequate intakes of vital nutrients is high even in the most industrialized countries?
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Family and Reproductive Health evaluated the eating habits of 485 pregnant women and found that only 1.9 percent of them met fruit and vegetable guidelines for pregnancy. It seems like pregnant women know that diet is important for the proper development of their baby, but they aren’t sure what exactly should be eaten on a pregnancy diet. There are also misconceptions about how many extra calories should be consumed in a day, what foods shouldn’t be eaten during pregnancy and what lifestyle habits will promote the mother’s and baby’s well-being. (1)
Researchers agree that the first 1,000 days of life, from conception up to 2 years of life, are absolutely crucial for the prevention of adulthood diseases. That’s why following a pregnancy diet that includes a balance of high-quality protein foods, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates can ensure that you’re doing everything you can for your growing baby. Plus, pregnant women require increased amounts of certain nutrients in order to avoid developmental abnormalities and pregnancy complications. (2)
You’ll find that following this recommended pregnancy diet makes you feel more energized, less uncomfortable and confident that you’re nurturing your baby before you even welcome him into this world.
Why Eat Differently When Pregnant?
Research continues to show that what you eat while pregnant affects the health of your baby. Your baby depends on the foods you eat to receive his calories, protein, vitamins, minerals and fluids.
So why eating differently when pregnant? Because your diet affects many aspects of your baby’s health, including the following:
- Organ development: It’s amazing to think that what you eat allows for the growth of your baby’s heart, brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach, intestines and nervous system. All of these organs and more depend on nutrients like vitamin D and calcium to develop properly.
- Brain development: Throughout your pregnancy, especially in the last trimester, your baby’s brain will continue to develop. This requires adequate intake of protein, omega-3 fatty acids and other vital nutrients.
- Birth weight: Calorie and nutrient restriction can lead to low birth weight, affecting your baby’s health after delivery. And, on the other hand, eating too many empty calories can cause your baby to become too big, causing issues with delivery and a higher chance of Cesarean section. Research shows that excessive weight gain in mothers during pregnancy (which is defined as gaining more than 35 pounds) results in higher infant birth weights. (3)
- Mental health: Research shows that maternal diet and postnatal nutrition can impact the child’s mental health. In a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, higher intakes of unhealthy foods during pregnancy predicted emotional and behavioral problems among children. (4)
- Eating habits: According to research published in The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, food choices during pregnancy may set the stage for an infant’s acceptance of solid foods after birth. A baby’s first experiences with flavor occur before birth, when he tastes and smells flavors in the amniotic fluid. Studies show that baby’s favor the foods that they were exposed to before in the womb when they begin eating foods. (5)
- Long-term health: Research published in The Journal of Perinatal Education indicates that inadequate levels of maternal nutrients during a mother’s first trimester of pregnancy, when the embryo and placenta undergo a process of rapid cell differentiation and division, may predispose the infant to chronic illnesses in adulthood, such as diabetes, hypertension, stroke and coronary heart disease. (6)
Plus, the way you eat during pregnancy affects your health and well-being as well. A poor diet during pregnancy can lead to health concerns digestive issues, fatigue, heartburn, swelling and leg cramps. And many studies show that nutrient deficiencies during pregnancy can lead to some major health issues like anemia, an iron deficiency that causes low levels of red blood cells, and preeclampsia, high blood pressure that can lead to pregnancy complications. (7)
A healthy pregnancy diet will also help you to prevent gestational diabetes and preterm labor; plus, it will allow you to recover more easily after giving birth. In fact, research shows that certain micronutrient deficiencies can contribute to the development of postpartum depression, especially low levels of vitamin D, zinc and selenium. (8)
What to Eat While Pregnant? The Pregnancy Diet
Pregnancy Diet Plan
When you’re eating for two, you aren’t necessarily eating differently if you already follow a healthy and well-balanced diet. Your food portions will change a bit and bringing in certain foods that are especially high in the nutrients you need will be beneficial to you and your growing baby, but overall the same guidelines apply.
