Healthy Pregnancy Diet

When you’re pregnant, what kind of food you eat becomes more important than ever because it’s not just about your own health and nutrition but that of your little one as well. While there’s no need to follow a strict diet plan, there are some simple guidelines on what foods are best during pregnancy and what foods to avoid. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan we also have some pregnancy diet tips especially for you. We also have some great information on how much weight to gain during pregnancy and what those pregnancy cravings are all about so that you’re well informed about all things pregnancy and food.

What Is a Healthy Pregnancy Diet?

Despite the name, a pregnancy diet is not about weight loss. In fact, trying to cut calories while pregnant could harm your foetus. It’s just about what kind of foods to make a part of your regular diet during pregnancy, and which foods to avoid.

There’s no special pregnancy diet plan that you should follow to the letter when you’re pregnant. Instead, following a healthy diet in pregnancy is all about balance: You’ll want to get the right quantities of protein, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins from these four main food groups:

  • Fruit and vegetables

  • Starchy foods

  • Protein-rich foods

  • Dairy (or dairy alternatives).

What Nutrients You Need

To ensure a healthy diet during your pregnancy, you may need to increase your intake of certain nutrients, especially some important vitamins and minerals. The most important of these include:

  • Folic acid. Known as folate in its natural form, folic acid is an important nutrient that helps prevent birth defects of the brain and spine. Besides including some folate-rich foods as part of your balanced diet, during pregnancy experts recommend taking a 400-microgram folic acid supplement daily (ideally starting before you become pregnant) until you reach 12 weeks pregnant.

  • Iron. Not getting enough iron in your diet during pregnancy can make you feel extremely tired, and it could lead to anaemia (a shortage of red blood cells). This is why it’s important to get enough iron-rich foods, such as iron-fortified cereals, lean meats and spinach, in your diet during pregnancy. If your midwife or doctor diagnoses you with an iron deficiency, you may be advised to take a supplement.

  • Calcium. Calcium is essential for building your little one’s bones and teeth. Dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt are probably among the best-known sources of calcium, but it’s also found in other foods including green leafy vegetables, tofu and fish like sardines and pilchards, where you eat the bones.

Read more about iron and calcium during pregnancy.

The Best Foods During Pregnancy

Not sure what to include in your pregnancy diet? Here are some ideas:

  • Eggs. You need plenty of protein in pregnancy, and eggs are a great source of this as well as vitamins D and B12. In fact, eggs are nutritional powerhouses. Another great thing about eating eggs in pregnancy is that they're so quick and easy to prepare. Try them scrambled or on top of lightly fried rice.

  • Dairy products. Low-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt are delicious sources of calcium in pregnancy. If you eat dairy, try to get three portions a day. You might get one portion by drinking a glass (200 millilitres) of semi-skimmed milk or eating a pot (150 grams) of yoghurt or a 30-gram piece of cheese. Keep in mind that some cheese and unpasteurised dairy products are best avoided while you’re pregnant.

  • Nuts. Portable and non-perishable, nuts are perfect as on-the-go snacks and are excellent sources of protein and healthy fat. Almonds, peanuts and brazil nuts are all good picks. And in case you were wondering, there’s usually no reason to avoid peanuts in pregnancy (or any other kinds of nuts for that matter) unless you have a nut allergy yourself.

  • Fruit and vegetables. Whether fresh, frozen or canned, fruit and vegetables are high in vitamins and fibre and can help prevent constipation. Try to eat at least five portions a day. The iron-rich vegetable spinach is a great choice. Frozen spinach is affordable and easy to prepare; try mixing it into casseroles or a pasta sauce. Read the labels on canned fruit carefully and steer clear of products with added sugar. Fresh fruit and veg should always be washed carefully to get rid of any traces of soil, which can contain the germs that cause toxoplasmosis – a disease which, although usually harmless, could affect your foetus if you catch it while you’re pregnant.

What to Eat During Pregnancy

Handy Pregnancy Food Chart

If you’re interested in what you could eat to top up on a certain nutrient, check out our pregnancy food chart for a few suggestions.

Pregnancy Food Chart

 

NutrientFood Sources
Protein•    lean meats (avoid liver)
•    poultry 
•    fish 
•    beans 
•    pulses 
•    nuts 
•    eggs 
•    cheese 
Calcium•    green, leafy vegetables 
•    orange juice 
•    milk 
•    yoghurt 
•    cheese
•    tofu
•    fortified dairy alternatives (e.g. soya milk)
•    sardines, pilchards
•    fortified bread 
Iron•    lean meats (avoid liver)
•    poultry
•    fish
•    beans
•    pulses
•    whole grains 
•    green, leafy vegetables
•    broccoli
•    spinach 
•    dried fruits 
•    eggs 
•    tofu
•    fortified cereals
•    dried fruit
Folic acid•    green, leafy vegetables
•    broccoli
•    Brussels sprouts
•    spinach
•    beans
•    fortified cereals 
•    oranges, orange juice
•    wheat bran
•    whole grains

 

Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy

Although fish is generally good for you, some fish and seafood can be high in mercury or other contaminants. Avoid eating swordfish, marlin, shark and raw shellfish. It’s also recommended that you limit your intake of tuna and oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and herring.

Limiting the amount of these fish means eating no more than two portions of oily fish a week.

The good news is that tuna doesn’t count as an oily fish, so you can have up to two 140-gram tuna steaks (or 4 medium-sized tins of tuna) a week, as well as the 2 portions of oily fish.

Unpasteurised dairy products and certain cheeses may also contain harmful bacteria.

Read more on food to avoid during pregnancy and, if you’re still in any doubt, ask your midwife for advice.

Healthy Pregnancy Nutrition

Drinks During Pregnancy

Staying hydrated is important, which is why you should drink at least six to eight cups of fluid daily. Water is the best option, but low-fat milk and other sugar-free drinks (including tea and coffee) all help you to stay hydrated while you’re pregnant.

So, what about alcoholic beverages, fizzy drinks, coffee, tea and others?

  • Coffee and tea. There’s no need to cut out your morning cuppa while you’re pregnant, but experts advise limiting caffeine to less than 200 milligrams a day. That’s around two cups of instant coffee or just under three mugs of tea. Don’t forget to factor in other sources of caffeine, like chocolate (about 10-25 milligrams in a 50-gram bar) or cola drinks (about 40 milligrams in a can). It’s safest to check the labels of foods or drinks that contain caffeine for the accurate amounts.

  • Herbal tea. Although herbal teas may be touted as a caffeine-free alternative to black/green tea and coffee, there are many different kinds out there so it’s best to ask your midwife or doctor whether – and how much of them – it’s safe to drink in pregnancy.

  • Alcohol. You’ve probably heard that alcohol is a no-no for mums-to-be. No level of alcohol has been proven to be harmless during pregnancy, so the best advice is to play it safe and avoid alcohol entirely.

  • Fizzy drinks. The occasional can of cola or fizzy pop as a treat probably won’t hurt, but many soft drinks are high in sugar or sweeteners, so it’s best to stick to water as your main thirst-quencher and source of fluid.

  • Fruit juices. A glass of unsweetened fruit juice can count as one of your five daily portions of fruit and veg, but it’s recommended that you limit your intake of fruit juices or smoothies to 150 millilitres a day because of their high natural sugar content.

Tips for a Healthy Vegetarian or Vegan Pregnancy Diet

Just because you’re vegetarian or vegan doesn’t mean you can’t get all the nutrients you and your little one need. You may need to adjust your eating habits to make sure you’re following a healthy vegetarian or vegan pregnancy diet, but there are plenty of non-animal food sources that can satisfy your nutritional needs.

  • Protein. Besides beans and pulses, fish is also a good source of protein, as are eggs. If you don’t eat meat but are still a pescatarian, two portions a week of fish (including one portion of oily fish, like salmon or sardines) is a good amount. If you don’t eat eggs or fish, there a still plenty of alternatives. For example, nuts are also rich in protein.