Here are some basic, yet important pregnancy diet guidelines:
- Eat a balanced diet: Eat a balance of high-quality protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates. Protein consumption is especially important during pregnancy because it’s needed to maintain the mother’s tissues and fetal growth, especially during the second and third trimesters. Healthy fats, especially DHA, are needed for fetal development and infant growth. During pregnancy, I don’t recommend that you follow any exclusion diets unless you have to because of a food allergy. Research shows that excluding whole categories of foods from your diet increases your risk of micronutrient deficiencies. (9)
- Don’t overdo your calorie intake: Pregnancy only requires a slight increase in calorie intake, and consuming too many calories during pregnancy can be just as damaging as a calorie or nutrient deficiency, increasing your chances of miscarriage, gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, and your baby’s risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity in adulthood. Most studies suggest consuming an additional 70 calories in your first trimester, 260 calories in your second trimester and about 300–400 additional calories in your third trimester. But if you aren’t very active, you’ll need even less calories throughout your pregnancy. These numbers are for women who are moderately active, doing exercise that’s equivalent to walking about 2–3 miles per day. (10)
- Keep empty calories to a minimum: Of course, you are entitled to your occasional treat during pregnancy. After all, you certainly deserve to indulge a bit here and there. But keep foods containing empty calories to a minimum because not all calories are created equal. You want your calories, the energy that is fueling you and your baby, it be full of nutrients. So maybe choose to have that ice cream cone once a week, but don’t make it part of your everyday diet. Choose real foods, like fresh fruit, as a sweet treat instead.
- Eat every color: Skittles made a good point with the marketing phrase “taste the rainbow.” But instead of eating your colors with empty calories, eat plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables throughout the day. This will ensure that you are getting a range of important vitamins and minerals in your diet. Your plate should be colorful, so if you see a lot of whites and browns, you know that meal isn’t providing everything you need for a truly healthy pregnancy.
- Make it easy: I know it seems overwhelming to think about providing adequate nutrition for you and your baby, so making it as easy as possible is key. If you can’t muster the thought of eating a plate of greens (especially during the phase of morning sickness and food aversions), then prepare a sweet and creamy smoothie instead. Make a large pot of soup with organic chicken and vegetables and make that lunch or dinner for the week. Whatever you can do to make staying healthy easier will help you to keep it going for the long haul.
- Keep drinking water: Water is needed for building your baby’s body cells and for his developing circulatory system. You also need to drink plenty of water while pregnant in order to deliver nutrients to your baby and excrete wastes. Drink 1–2 glasses of water with every meal and snack, and carry around a refillable water bottle with you during the day.
Best Foods & Superfoods
1. Fresh vegetables (especially leafy greens)
Vegetables are an important part of a pregnancy diet because they are nutrient-dense, high in fiber, and lower in carbohydrates and calories. Green leafy vegetables are especially beneficial because they’re packed with iron, calcium and vitamin K — three important nutrients for pregnant women. Add leafy greens like spinach, kale, arugula, romaine, bok choy, collards, mustard greens and turnip greens to your meals.
Broccoli is another beneficial vegetable because it contains fiber, vitamin C, manganese and magnesium. And so are Brussels sprouts, asparagus, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, cabbage, squash and bell peppers.
2. Fresh fruit
Eating fresh fruit throughout your pregnancy will ensure that you’re getting nutrients like vitamin K, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E and fiber. Eat an array of fruits like blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, mango, papaya, peaches, grapefruit, apples, pears, tangerines and pineapple. Fresh fruit can be added to yogurt or oats for breakfast, used to make a fruit and veggie smoothie, added to salads for lunch and dinner, or eaten as a snack between meals.
3. Organic Free-Range Eggs
Eggs, specifically egg yolk, are really an excellent source of choline, which is very important for fetal development. Research shows that women eating diets that are lower in choline content are at a significantly greater risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect than women eating diets higher in choline content. (11)
Organic eggs also contain healthy fats, vitamin E, beta-carotene and iodine. Eating iodine-rich foods during pregnancy is also very important because iodine plays a major role in the healthy growth and brain development of infants.
4. Wild-caught salmon
The ingestion of omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are vitally important for the proper neurological and physical development of a fetus. Salmon nutrition includes these vital omega-3s and many other important nutrients for pregnancy, including vitamin D, iodine, choline, B vitamins, selenium and protein.
5. Organic meat
Protein’s amino acids are essential for the development of your baby, so eating plenty of good quality, organic protein is very important. Aim to eat at least three servings, or 75 grams of protein per day. Some of the best options are organic chicken breast, organic turkey and grass-fed beef. These foods have l-glutamine, and there are several l-glutamine pregnancy benefits. (12)
6. Nuts and seeds
Nuts, like almonds, contain protein, fiber, calcium, magnesium and iron. Walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, folate and copper, and brazil nuts contain selenium, phosphorus and vitamin E. Eating an array of nuts during pregnancy can boost your overall nutrient intake.
Seeds are also great sources of protein and fiber, which will support your colon and digestive tract during pregnancy. Flax seeds and chia seeds are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids that aren’t present in fish. These omega-3 foods will benefit your skin, hair and nails during pregnancy.
7. Greek yogurt or kefir
Greek yogurt contains probiotics, protein, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and vitamin K2. Plus, it’s a great source of iodine, which is important during pregnancy in order to avoid birth defects and neurological disorders. Kefir is another form of cultured dairy that contains good bacteria that are essential for your digestion and overall health.
Lima beans are rich in iodine, garbanzo, kidney and pinto beans are high in folate, and fava beans contain iron, zinc, copper and vitamin K. Some other nutritious beans include cannellini beans, adzuki beans, black beans and anasazi beans. Eating an array of beans during pregnancy can be beneficial because they are filling and nutrient-dense. (13)
Lentils are an excellent source of folate, which plays a crucial role in fetal development. Studies show that consuming high-folate foods during pregnancy reduces the risk of the fetus developing cardiovascular and urinary tract defects, neural tube defects and cleft lips. (14)
Whole grains like gluten-free oats, quinoa, brown rice and barley provide complex carbohydrates that are needed during pregnancy. Grains also contain B vitamins that are vital for your baby’s development, and minerals like zinc, selenium and chromium.
Most prenatal vitamins contain the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals that are specifically needed for pregnancy. When you are choosing a prenatal vitamin, make sure that it contains the following nutrients:
Iron: Iron supplementation is often recommended during pregnancy to improve birth outcomes. Iron plays an essential role in the transfer of oxygen to tissues and pregnant women are at higher risk of iron deficiency due to the increase of iron demand. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 27 milligrams of iron per day for all pregnant women. Talk to your doctor about supplementing with iron in addition to taking your prenatal vitamin after 20 weeks of pregnancy, when your body requires even more of the mineral. (15)
Folate (Folic Acid): Folate is needed during pregnancy is needed for the prevention of neural tube defects and serious abnormalities of the brain and spinal cord. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which can be found naturally in high-folate foods. Prenatal vitamins typically contain 0.8 to 1 milligrams of folic acid and ideally folate supplementation should begin three months before pregnancy. (16)
Calcium: Calcium is essential for fetal development and building your baby’s bones. Getting enough calcium during pregnancy reduces your risk of preterm labor, low birth weight, bone loss and high blood pressure. Calcium deficiency is dangerous for both the mother and child because it helps your circulatory, nervous and muscular systems to function properly. Look for a prenatal vitamin that contains about 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day. (17)
Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency is very common in pregnant women and it’s associated with an increased risk of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. The risks of low vitamin D levels for the infant include low birth weight, impaired skeletal development, respiratory infections and allergic diseases in the early years of life. Because the synthesis of vitamin D requires exposure to ultraviolet radiation, which is not always available to pregnant women, vitamin D is typically included in a prenatal multivitamin. Studies on vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy indicate that the suggested safe dose is between 2,000–4,000 IUs per day. (18)
Choline: Choline is present in prenatal vitamin supplements, but not in adequate amounts. That’s why pregnant women need choline rich foods like eggs, chickpeas, wild salmon, grass-fed beef and turkey breast. Choline is an essential nutrient for fetal development and because a mother delivers large amounts of choline across the placenta to the fetus, she needs to make sure she’s getting enough choline with a combination of diet and supplementation. Research suggests that poor choline intake among pregnant women can adversely affect maternal and fetal responses to stress, increase the risk of having a baby with neural tube defects and a cleft lip, and negatively effect fetal brain development. (19)
Some other supplements that should be taken if they aren’t added to your prenatal vitamins include:
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid): DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that is essential for the proper brain growth and eye development of your baby. DHA also reduces inflammation, which is the leading cause of complications during pregnancy. Look for a prenatal vitamin that has DHA added, and if yours doesn’t, take a separate DHA supplement to ensure that you’re getting enough of these important omega-3s. (20)
Probiotics: Research shows that your gut microbiome is a key factor for maintaining during pregnancy and a lack of good bacteria in your gut can lead to pregnancy complications. Studies indicate that taking a probiotic supplement during pregnancy can help to prevent preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, vaginal infections, infant and maternal weight gain, and allergic diseases. (21)
What NOT to Eat When Pregnant
Right next to the list of foods you should eat on a pregnancy diet, there’s a smaller list of foods and drinks that you should avoid when expecting. Here’s a rundown of what to skip during your nine months of pregnancy: (22)
- Deli meat — could contain listeria, which can cause miscarriage, infection or blood poisoning.