  • Calcium. Dairy products are an important source of calcium; but if you’re vegan or don’t include dairy in your vegetarian diet, the calcium you need during pregnancy will have to come from other foods like pulses, dark green leafy vegetables, brown and white bread and/or fortified foods such as calcium-enriched unsweetened soya, rice or oat drinks or calcium-set tofu.

  • Iron. Even on a vegetarian diet you can get iron from food, especially dark green vegetables like broccoli, wholemeal bread, pulses (such as beans and lentils), fortified breakfast cereals and dried apricots or other dried fruits. Eggs are also a good source of iron for vegetarians who include them in their diet. If you’re concerned about getting enough iron, talk to your midwife or doctor about whether you need any supplements.

  • Vitamin B12. This important vitamin is one of the few that’s almost exclusively found in animal products (like eggs and dairy). This means if you’re vegan you may need to eat vitamin B12-fortified foods – like some breakfast cereals and unsweetened soya drinks – or take a supplement. Again, your doctor or midwife will be able to advise you on this.

How Much Weight to Gain During Pregnancy

Eating for two doesn’t actually mean doubling your portions. Most mums-to-be only need about an extra 200 calories per day in the third trimester of pregnancy. This is roughly equivalent to a couple of slices of buttered wholemeal toast or a 100 gram portion of grilled chicken breast (without the skin) and a small salad (without dressing).

A lot of the weight you put on during pregnancy is due to the growth of your foetus, the amniotic fluid and placenta, but you’ll also be storing away fat to make breast milk after your baby’s born.

The amount of weight you gain varies depending on lots of factors, including your pre-pregnancy weight. Use our pregnancy weight gain calculator to see how much weight you might gain during pregnancy if you stick to a healthy, balanced diet.

Ask your doctor or midwife if you are unsure about how much weight you should be gaining or if you’re wondering what steps you can take to ensure you stick to a healthy weight gain.

Pregnancy Cravings

Some mums-to-be have cravings for certain foods during pregnancy. Like many other common early symptoms of pregnancy, this is thought to be caused by hormonal changes.

There’s no reason to completely avoid foods you crave during pregnancy, as long as you eat in moderation to avoid excessive weight gain. These food cravings tend to be particularly strong during the first trimester but usually pass with time.

If you crave non-food items like toothpaste, coal or even dirt, let your midwife or doctor know – this could be a sign of an iron deficiency.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • Foods not to eat when pregnant include:

    • Mould-ripened soft cheeses (like Brie or Camembert)
    • Soft blue cheeses (such as Roquefort and Gorgonzola)
    • Dairy products made from unpasteurised cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk
    • Raw or undercooked meat
    • Liver (and products made from liver)
    • Pâté (including vegetarian pâté)
    • Raw or undercooked eggs, except British Lion eggs (bearing a lion stamp)
    • Food made with non-British Lion raw egg (such as mayonnaise)
    • Swordfish, marlin, shark
    • Raw shellfish.
  • Don’t try to lose weight while you’re pregnant. It’s best to achieve a healthy body mass index before you get pregnant, but if you are overweight and pregnant, try not to worry.

    Take gentle exercise and keep to a healthy pregnancy diet. Ask your doctor for advice on how to prevent or manage any potential complications associated with being overweight.

  • Yes, you usually can. There’s no reason to avoid nuts, including peanuts in pregnancy, unless you have a nut allergy or your doctor advises you to do so.

In a Nutshell

There is a lot to think of when it comes to maintaining a healthy pregnancy diet, but don’t stress too much if you don’t quite hit your iron or calcium quota one day, or if you’re craving ice cream and decide to treat yourself.

And if you’re finding it harder than you thought to go without some of your favourite foods or drinks, try adding them to the list of things to look forward to once your baby’s born.

How we wrote this article

The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.