- Raw or smoked seafood and rare meat — could be contaminated with bacteria, salmonella or toxoplasmosis.
- High-mercury fish — consuming too much mercury during pregnancy can lead to developmental and brain issues, so avoid fish such as swordfish, king mackerel, shark and tilefish.
- Raw eggs — may contain salmonella that puts your baby at risk of developmental issues.
- Caffeine — there’s mixed research about the risk of consuming caffeine during pregnancy, but studies indicate that caffeine should be avoided during the first trimester to reduce the risk of spontaneous miscarriage, and after that 1 to 2 cups of coffee a day is deemed safe. Keep in mind that caffeine is a diuretic that can lead to fluid loss. (23)
- Alcohol — research shows that alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to abnormal pregnancy outcomes like physical and neurodevelopmental problems in the child. (24)
It’s also extremely important to avoid smoking and using prescribed or street drugs during pregnancy. If you are taking medications, talk to your doctor or midwife about how they will interact with or affect your pregnancy.
And finally, avoid all fake, and highly processed and refined foods during pregnancy. This includes bagged and boxed foods that line the grocery store shelves and freezer aisles. These foods contain a ton of additives, preservatives, unhealthy oils, dyes and toxins that can negatively affect your pregnancy. Instead, choose foods that are fresh and whole to ensure that you’re getting just the nutrients that you need and none of that extra “stuff.”
Other Factors to Consider for a Healthy Pregnancy
During your pregnancy, it’s so important that you keep your stress levels to a minimum, work on your spiritual growth and well-being, nurture your body and soul, and get plenty of rest. Listen to your body and if you are feeling run down and fatigued, make rest a priority. To keep yourself feeling at peace during a time that can feel very stressful and cause anxiety, take long walks outdoors, read uplifting books about motherhood, find support from your spouse and loved ones, and daydream about the life you are creating within your body.
It’s also so important that you stay physically active during pregnancy in order to reduce your risk of conditions like preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and perinatal depression, improve your mood, reduce your discomfort, boost your energy levels and improve your labor. Some of the best pregnancy workouts include walking, swimming, prenatal yoga, cycling and strength training. (25)
- Research continues to show that what you eat while pregnant affects the health of your baby. Your baby depends on the foods you eat to receive his calories, protein, vitamins, minerals and fluids.
- Your pregnancy diet affects your baby’s organ development, brain development, birth weight, mental health, eating habits and long-term health. Plus, a well balanced and healthy diet during pregnancy can improve the mother’s health too, making her far less susceptible to conditions like preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and depression during and after pregnancy.
- Eating foods that are high in iron, calcium, iodine, folate, choline, vitamin C, vitamin K, copper and selenium is extremely important during pregnancy. Plus, consuming plenty of high-protein foods, omega-3 foods, fiber, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates will benefit the health of the mother to be and growing baby.
- In addition to taking a high quality prenatal vitamin, supplementing with DHA omega-3s and probiotics is known to have positive affects on expectant mothers and babies.